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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


Photographs taken of the earth during the American space missions to the moon revealed our globe to be a small blue-and-white planet shimmering in a setting of endless darkness. There is no more spectacular proof of the physical oneness of our contemporary world. Yet, present-day technological advancements also confirm the growth of a common global order. Airline systems, telecommunication networks, even individual "hot lines" between world leaders allow for direct, frequent, and even instantaneous contact among peoples whose predecessors and problems of but a few generations ago were considered "foreign."

In such a cultural environment the older, distinctive characteristics of each region are being swept away. However, their disappearance has only revealed other, often more disturbing, global divisions.

Economically, the contemporary world is arranged on a north-south axis. The overwhelming amount of the world's current wealth - measured in gross national product, per capita income, and actuary tables - is found in the northern hemisphere. Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan produce most of the world's goods and consume the greatest part of the world's available resources. The vast number of nations outside of this privileged economic zone have populations living in conditions of poverty and want. Even where the rise in the cost of oil importation has upset the balance of payments, the effect has been most severe on the non-industrial importers, those nations of the southern hemisphere who are now indebted in an amount exceeding $200 billion.

Furthermore, there is a severe political division in the ranks of nations. Only a small number of countries now have freely-elected, democratic government. The majority of the peoples of the world are ruled autocratically. More chiefs of state wear military uniforms today than they did at any other time in history. Indeed, in many parts of the world, the military coup has become a common condition of political life. The political instability and intolerance of opposition that military rule so often suggests account for another dire development: the repression or denial of civil rights.

Europe remains on the brighter side of this rather gloomy global picture. The privileged position that continent has enjoyed in the modern era has been retained. Western Europeans continue to live within a political tradition of representative government, and they benefit from more guaranteed personal liberties than inhabitants of most of the other continents of the world. Although the threat of terrorism is present daily, and urban crime figures are ascending, the average European's domestic life is more secure and comfortable than it ever was. Moreover, despite inflation, the population has never been better off economically.

By most available indications, contemporary Europe is prosperous and peaceful. Its present status, therefore, remains consonant with its historical condition of growth.

It is not too much to argue that the modern era was in large measure European in definition. Industrialization, communications, urban development, technology, even organized leisure-time activities -those characteristics generally associated with modernization-were probably more pronounced in Western Europe during the nineteenth century than anywhere else at the time. In turn, these characteristics were built upon a tradition of commercial development, rational inquiry, and national consolidation. Comparable modernization in the United States, Japan, and Russia was initially an outgrowth of European precedents and justified by European-inspired ideology. The influence of Isaac Watt, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx, by way of obvious examples, extended well beyond their native Europe.

The lead that Europe initially enjoyed was soon lost to the United States, but the continent was never pushed from the forefront of industrial regions. The inventiveness, productive capacity, and organizational ability of its peoples have continued to be impressive. Today, the visitor to Europe will find a cultural mosaic of striking variety: gothic cathedrals and steel skyscrapers, castles on the Rhine and jet aircraft on the runways, folk festivals and rock concerts, museums and shopping malls.

In all of this, Europe seems to have unusual cultural resiliency, a capacity for renewal. Certainly, contemporary Europe is no longer the "Old World."

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