February 4, 2024 - 1:00pm

Piece by piece, a great Eastern blockade is coming together, cutting off trade routes between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait at the southern end of the Red Sea has become the site of multiple skirmishes, as Western navies struggle to protect the free transit of freight vessels against attacks carried out by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. 

Meanwhile in the Gulf, Iran is also threatening another strategic bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz. To the north, war rages between Russia and Ukraine — bringing down a new Iron Curtain. An alarming scenario thus presents itself: a stack of hostile and/or war-torn states running from the White Sea in the Arctic all the way down, via the Black Sea, to the Red Sea.

Is there any hope that Europe could survive such a geopolitical calamity? Yes — because it wouldn’t be the first time.

In 1453, the Fall of Constantinople sundered East from West, yet Europe didn’t crumble. The Ottoman conquest may have marked the end for the Byzantine Empire, but for the rest of Christendom the catastrophe can be seen as the start of a rise to global greatness. The triumph of the West was the most extraordinary fightback in history, and Europeans today should draw inspiration from it.

One takeaway is the need to embrace reform. From the 15th century onwards, Europe was remade in a tumult of renaissance, reformation, counter-reformation and technological, cultural and political revolution. While non-European powers stagnated, the old continent rebuilt its rotten institutions, forging the modern world in the process. In the 21st century we should be restlessly intolerant of decay, beginning with the bloated, lumbering impediment that is the European Union. Brexit is not enough: Europe needs Eurexit. 

What’s more, when they were hemmed in by hostile powers to the east, our predecessors looked west instead. Today, there are no new continents to be discovered, but the answer to Europe’s vulnerabilities is to draw closer to America, not further apart. In an increasingly multipolar world, there is more that unites the West then divides it — and so now is the time to renew the Western alliance. This should begin with Europe taking more responsibility for its defence. The old formula of sponging off the Americans is unsustainable: the transatlantic partnership must be one of equals.

Then, we must end our economic dependency on anti-Western regimes. In the late Middle Ages, Europeans became the masters of wind and water-based power — laying the foundations for the Age of Exploration and then the Industrial Revolution. Today, we should reclaim our energy independence and forever cut the cord with the fossil fuel tyrannies of Russia and the Middle East. We must also reduce our reliance on goods from places that don’t like us very much. Artificial intelligence and robotics gives the West a chance to literally reinvent manufacturing — and reshore industries so carelessly surrendered to other parts of the world.

Of course, there’s cause for shame as well as pride in Europe’s past. Nevertheless, at one of the great hinge points of history, Europeans turned adversity to their advantage. Do we have the vision to do it again?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.