Splitting Europe: The EU, Russia, and the West

  • Published

Splitting Europe: The EU, Russia, and the West by Jens Stilhoff Sörensen. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, 228 pp. 

Splitting Europe combines macrohistorical analysis and international relations theory to identify the root causes of two interrelated crises unfolding in the West. The first crisis is the fracturing of the European Union by supranationalism, and the latter is the unprecedented tension between the West and Russia. By placing these crises into a larger historical narrative that is dictated by neither American nor Russian renderings, historian Jens Stilhoff Sörensen adds a novel lens through which to understand contemporary European geopolitics.

Sörensen traces modern European politics from the post-Cold War integration project to the present. He attempts to identify how this integration failed to prevent the fragmenting of European unity. In this sense, Splitting Europe is a political history explaining how power was distributed to establish the European Union. For Sörensen, this distribution has led to a liberal political elite ignorant of supranationalism within their respective countries. One of the book’s most provocative ideas is the moral conflict within Europe as a source of societal disillusionment. As Northern Europe has become increasingly secularized, post-Christian factions across Europe have sought to return to a more traditional society. This explains why culture wars are such visceral debates driving wedges in European societies.

Splitting Europe also points to a new Cold War between Russia and the West. This crisis is indicative of the misplaced diplomacy and hope following the Cold War. Sörensen argues that mistrust between NATO and Russia, through teeter-tottering changes of policy and ideological differences, has led to a security dilemma. Building on international relations theory, Sörensen argues this new security dilemma has undermined all cooperation between the West and Russia. As one country increases its defenses, the other must respond accordingly to a perceived threat. Moreover, because the West, in Sörensen’s eyes, has “falsely” blamed Russia for election interference and any type of antagonism against leftist policy, a domestic environment is impossible for cooperation with Russia. Hence, today’s Cold War is much more dangerous than the first. Sörensen draws on American diplomatic history and argues strongly for détente to prevent a kinetic war.

Splitting Europe was published one month before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Thus, one must ask how Sörensen’s thesis stands considering the war’s revelations. The perception of a divided and fractured Europe articulated by Splitting Europe helps explain Russia’s decision to launch its invasion. Still, a simple investigation of Russia’s tactical failures and the West’s strategic victories in Ukraine thus far weakens Sörensen’s position. This is clearly exemplified in the Visegrád countries’ (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic) solidarity toward Ukrainian sovereignty.

Another criticism lies in Splitting Europe’s claim to approach the Russian/West divide with an “honest” hermeneutic. The author attempts to provide a dissonant opinion from predominant, largely American, international relations academia. But Sörensen’s hermeneutic becomes too generous toward Russia’s malign actions in the last decade. Specifically, Sörensen undermines his scholarship when he attempts to legitimize the Russian Federation’s support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and question the authenticity of the 2018 Douma chemical attack carried out by Assad’s military (165).

Therefore, the book’s arguments would be much more salient if the author applied the same critical analysis and intellectual rigor to Russia’s role in Europe’s fractured state. The author’s unbalanced interpretation of Russia’s responsibility for global instability discredits his strongest arguments for Western decay. For this reason, the book’s readership should be limited to individuals who have previously studied Russia and its relationship to the rest of the world. Otherwise, Sörensen’s conclusions about Russia’s innocence and victimization will misinform the average reader.

Yet, for those who work in diplomacy and/or serve in uniform, Splitting Europe will help lend nuance to Western approaches to both Allies and Russia. In the realm of diplomacy, one must respect Sörensen’s arguments for European liberal elitism and leaders’ disassociation with their general electorate. In the information age, Splitting Europe is a harbinger that foreign policy must be clearly articulated to maintain the support of citizenry.

At the same time, regardless of political affiliation, the diplomat needs to also consider the nationalism and territorial sovereignty issues growing within Western conservativism. This understanding is critically important as NATO, the European Union, and the United States continue to support Ukraine. The West has presently held a coherent resolve to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, but Splitting Europe stresses the importance for the continued nurturing and advocacy of these alliances. The pressures between national sovereignty and intra-European discord depict that this resolve is not guaranteed.

Moreover, for the Western military leader, Sörensen’s historical analysis is a humbling and provocative lesson in how the past informs the present. The book’s background on Russian culture is concise and thorough. Its brevity escapes the minutiae of a society dating back a millennium but is elaborate enough to illuminate the foundations of today’s geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. It answers the questions, How and why did we get here, and what pathways lie ahead? In so doing, Splitting Europe helps identify the forces that are driving democratic decline in Europe and fueling Russia’s war in Ukraine. While Sörensen’s arguments are not all-inclusive for this phenomenon, they are a starting point for serious scholarship into the issue.

Evidently, this book can also serve those who wish to intellectually engage with critiques of American hegemony and a liberal international order. Sörensen’s perspective questions the United States’ role in the world. Splitting Europe contends with notions that the current international system has led to relative global peace and prosperity. For many, it challenges the assumptions taught in most American history textbooks. Such a dialogue addresses the issues facing the United States as it confronts authoritarianism and challenges to the balance of power that has favored the nation.

Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog versus fox thinker dichotomy, widely studied in political science and international relations courses, is helpful in determining the readership of Sörensen’s book. A fox, a person comfortable with multiple epistemological truths, may have a better time engaging with Sörensen’s cognitive dissonance toward the West, as opposed to a hedgehog, who is more resolved in thought. Hence, Splitting Europe is for the scholar who wishes to exercise fox judgment toward international relations and the analytical leader with an interest in understanding history.

Captain Peter Carkhuff, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."