A Linguistic Analysis of Europe’s Crumbling Martial Spirit

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We know that Europe, including the two ex-imperial powers France and Britain, have been cashing in their “peace dividends” since the last Russian soldier left Central Europe in 1994. The large powers used to spend between 5 and 3 percent of GDP on defense; that share has now come down to as low as 1.4 percent (united Germany). There is little chance that this fraction will go up; indeed, all keep cutting away at their armed forces (Germany is down from a peak of 500,000 to 180,000).

This note tries to offer a very indirect explanation of what the author regards as underlying cultural change–no more than a loose hypothesis based on content analysis. This analysis looks at the declining frequency of key concepts such as “duty,” “honor,” “glory,” “my country,” “Vaterland” in the literature of various Western countries. The data are culled from a search of Google Ngrams, since World War II.

The assumption is that language reflects consciousness, culture, and self-perception. The tally reveals a marked drop in the use of such keywords everywhere, suggesting that Europe’s old warrior culture is waning. With it, one must assume, comes a decline in the willingness to use force as tool of statecraft, hence to provide the appropriate means. The following numbers indicate how the frequency of these key terms has shrunk in the corpus of books scanned by Google.

Glory (English): down by one-half since 1945.
Gloire (French): roughly the same reduction.
Duty (English): down by one-third
Vaterland (German, “Fatherland”): down by one-third.
My Country (English): down by one-half
Staatsräson (“reason of state,” German): down by one-half.
Patriotism (British English): down by one-third.

One should not build any towering theoretical edifices on content analysis, but discourse–what ideas are transmitted–does matter. (By the way, “glory” in U.S. books shows a decline, as well, though not as pronounced as in Europe.) There seems to be a secular change that is fairly immune to peaks and troughs in the temperature of the Cold War. The downward sloping lines are steady.

Why so? The problem of causality, of course, is that the strategic threat to Europe has declined pari passu, at least since the last gasp of the Cold War, which was the deployment (and dismantling) of INF almost a generation ago. We don’t know how Europe will react if the strategic threat rematerializes. Reality does impinge on consciousness. But there is no such threat as far as the eye (and space-based sensors) can see. For the time being, the cautious conclusion has to be that Europe, the continent that once conquered the four corners of the world, will not soon assume the role of a strategic actor again.