by John Newhouse
Pantheon, 339 pp., $27.50
Readers of Proust will remember M. de Norpois, the writer on diplomatic affairs who sprinkles his articles in the Revue with “The Court of St. James was not the last to be sensible of the peril” or “that perpetual double-dealing which is so characteristic of the Ballplatz.” John Newhouse is a latterday M. de Norpois. His Europe is one of discreet, off-the-record chats with distinguished, silver-haired officials in thick-carpeted rooms, of conference chambers, received wisdom, and grand generalizations. Except that nowadays some things have to be explained for an Anglo-Saxon readership. Thus, for example: “The institutions of Paris, starting with the ‘Quai’ (Quai d’Orsay), as the Foreign Ministry is generally known, were all but genetically programmed against having an intime relationship with America.” Later we read that “pace Paris” Britain might develop a stronger relationship with Germany. M. de Norpois would be proud of that little “pace Paris.” In between, we have quotations from a host of unnamed senior diplomats, politicians, observers, and so on.
In fact, Newhouse makes almost every point by quoting other people, and his own argument consists mainly of very tentative suggestions, as if the deferential interviewer were saying to some diplomatic bigwig, “But might one not respectfully suggest that…” The effect can be soporific, rather like sitting through a long day’s discussion at a conference on Europe. Moreover, Newhouse is patently not at home in the less well-heeled and thick-carpeted parts of Europe. He has a brave stab at looking at Central and Eastern Europe, also at Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, even at Algeria-but the observations of his chosen sources don’t really add up to much. Asides like “the sight of the Balkans again behaving like the Balkans” are hardly illuminating, and “the Poles no longer worry about being threatened militarily by Russia” is simply misleading. He quotes an attempt to define Central Europe by the “vodka line” (i.e., beer and wine prevails in Central, vodka in Eastern Europe) or the “secret police line” (old security forces persist means that you’re Eastern), but Poland would fall into Eastern Europe by the first of these criteria, and until recently also by the second. Yet in terms of contemporary geopolitics, the idea of “Central Europe” makes no sense without Poland.
Another obvious problem with put-ting what is essentially an extended piece of analytical reportage (Newhouse was formerly a staff writer on foreign affairs for The New Yorker) between hard covers is that some of it is inevitably out of date. And nothing is more out of date than an out-of-date prediction. I don’t think I am betraying any trade secrets if I reveal that the bound proof version in which I started reading this book was an extraordinary concertina of revised chapters, reset passages, and updates. Despite these heroic efforts of author and publisher, the analysis of Britain, for example, deals largely with the Thatcher and Major years of Conservative rule. Here, some of the judgments are odd. “What befalls the diminished …