Nineteenth Century Americans had a title for the balloon-like expansion of their country: Manifest Destiny.
Through an even-better-than-Manhattan real estate deal with Napoleon (doubling the size of the nation at less than 3 cents an acre); a lopsided war with Mexico; a Northwest land split with Britain; and shrewd purchases from Russia and Mexico, the United States rolled from sea to shining sea with the natural look of a nation abhoring a vacuum. Destiny was destination.
But how does Europe decide its manifest destiny? Its western core isn't yet one nation. Its eastward expansion space isn't a vacuum. Its natural far border isn't the world's largest ocean, the unarmed Pacific, but rather the largest country, a prickly Russia.
No wonder the formation of a "united states of Europe" - the visionary concept in so many variations from Charlemagne to Jean Monnet - has been a complex, slow business. No wonder the structure has more interlocking acronyms than the UN.
In the face of this complexity it was highly symbolic that 25 European leaders, West and East, gathered in London's Lancaster House in mid-March for a historic pan-European conference. They represented both members and would-be members of the European Union (EU). They gathered to talk about: How long it would take for outsiders of the East to join the club? Who would be anointed? In what rough order? At what cost? And, would the Banquo's ghost at lunch, Turkey, which boycotted, eventually join the membership waiting line?
We have regularly argued that the soundest way to construct an ethnically varied but efficiently united Europe is gradually but purposefully to induct states into economic Europe (EU). Thence into defense Europe (NATO). Each applicant will have passed the test of democracy and free, open markets. Each will affirm a readiness to join in unimpeded continent-wide movement of business, labor, students, tourists, and culture. That means a voluntary, nonthreatening economic amalgam precedes an enlarged defense alliance.
The risk is that applicants will be made to stand in line too long - well into the next century. Or that Europe may admit Cyprus and spurn Turkey. That would cause problems - from oil supply to tension with the Islamic world - for years to come.
Germany, France, and other EU stalwarts are contributing to the waiting line slowdown. They are loathe to reform their welfare states in order to tackle unemployment - and therefore reluctant to subsidize entry of lower-labor-cost members.
But the opportunity to mend the painful cleavage of Europe that followed the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin deal at Yalta 53 years ago will not last forever. West Germany was willing to pay dearly to reunite with East Germany. Now Europe (the EU) should not dither over its opportunity to do the same on a larger scale. That opportunity will not last forever. No new Iron Curtain is likely. But eastern fragmentation constitutes a barrier, too.