Diana Johnstone on the decline of Europe

CIRCLE IN THE DARKNESS: Memoir of a World-Watcher by Diana Johnstone (2020)

Diana Johnstone is an American journalist, a year or two older than me, who has spent most of her adult life reporting from Europe.

This memoir is a rich account of the past half-century of European history.  Its over-arching themes are the erosion of the sovereignty of European nations and of the European left as fighters for peace and defenders of working people.  Another is reality is rarely what the official sources say it is.

It also touches on her personal struggles and family life.  She decided at an early stage in her career to choose freedom to write as she saw things over middle-class security.

I won’t try to summarize her work, which touches on many important events, but I’ll mention a few highlights.


>> Johnstone was not a supporter of the European Union.  It had been promoted as a way for European nations to unite and make Europe an independent power, setting standards for human rights, social welfare and the environment, which other nations would have to respect in order to engage with Europe or belong to it.

Maybe it was that way in the beginning, at least to a certain extent.  But she pointed out that the proposed European Constitution of 2005, if you read the fine print of its more than 500 pages., committed its signers to supporting neoliberal economics and the NATO alliance.

It the principal objective of the Union was “a highly competitive market economy,” with business competition “undistorted” by state policy.  Public services “of general economic interest” had to be open to competition, including international competition.

The Constitution specified a “common security and defense policy” in which”commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”  It also stressed the need to defend against “terrorist attacks.”

It was put to a public vote in France and the Netherlands and rejected both times.  It was revised in the form of the 2008 Lisbon Treaty, which was accepted by all the member governments except Ireland.  The Irish put it up to a referendum, which was rejected in 2008.

After some minor concessions, the Irish were called on to vote again, and on Dec. 1, 2009, the new treaty became law.  The principle is: Keep voting until you get it right.

I doubt if many of those who voted “yes” understood they were locking themselves into economic austerity and undeclared wars.

> Johnstone didn’t know what to make of the 1968 student uprising in Paris.  It was inspired by privileged students’ desire to overthrow restraints on personal behavior (“it is forbidden to forbid”) and not by any program for improving the welfare of society.

There were many ideological factions among the students, but the most important were the libertarian theorists who called themselves Situationists.  They thought that “youth” could replace “workers” as a revolutionary class.  But most of the revolutionary youth ceased to be rebellious when they ceased to be young.

She was not impressed with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was the face of the student rebellion.  A spoiled rich kid exempt from having to work for a living, he had no political program beyond defiance of authority.

This was the beginning of the disconnect of Europe’s self-described Left from concerns of ordinary people.

>> Johnstone was not impressed by the Watergate investigation.  She thought it was the first example of the deep state, or national security establishment or whatever you want to call it, bringing down an elected President – in this case Mark Felt, assistant director of the FBI, as the Deep Throat anonymously feeding information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  This set a precedent for a lot of bad journalism based on anonymous sources.

The important story of Richard Nixon’s administration was going off the gold standard, but bluffing the world into accepting the dollar as if it had some intrinsic value.  This set the stage for the financialization of the U.S. economy, the ability to finance a war machine without raising taxes and the use of financial sanctions as a weapon of war.

>> Some other people she’s unimpressed with: Joschka Fischer, Bernard Henry-Levy, Emmanuel Macron, Claire Sterling.


>> On the other hand, Johnstone admired Charles de Gaulle and Sweden’s Olof Palme, whom she regards as the last important European statesmen who were able to pursue a foreign policy independently of the United States.  Unfortunately they did not have successors.  She mentioned the suspicious circumstances of Olof Palme’s murder, but did not speculate beyond the fact.

She is a cosmopolitan person herself and has lived in a number of countries.  She has a BA in Russian Area Studies and a PhD in French literature.  But she regards national sovereignty as vital – first, because each nation has its own special character, and, second, because today’s international institutions are out of range of democratic governance.

She is a great believer in grass-roots activism.  She credits the campaign against Euro-missiles (short-range nuclear missiles based in Europe and aimed at Russia).


Her writing is based on old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, plus extensive knowledge of the background of events.  Her work is a rebuke to journalists, including my former self, who fail to start from a position of skepticism about official sources of information.

I have great respect for Seymour Hersh, but most of his reporting, following his initial expose of the My Lai massacre, has been based on inside information from anonymous sources.  He required a certain amount of faith that his information is accurate.  Also, to protect his sources, he never told all he knows.

Diana Johnstone’s reporting is based on research, not inside information.  All her cards are on the table.  What she writes is based on personal observation, interviews with named individuals or the historical record.

Not that she’s impartial, but you can judge the basis of her conclusions for yourself.

What disagreements I have with her are questions of emphasis and are far outweighed by her illumination of events that I didn’t understand at the time.  I thank my friend Steve from Texas for suggesting this book.  I also recommend Johnstone’s Fool’s Crusade (2002), which is about U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia, and Queen of Chaos (2016), which is about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record.


Archive of Diana Johnstone articles.

Circle in the Darkness: Post-War Europe, an interview of Diana Johnstone by Patrick Lawrence.

Johnstone Brings Her Moral Compass to Our Dantesque World by Eric Walberg for Dissident Voice.

From Da Nang to Portland: Key Events of the Past 55 Years by Rick Sterling for Antiwar.com.

The Return of the Anti-Antiwar Left by James W. Carden for Counterpunch.

[Update: 11th paragraph inserted 11/02/2020]

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