In Other Words
America's ignorant, narcissistic anti-Europeanism is an embarrassment.
It fell to Barack Obama, as is often the case, to identify the problem. But, as is often the case, he had no solution. Speaking in Strasbourg, France, deep in the subsidized heartlands of the European Union in April last year, Obama deplored a growing mutual antipathy, bordering on open hostility, between Europe and America. Europeans were too often guilty of an "insidious" anti-Americanism while Americans had at times "shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" of Europe’s achievements.
To European ears, President Obama’s analysis — a characteristic piece of consensus-building — appeared wholly reasonable, even unexceptional. On Thursday, Jose Barroso, president of the European Commission, indicated his agreement, telling the British newspaper The Times, "The transatlantic relationship is not living up to its potential."
But in the United States, Obama’s critique of American attitudes, his studied humility, and his implicit apology for the overbearing behavior of George W. Bush’s administration was instantly condemned by some commentators as an extraordinary, unprecedented betrayal, all the worse because it was committed on foreign soil.
Beside himself with indignation, columnist and pundit Charles Krauthammer led the charge on Fox News:
"Obama says, ‘In America there is a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world.’ Well, maybe that’s because when there was a civil war on Europe’s doorstep in the Balkans, and genocide, it didn’t lift a finger until America led. Maybe it’s because when there was an invasion of Kuwait it didn’t lift a finger until America led. Maybe it’s because with America spending over half a trillion a year, keeping open the sea lanes in defending the world, Europe is spending pennies on defense. It’s hard to appreciate an entity’s leading role in the world when it’s been sucking on your tit for 60 years."
Many Americans shared his fury. But in his eagerness to condemn Obama’s European "apology tour" (as former Bush advisor Karl Rove later dubbed it), the spluttering Krauthammer inadvertently revealed that he suffered from the very problem Obama was trying to address. After all, it is one thing to disagree with a president and his policy. It is quite another to be so bitterly and scathingly contemptuous of an entire continent and its people, especially one that, for better or worse, is a historical ally and a close political, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic relation.
Uncertain whether to laugh or cry, Europeans ask: Is this sort of thing to be taken seriously? What is going on? For let’s be honest: Krauthammer is a bit of a clown. And he has a very European surname.
Seen from Europe, of which Britain is (arguably) a part, the roots of American anti-Europeanism appear many and varied. At one end of the spectrum, there is the widely shared view that Europe does not pull its weight in a world that Washington would like to order according to its lights. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the unpalatable fact of widespread American ignorance, exacerbated by indifference, of all things European.
Examples of the latter abound. While covering the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, a European reporter was asked in all sincerity: "Is Sweden a country or a city?" In Richmond, Virginia, a cab driver congratulated a visiting Briton on not having to bother about voting or elections "because you’ve got the Queen." And then there was the waitress in Arkansas who asked an unsuspecting Englishman: "What language do you speak in your country?"
But historically, anti-Europeanism is hardly a new phenomenon. America’s first president warned against "permanent alliances" after successfully conspiring in an alliance with the French against the British in the Revolutionary War. President James Monroe issued his famous doctrine expressly to keep the European powers out of a New World to which a then much weaker Washington presumptuously laid claim. (Monroe neglected to mention that it would for the most part be the British Royal Navy tasked with enforcing his doctrine.)
Fear, envy, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, cultural inferiority-superiority complexes, trade, political and military rivalries, and America’s quest for identity all fed anti-European feeling as the new country sought to differentiate itself from the old countries whence most of its people came. Many of these phenomena remain relevant today.
"Expressing one’s anti-European sentiment can be a way of building up and displaying one’s American identity and patriotism," said Patrick Chamorel in a European University Institute study published in Italy in 2004. "Anti-Europeanism has always been part of American exceptionalism, which defined itself in contrast to European history, politics, and society."
It would be easy for Europeans to shrug off America’s Europhobic generalizations and mischaracterizations if they were exclusive to would-be-intellectual neoconservatives, Bible Belt evangelists, and provincial Midwest xenophobes. But ever since the European Union dropped the ball in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, a potent mix of influential American thinkers, policymakers, and commentators have given anti-Europeanism a new respectability that cannot be dismissed out of hand. On the major issues that preoccupy Americans — defense, security, terrorism, intervention, free trade, sovereignty, and nationalism — the argument that Europe has lost its way has gained in influence. And as a debt-laden European Union stares at the fiscal abyss, one can almost feel the schadenfreude emanating from across the pond.
The American debate over Europe has waxed and waned over the past decade, always unresolved, always infused with passion and fury. In The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (2007), historian Walter Laqueur summarized the case against. Europe is "in the process of disappearing" as a force in the world, he argued, because political integration via the European Union has stalled, welfare-state policies are unsustainable, fertility rates are below replacement levels, and assimilation of increasingly hostile and angry Muslim immigrant populations has failed. Europe could not and would not defend itself, according to Laqueur. Bruce Thornton’s Gibbonesque Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide also offered a compilation of factors supposedly explaining the certain demise of Europe’s failed utopian experiment: sluggish, state-regulated economic growth, high unemployment, high social entitlements, a mortifying museum culture, and the abandonment of the Christian tradition, which encouraged the growth of "pseudo-religions" — among them environmentalism, multiculturalism, and hedonism.
There has been a corresponding, if quiet, backlash in the United States against native, anti-European sentiment. Strong support came from T.R. Reid, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, in his 2004 book, The United States of Europe. Reid lauded in particular the advent of the common currency — the euro — and the creation of a European Constitution, evidence in his view of a growing European ascendancy. Others, such as Jeremy Rifkin and Steven Hill, were similarly enthusiastic in writing about the advent of "Generation E" — younger Europeans who disregard national boundaries to embrace an empowering common culture.
American writer Robert Kagan famously synthesized the conflicting views in his influential 2002 "Mars and Venus" essay in Policy Review. "It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world," he said. One inhabited a fantasyland of laws, the other a land governed by the law of the jungle.
But Kagan’s summary was ultimately too blithe to sustain serious scrutiny. Can Kagan account for how exactly the two irreconcilable "sides" he sketches managed to swap roles over the past hundred years? Just as the European great powers of the 19th century used brute force to impose their imperial will and vision while the priggishly constitutional United States kept its hands clean and looked on (and grew stronger and richer under Britain’s de facto protection), so now does the United States wield the hammer while the Europeans look askance, all the time benefiting from Washington’s security umbrella.
Moreover, Kagan failed to foresee the inherent weaknesses of each side’s arguments. The European collectivist "soft power" model is under serious challenge after the near implosion of the European Union’s vaunted Constitution and amid bitter argument over Greece’s bankruptcy bailout and the euro’s possible collapse. The American "hard power" model has been undermined by the U.S. military’s inability to "win" two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the global financial crisis, a capitalist heart attack from which the patient has yet to recover.
Ultimately, though, foreign-policy preferences aren’t the greatest instigator of the persistent transatlantic culture clash. Of all the differences Americans perceive in Europe, it’s the old continent’s moral decadence that seems to enrage them the most. It’s that ethical lament that’s the most intractable rift because it’s not a policy debate at issue, but the status of one’s own way of life. Citing conservatives such as Richard Perle who noisily lamented Europe’s loss of "moral compass" and France’s loss of "moral fiber," Timothy Garton Ash succinctly summarized in the New York Review of Books the widespread American stereotype of Europeans as godless wimps during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. "They [the Europeans] are weak, petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic and often anti-American appeasers," Garton Ash wrote of America’s implicit disdain for its allies. Social trends seem to constantly reinforce that opinion. Rising secularism and spreading, ultraliberal social attitudes in Europe contrast ever more sharply with a perceived new American Puritanism.
As Obama said, it’s a shame we can’t just get along. Given the way the globalized world is placing increasing stress on international cooperation, given the way absolute U.S. power is retreating as the unipolar moment fades, and given the way China and other rising 21st-century powers are challenging the current balance of power and the values and beliefs that underpin it, Europe and America will inevitably need each other more and more. It’s a stormy marriage, but a marriage all the same. And the alternatives are all worse.
But, hey, that’s just a liberal Euroweenie speaking, right? I would think of it as a pragmatic, realpolitik viewpoint, but it could be mistaken for appeasement, which would never do in the United States. In the words of an email I once received from a reader in New York, "Don’t forget who saved your ass twice, buddy. If it wasn’t for the good ole US of A you’d all be speaking German!"