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March 07, 2006

... As Others See Us
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Last week, a European friend sent me this article, "America's rising anti-Europeanism," from the new  journal Europe's World, a European product that appears to be attempting to be like Foreign Affairs, but hipper and, well, European (check out that pink cover -- all it needs is an Hermes tie to match).

I'm still not sure what my friend was trying to tell me -- is this like those adolescent advice columnists who tell you to send your stinky friends deodorant anonymously? -- but the subject is worth some thought.

Dutch security policy thinker Peter van Ham says that we have "a groundswell of annoyance and pessimism in the US about Europe."  True enough, although of course it sounds even better if all one's analysis is based on Fox News, the Wall Street Journal ed board, and right wing talk radio, as this one seems to be.

van Ham makes one very telling comment: after decades of reflexive anti-Americanism among certain Europeans, they are now shocked, shocked to see it returning in kind.  And he underlines the extent to which Europe's mere existence is an affront to certain American conservative ways of thinking about the world, a conflict which explains why so often the Bush Administration seems powerless to stop itself from unnecessarily sticking it to Brussels.

We ought, also, to stop and ask ourselves what it means when a basically friendly analyst from a very friendly country concludes his analysis with the prediction that "we won't see a festive reopening [of the US to the world] anytime soon."  My friends and betters who have been saying that all it would take would be a switch in party to restore US-European relations maybe better think again.

But what fascinated me is that this is a critique of America today:

Unlike Europe, America has declared itself at war, and is closing itself off from the rest of the world, physically as well as psychologically.  It is becoming more difficult to enter the US now that a kind of siege-mentality is taking hold of bureaucrats and the general populace alike.*  Where Europe is removing barriers, Americans are re-creating them, inside their heads as well as on the ground.

*As someone who lives outside the Beltway with the "general populace," I'd have to say the only signs I've seen of a siege mentality were from people trying to transit Detroit during Super Bowl weekend.  And a public whose approval of a President is under 40 percent and of his war is under 50 percent can hardly be accused of siege-like identification with the leader.  But I digress.

While this is America's (wrong-headed and hostile) attitude toward Europe:

Europe is seen as decadent, complacent, lazy and --perhaps most damning of all -- increasingly irrelevant.  The present downbeat mood in Europe itself seems to confirm these attitudes... European integration looks to have run out of steam.  High unemployment, low self-confidence and the shrinking European population stand in sharp contrast with the upbeat, booming Chinese market and the vista of a New American Century.  What has Europe done to draw America's scorn and contempt?

Ummm... but aren't all those things actually true?

So I have been puzzling for a few days now over how it is that these observations got placed on the same level of "anti-Europeanism" as Donald Rumsfeld's cracks about "Old Europe." As a New York Times-reading, NPR-listening, Jon Stewart-watching American, I still think that European integration has "run out of steam." Europe's political leaders do seem not to have invested enough in bringing their populations along on the integration project.  Immigrant integration poses Europe a challenge unlike any we face here, and one for which the continent seems singularly ill-equipped.

None of those thoughts is "anti-European" on its face.  Or if it is, we are in worse trouble than I realized.

Yes, the in vogue American critique of Europe is unfair, and highlights those areas in which we quietly feel most vulnerable:  European nations are doing quite a bit in Iraq (insert joke about German intelligence here) and even more in Afghanistan; Europe's trade policy is obligingly saving the Bush Administration from being held to full account for its own trade failures; and the European Union has done what we said we wanted it to do and taken over, admirably, in the Balkans and further afield.

So it is comforting for Europeans to think that Americans have succumbed to the demons of our violent, frontier, young [insert your favorite European cliche about America here] society.

And, of course, it is comforting for Americans to look over at Europe and think, "yeah, permission-slip kids, with their treaties and their obligations and their hesitations, they're past it." 

But it is hard -- for me at least -- to read commentary on the subject without seeing the whole thing as two manifestations of one problem; two large, wealthy and diverse  societies whose very size and diversity is suddenly making them insecure.  Whose subjects, it turns out, are somewhat less amenable to living quietly inside growing, secularizing stews of equally-valued humanity than they were supposed to be.

Over at America Abroad, John Ikenberry uses a review of new books by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Amartya Sen to examine this problem with scholarly thoroughness:  the 20th-century solution of civic nationalism to the problem of "solitarist belittling of human identity" [mass movement fundamentalism] is wearing thin.  Read it and then ask yourself, American or European, whether at the deepest level much of the angst about the trans-Atlantic relationship hasn't really become angst about our own societies and whether they can stay the course.


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I'm surprised at your defensive reaction to the article, Heather. Although it is hard to gauge the author's own value judgments and intentions with precision through the posture of analytic distance adopted in the piece, I found the tone of the article generally rather friendly and understanding, from a liberal perspective, even where critical. But the criticisms seemed quite muted, and the overall impression was one of concern about the transatlantic relationship, and about Europe's own possible role in the deterioration of this relationship.

Since, I assume, the author's intended audience is mainly European, the "view from America" angle struck me more as a prop for presenting an overview of challenges on the European scene, and venting certain European anxieties about their own situation, while assuming the guise of reporting on overseas impressions, and thus avoiding a heavy-handed and overtly judgmental tone. The same technique was used by Voltaire in his Letters on England.

My sense is that the author writes from an committed pro-European Union perspective, and that his message was something like this: "We need to get our act back together on European integration, as well as re-energize our commitment to transatlantic security systems, or we will indeed become increasingly irrelevant - and will vindicate the American realist's view of the futility of legal and cooperative approaches to international affairs, and of the overriding importance of brute military power. We also need to think about how to restore some optimism and vitality to European society, lest we vindicate the neoconservative critique of Europe as decadent and weak."

And the comment about how seemingly surprised Europeans were about rising anti-European sentiment was a clear touch of gentle irony, and seemed intended as a rebuke to his European readers. The message, I take it, was something like "having failed to keep our own earlier wave of anti-Americanism in check, it should hardly be surprising to us that many Americans have reacted in kind."

As far as the accuracy of his reading of American attitudes toward Europe, my sense is that what he was describing as a rising tide is actually a wave that crested a couple of years ago, and has begun to subside. The neoconservatives, for example, have definitely been making overtures of late toward Europeans, and seem determined to exploit events like the cartoon flap to energize a sort of Euro-neo-conservative movement. The author also seemed to move back and forth rather casually from trends in popular attitudes to trends in elite opinion. (What percentage of FOX viewers, I wonder, could even give a passably accurate explanation of what the European Union is, or even know that Europeans voted recently on a constitution, much less that they defeated it.)

The one comment of yours that most struck me was that you detect no traces in the US of a siege mentality! I understand that impressions of this sort of thing are bound to be subjective. But personally, I feel like I live in an entirely different country than the one I lived in a decade ago, and that the unifying thread of the change is the prevalence of fear and suspicion in contemporary American life - and the sense of being alone in the world and evenn under attack from all corners.

Our popular and elite cultures are dominated by fear and hostility. Our television screens are filled with dark and unyeilding dramas of prosecutorial and police activity - which seem to promote the same oppressive message: our streets are crawling with evil, and virtually everyone is guilty - but if you have done something bad, we will get you. News reports are dominated by stories about various kinds of predators - particularly sexual ones. One of the news stories that has most riveted the country in recent months is the Nathalie Holloway story, which is almost always played as a morality tale about what happens when nice, young blonde American girls travel outside the protective bubble of home to corrupt, foreign, and less white, countries.

And our political culture is dominated by suspicion and outright hatred of political opponents, with frequent accusations of treason, un-Americanism and conspiratorial activity.

It is true that we have emerged somewhat from the waves of hysteria produced by the anthrax mailings, the DC/Maryland snipers and the color-coded terror alerts. But I don't think we have recovered from our long slog through paranoia and terror - not by a long shot.

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