Goodbye to Europe?

by Victor Davis Hanson

American Jewish Committee

In the aftermath of the catastrophe that struck the United States last September 11, few things can have been more dismaying to Americans than the attitude adopted by many of our closest European allies, whose sympathy for the loss of life was quickly replaced by skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward American motives and American policy. The ensuing months seem only to have heightened rather than diminished their animosity.

In the recent election campaign in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder volubly parted ways with us and our proposed “adventure” in Iraq, promising his countrymen a “German way” of dealing with global crises–perhaps oblivious to the unfortunate historical echoes this phrase still awakens among millions of Americans. British Labor politicians, ostensibly worried about a conflagration that would draw the United Kingdom into an unending American-led war in the Middle East, have deprecated George W. Bush as an ignorant simpleton (“The most intellectually backward American President of my political lifetime,” writes Labor MP Gerald Kaufman). French commentators, for their part, are more apt to call Bush a cowboy than Saddam Hussein an outlaw.

If the fear of Russian tanks used to unite America and Europe, are differences over everything from greenhouse gases and Yasir Arafat now to divide us? Josef Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, downplayed this already simmering hostility, last year in an influential, pre-September-11 essay in the National Interest. Dismissing European snipings as a species of “neo-ganging up,” Joffe noted that most Europeans talk one way but tend to act another, and recommended that the U.S. apply a little cosmetic diplomacy to soothe ruffled Continental feathers. But now it is a year after September 11, and the anti-American mood seems quite firmly entrenched, deriving less from anything we have done–Americans have not used their imperial power to acquire territory since the Spanish-American war–than from a perception of who we purportedly are: flag-waving, gun-toting, SUV-driving, MTV-watching, minority-electrocuting, Big-Mac-chomping boors running amok in the world.

In the absence of in-depth surveys it is difficult to gauge the prevalence of unease among our European allies or its incidence across countries, classes, and groups. Most often, evidence of animus comes to us anecdotally–Frenchmen protesting McDonald’s restaurants, Greeks booing during a commemorative silence in a soccer stadium at the news of September 11, Berliners demonstrating against President Bush’s visit to Germany, and a chorus of pundits warning us against any assault on Saddam Hussein. But we are also reminded that Britain, for example, showed remarkable solidarity with the United States in Afghanistan and might do so again in Iraq, notwithstanding the unprecedented venom that pours forth from much of the English journalistic and academic elite, and at least one Europe-wide poll taken in early September showed conditional support for an invasion of Iraq.

What seems beyond denial is that, from the Atlantic coast to the Balkans, there has been a rise in the level of truculence. Scandinavians to the north seem as mistrustful of the United States as do the Mediterranean peoples of Greece, France, and Spain. Has a Palestinian child been hit by a stray Israeli missile? American F-16’s are to blame. Is Europe racked by floods? They are the effect of global warming, set loose by a Kyoto-boycotting America. In the United States itself, has Mumia Abu-Jamal been condemned as a murderer by a jury of his peers and sent to death row? Paris in recompense will make the convicted killer an honorary citizen of the city.

The new anti-Americanism also seems to bridge the usual ideological fault lines. Leftists and socialists indict us for the death penalty, guns, the lack of universal health care, and grasping corporations. Right-wing clerics and nationalists join them in bemoaning the perversion of traditional European culture as the result of American advertising and hucksterism. In Greece, an Orthodox priest can prove more virulently anti-American than a die-hard socialist–and for reasons that transcend our having ousted from power his fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian, Slobodan Milosevic. The more the European masses appear to be hooked on American popular culture, the more bitterly their elites decry the U.S. as the profitable but cynical pusher.

As for governments, no less indisputable is that most of them have greeted with disapproval or distaste nearly every major American foreign-policy initiative of the past two years–our walking out of the Durban conference on racism, our dismissal of the Kyoto accords, our cancellation of the ABM treaty with the former Soviet Union, our reference to an identifiable “axis of evil,” our strong support for democratic Israel and disparagement of the corrupt Palestinian Authority, our refusal of International Criminal Court jurisdiction over American GI’s, and our advocacy of capital punishment for al Qaeda murderers. The doubts and suspicions expressed by European officialdom encourage more extreme voices to broadcast their invective with a new aggressiveness. Long before September 11, Polly Toynbee, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote an essay–“America the Horrible is Now Turning into a Pariah”–concluding that the United States was itself “an evil empire” and a “rogue state” that had to be “reeled in.” A week after September 11, another Guardian columnist assured her readers that “It is perfectly possible to condemn the terrorist action and dislike the U.S. just as much as you did before the World Trade Center went down.”

Conversations with individual Europeans only confirm the attitudes expressed by governments and media. From recent visits to Europe and a number of daily communications from acquaintances abroad, I can attest that many Europeans take an almost perverse delight in the spectacle of a U.S. so estranged from the universal opinion of mankind and so unpopular from Asia to Latin America. “Welcome to the real world,” one Greek academic scoffed to me at dinner, as he explained that Americans cannot “have it both ways, ducking out on UN conferences and then strong-arming allies for your war against terror.”

WHERE DOES the new anti-Americanism come from, and what does it mean? In an incisive and far-reaching essay that has been much discussed in Europe and elsewhere, Robert Kagan has dissected the growing European antipathy and pinpointed its source (“Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, June-July). Fundamentally, Kagan writes, the distrust arises from insecurity and envy that are in turn grounded in the present imbalance of military power–an often embarrassing disparity that has driven the much weaker Europeans to look to their own safety in means other than armed strength, and correlatively to fear and censure the deployment of armed strength by others: mainly, us.

“Today’s transatlantic problem,” Kagan writes, “is not a George Bush problem”:
It is a power problem. American strength has produced a propensity to use that strength. Europe’s military weakness has produced a perfectly understandable aversion to the exercise of military power.

Or as Jesse Helms more crudely remarked of Europe’s preference for talk and mediation at the expense of military action, “The European Union could not fight its way out of a wet paper bag.”

There is clearly much to be said for this realist reading of the growing crisis. Our planes, carriers, and divisions dwarf theirs; and this asymmetry not only skews our ability to conduct joint operations with Europeans but also creates resentment on their part and superciliousness on ours. Jealousy among states always arises among the weak toward the strong, and so it makes sense that a generalized resentment and its attendant fears, rather than specific gripes over American “exceptionalism” and “unilateralism,” could be the true cause of European discontent.

Compounding this umbrage, as Francis Fukuyama has pointed out in a recent public lecture, is surely the fact that Europe’s relative impotence has nothing to do with a lack of intrinsic material resources. The European Union (EU) will soon outstrip us in the size both of its economy ($10 trillion to our $7 trillion) and its population (375 million to our 280 million). But still it continues to spend only a third the amount of our outlays on defense ($130 billion to our current $300 billion annually and rising). European weapons programs have not been evolving at anywhere near the same pace as nonmilitary research and development, not to mention expenditures on social welfare. Their various national military schools, while illustrious, cannot compare with West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs in size, sense of mission, or resources, much less with our academies’ ability to capture the elan of contemporary young Americans. In Europe, military enlistment is not seen as an avenue either toward social advancement or toward national service but as somehow antithetical to the humane and pacific place that the EU is slated by its utopian charter to become.

It is hardly unheard of for states that are themselves well heeled and yet lack commensurate military resources to adopt a lower profile and to use guile, stealth, or money to fend off potential bullies. And so, in lieu of the capacity to airlift divisions to Afghanistan, bomb Iraq from carrier task forces, or present wayward regimes like Pakistan with ultimatums, frustrated Europeans have put their faith, mistakenly or not, in international bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, while pretending not to notice that American power alone is what has permitted them to dream that they inhabit a global fairyland of reasonable people.

When it comes to what we should do about this growing divide, most thoughtful analysts maintain that it behooves us as a truly mighty nation to act with maturity. Ignoring our allies’ ankle-biting and shrill charges of “brinkmanship,” we should concentrate instead on areas of real mutual concern and advantage, and encourage the Europeans to build up their own muscle through a greater investment in defense. After all, the argument goes, the bases we maintain in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece are critical to the worldwide projection of American power, even as the intellectual machinery of the European press and media is essential to the crafting of popular support in times of crisis. In a spirit of what might be called puissance oblige, we should strive to alleviate our weaker allies’ fretfulness at the same time that we subtly mobilize them to assume a more assertive role that better serves our mutual purposes.

THIS ARGUMENT, to whose sweep I have not begun to do justice, is surely a persuasive one as far as it goes. But might there be additional and even more fundamental reasons for the perplexing European disavowal of force that so often manifests itself in visceral anti-Americanism? In particular, is it really true that the present tension between the U.S. and Europe results largely from a disproportion of power, and that the way to mitigate it is to begin to redress the imbalance?

My own feeling is otherwise: that the current state of transatlantic tension, far from being a temporary artifact of power relations, is the more natural condition between us–a strain based on our radically different cultures and histories and hence unlikely to be dissipated by bigger defense budgets there or more sensitive diplomats here. And my guess is that tiffs condition is likely only to worsen.

Forgotten in the present anguish over European attitudes is our own age-old suspicion of the Old Country, a latent distrust that once again is slowly reemerging in the face of European carping. It helps to recall that, for millions of Americans, doubts about Europe were once not merely fanciful but often entirely empirical. In my own, hardly atypical family, both Europe and Japan were seen as not very nice places that for selfish reasons started wars, drew us in, and tended to take Hansons and Davises away from their small vineyards and orchards, only to return them a year or two later dead, maimed, or crazed. At family dinners, “Europe” never meant vacations or the grand tour but evoked gruesome stories about poison gas, “rolling” with Patton, or having one’s head exploded at Normandy Beach.

To some of us, then, the 50-year cold war was not a dress rehearsal for a perpetual American military alliance with Western Europe but another of those emergency life-and-death struggles that necessitated the temporary stationing of American troops on European soil. When the cold war ended ten years ago, should this not have brought us back to the more normal condition of the past? Since there was no longer an overwhelming threat to Europe that the Europeans could not handle, was there a need for a formal American presence in Continental affairs at all?

These old American prejudices may no longer be shared by the elites who make our policy, but they are not for that reason to be dismissed. As it happens, such mistrusts are themselves deeply rooted in essential faultlines between the American sense of self and the European. Those differences lie in our separate histories and national characters, our different demographies, our different cultures, our different approaches to questions of class and economic mobility, our different conceptions of the individual and society, our different visions of the good life and of democracy–and our very different attitudes toward projecting outward our versions of freedom. All these historic antitheses may better explain the current acrimony than an imbalance of power–often more an epiphenomenon than the cause of rifts among nations.

Volumes have been written on each of these subjects, but we can agree on the fundamental elements of American exceptionalism. The experience of the frontier encouraged a sense of self-reliance and helped to define morality in terms of action rather than rhetoric. Having no history of monarchy, fascism, or Communism, we retain our founders’ original optimism about republican government, considering it not only critical to our own singular success but a form of political organization that should be emulated by others. The absence of a common race and religion encouraged us to treasure a necessary allegiance to common ideas and values, an allegiance that has so far outlasted the attenuating doctrines of multiculturalism and “diversity.” That refugees from around the world and especially the unwanted of Europe itself not only survived in an inhospitable country but created history’s greatest civilization in the course of a mere century is testament to the revolutionary success of American democratic culture, a society that today morphs newly arrived Koreans into NASCAR fans, transmogrifies Hmong into Country & Western addicts, and allows the children of illegal aliens to become Ph.D.’s, electrical engineers, and newspaper columnists.

An American might well contend on the basis of recent history and the present state of world affairs that his confident doctrine, so often antithetical to Europe’s, is by far the superior: far better not only for him, but for the world as a whole. Scholarship and practical experience alike demonstrate why, just as immigrants have consistently voted with their feet by flooding our shores, so too hundreds of millions around the globe, including among Europe’s own peoples, have voted with their stomachs for the fruits of American material abundance and with their remote controls for the raw energy of American popular culture.

But that is a long argument that we need not stop to adjudicate. The essential point is this: American strength and European weakness are not just a temporary manifestation of our spending more on guns and accepting less in social services, while they insist on state help at the expense of navies and armies. Thanks to our physical size and natural riches, our dizzying diversity, and our belief that success is more often to be predicated on talent and hard work than on ingrained social and class hierarchies, we have become a nation both enormously rich and, especially, strong. With military power and economic force in service to singular values and ideas, we could not be cynical or faltering even if we wished to, or at least not for long. Seeing things in black and white is part and parcel of our aspiration to be moral–as much our national glue as our very optimism and aggressiveness.

In short, far more fundamental than the absence of European military resources and its queer ramifications is the issue of why we, and not they, have power, and how and why we are willing to use it in ways they would not. If we gave the Europeans fifteen carriers and twenty divisions tomorrow, we and they would still be at odds. Turn over to them our entire multibillion-dollar B-2 fleet, and it would be mothballed or sold for scrap while we continued as we could with our incorrigible habit of feeding Somalis, freeing Panamanians, liberating Kuwaitis–and, when necessary, patrolling the Mediterranean. The long list of their complaints against us that I enumerated early on–in essence, grievances against who we purportedly are rather than what we do–unconsciously pays tribute to these indelible facts.

SEPTEMBER 11 has awakened America in ways we still are not quite sure of. But as far as Europe is concerned, it seems more than possible that we are coming to the end of a relationship born out of the unusual circumstances of the 20th century. Our diplomats and politicians, who so often travel to and are educated in Europe, are just now starting to worry about this growing specter of estrangement, but I suspect that large numbers of Americans have not only taken it in stride but accepted it as inevitable.

It makes a certain sense that the EU has staked its future to international accords and its own ability to persuade or cajole frightening regimes in Asia and Africa. One need not be altogether cynical about this: Europe’s military unpreparedness is in fact an inescapable problem, and Europeans have plenty to be anxious about. Without the Atlantic and Pacific to serve as buffers, only a few hundred miles separate a largely weak Continent from the lunocracies in Algeria and Libya, while Syria, Iran, and Iraq are within missile range. Rising and unassimilated populations in England, France, and Germany round out the causes of European angst. Still, it is hard to believe that any of these threats could not be handled by a united Europe itself.

As for the dangers from within–lest we forget, another of the purposes of NATO was to inhibit the aggressive impulses of any one European country, especially Germany, against any other, specifically France–here, too, cynicism is uncalled for. Given Western Europe’s turbulent past, farsighted diplomats are to be congratulated for uniting such a disparate group of nations under the aegis of some sort of federation, and for avoiding a major war within Western Europe for more than a half-century. But it is hard to believe that, if their achievement is genuine, and not simply the result of a common cold-war enemy, the United States is needed to guarantee it; or that, if it breaks down, the United States would be able to fix it.

Hardest of all to accept in our current circumstances is that our European allies would or could join us in any meaningful way in sustained military operations abroad that involve real costs and risks. Indeed, we may be one unilateral action away from the de-facto dissolution of NATO. Should the United States end up going it alone in Iraq while Europe remonstrates, and should it succeed both in removing Saddam Hussein from power and in fostering some sort of consensual government there, domestic support among Americans for any future military campaign to aid a European power is likely to be drastically diminished. In such a world, and whatever action we took on our own or with de-facto allies, the very idea of Americans ever again leading a NATO crusade to banish a marauder like Milosevic seems preposterous.

The onus to preserve the status quo of the present alliance thus lies not on the American people, who may be returning to a time-honored and reasonable consensus about Europe, but on those, including among our leaders, who believe Europe still merits a special relationship at all. By any objective standard, we have long ago ceased being members of a true partnership, and it may be time to accept that reality and move on. Who knows? After our separation, when we are no longer sworn allies, we might even become better friends.


©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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