Old-World Embrace
Ancient lessons for Obama.


Barack Obama is about to receive a great, big hug from the people of Europe. He is their candidate and they love him to death. Not only are his approval ratings sky high there, but in Germany, France, and Italy he is favored over John McCain by more than a 50-percent margin. Europe’s newspapers and airwaves are filled with giddy anticipation for the event. As the London Observer summed it up “The world is waiting to love America again.”

There is no doubt that the throngs of adoring fans who will pour out to see the freshman senator from Illinois will make for good TV. But how will it play in Peoria? Four years ago I was living in Italy when Teresa Heinz Kerry gave her convention speech studded with European languages. The Italians (whose language was among the included) were beside themselves with admiration. At last, they thought, the Americans would reject their cowboy president and choose someone who cared about them. John Kerry’s proficiency in French only made it that much better. European public-opinion polls showed Kerry defeating Bush by double-digit margins.

But Europeans can’t vote — and the love affair between Europe and John Kerry did not go over well with many Americans. It was not just further evidence of Kerry’s elitism, but it suggested that as president he would be more concerned with European applause than American security. The Manchester Guardian’s “Operation Clark County,” which tried to swing the vote in Ohio to Kerry’s side, didn’t help matters. In many Americans’ minds Kerry had become the candidate of Europe, leaving America to George W. Bush.

Undoubtedly, Obama’s campaign managers are discerning the historical lessons of the Kerry defeat. But they might want to look a bit further back as well. During the days of the Republic, the ancient Romans had a relationship with the Greeks very like that of Americans and Europeans today. Romans revered the Greeks for their high culture and magnificent history. Unlike Rome, Greece was filled with marble adorned cities in which art and architecture was brought to unparalleled heights. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks could boast a rich body of literature, drama, and philosophical tracts. But the Romans were strong, while the Greeks were weak. Indeed, after 196 B.C. it was the Roman military that guaranteed Greek independence, defending the Greeks against outside invaders. By the mid-second century B.C. the Romans had begun to see the Greeks as decadent elites with little common sense. They were antiquity’s postmoderns. As Cato the Elder complained, the Greek spirit questioned everything and settled nothing. For their part, the Greeks considered Romans to be intolerably arrogant and dreadfully boorish. Anti-Romanism in Greece increased throughout the century.