Politics & Policy

Anti-American European?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared in the Italian journal Liberal.

To my dear friends in Europe:

America used to be a young country, but we are grown up now, and it’s perfectly all right to hate us, and certainly to tell us where we are wrong.

We may even learn a thing or two from what you say, and set about our favorite project, self-improvement. America is a place where every life is unfinished until death, and we treat our country the same way. It’s always being “born again.” What it was in the Clinton years, it is no longer in the Bush years. All too soon, in 2005 or 2009 under a new president, it will be born again.

So keep your criticism coming. We will use it to get better, and stronger, and probably richer.

Do you remember 15 years ago (just as the Reagan administration was concluding) reading the excited reviewers in Europe of all those American books and articles about America’s “decline,” “imperial overstretch” (Paul Kennedy), and imminent fall into becoming a colony of Japan (William Pfaff)?

None of those predictions happened to come true. In fact, it was Japan that declined, and also Europe, while America’s per-capita income grew from $14,400 to $29,451. The size of our defense budget was cut by nearly half as a percentage of GDP, but the technology and personal skills of our armed forces grew by quantum leaps between 1991 and today.

In 1988, Europeans were predicting that the new European Community would race past America in economic dynamism and power, and that in its wake a united Europe’s political power would also outstrip America’s, even while Europe raised up a countervailing military force.

We also believed that Europe might surpass us. This is a competitive world, and it’s always possible, if they do the right thing, for those behind to leap ahead of all the others.

But this is 2003, and in Europe the newspapers and magazines do not boast that Europe is number one, the world’s hyper-power, the hegemon. European cartoonists caricature the United States in that position.

Columnists in Corriere della Sera and Le Monde do not fret about the disturbing new power of the European Empire. They worry about the new “American Empire.” (So do at least three American authors, reviewed in June’s Commentary).

Naturally, many Europeans do not like Americans, neither our wealth nor our power nor our manners — nor our religiousness (or at least not that of President Bush). More exactly, while a great many Europeans really do like Americans one-by-one, and even admire “America” the ideal, there are some aspects of American reality that they really do not like.

Europeans aren’t the only ones. We Americans also love to hate certain things about our national life. Americans on the left hate different things from those hated by conservatives, but both are champions at preaching to sinners. In fact, any taxi driver in New York (or other city) can tell you between downtown and the airport all the things in politics or business that in his mind stink.

Looking in a mirror, Americans are not so much like a young woman who doesn’t like her hair this way, or the shape of her mouth. We are more like the sinner examining his conscience because he knows he must do better on the morrow. Hatred for our own persistent flaws races like a heat-seeking missile down the byways of the American soul. One of our national hymns prays for the nation: “God mend thine every flaw.”

Curiously, those on the American left, especially those who do not believe in God, are the most likely to wallow in guilt; they love to be made to feel guilty — about race, militarism, sexism, empire. You make the accusation, they’ll bow their heads in agreement.

Those who are religious, those who know something about their own personal sins, are more inclined to be hardheaded in examining accusations against the country. You say America is a new Empire, and they will point out that since December 7, 1941, the United States has sent millions of men abroad to fight to liberate Western Europe, much of Asia, then Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Then they came home, seizing not a square inch of territory.

Look at Western Europe. Aren’t all those countries independent now, more prosperous and free than they ever were? What portion of them is occupied by Americans? Most densely, the military cemeteries.

Americans are not by temperament or by national destiny empire-builders, as once the Romans were, and the British, and the French and Germans and (latterly) the Italians. We don’t like to govern other peoples. After our troops have finished, we like to get out, often much too quickly. The soldiers want to go home. So do their commanders. Our guys are not managers of other people’s lives, policemen, peacekeepers — they’d rather be home with their kids, back at their real jobs. Politically, empire does not sit well with our home population. We’re not the type.

Usually, our critics in Europe mean by “American Empire,” not a real territorial, geographical sort of empire, but American ideas, American music, the American spirit, that magical concoction (in places much despised) of the “American way of life.” Some Europeans hate to see these things spreading, like (they think) pollution.

Besides, Americans do not think or feel or imagine in the ways that cultivated Europeans do. Here we have virtually no aristocrats or their traditions. Although Americans have much more in common with the ordinary people of Italy, France, Germany, and so on, than with the elites of those countries, our ordinary people tend to think rather differently even from ordinary Europeans.

Let me offer two or three examples.

For one thing, Europeans really value security-state benefits, for instance-whereas we very much prefer liberty and independence. We prefer to take risks, since risk-taking has often been beneficial in our lives. By contrast, Europeans seem to have experienced so much disruption and insecurity during the past 200 years, that one can hardly blame them for preferring a few generations of stability, security, and predictability.

I have often noted in European inns and elsewhere that ordinary Europeans like to keep to the way they have been doing things, and don’t like to hear new methods suggested, even if they would be helpful. By contrast, we Americans are constantly giving each other — and welcoming — advice on new, labor-saving methods. And we love to try new things. Tocqueville noticed this 170 years ago. He attributed it to shortages on the frontier; everybody learned to improvise, to do it themselves.

Again, Europeans really do have a passion for equality that seems odd and unnatural to Americans. Perhaps this passion arises from harsh memories of the feudal class system. Yet where in nature is equality the rule? Not in snowflakes, leaves, or human talents, ambitions, personal efforts, or luck. Human beings are not equal (the same); each is unique. Still, Europeans seem mad for equality.

For instance, if a plan were proposed guaranteeing everyone the same outcome, Europeans would prefer it, even though that plan required that everyone would receive less than in a more dynamic system. By contrast, Americans would enthusiastically prefer a more dynamic system, in which the benefits of all would constantly be rising, even though the dynamism meant that some would receive more, and some less.

Europeans prefer equality at the cost of stasis. Provided that all have fair and open opportunity, Americans prefer dynamic growth, at the cost of strict equality of outcomes. Europeans watch equality like a hawk. Americans guard opportunity — and the chance to excel.

Correspondingly, Europeans seem to suffer from spasms of envy. They don’t like others getting ahead of them. They clutch to their breast century-old privileges given their families or guilds. They are protective of advantages, even at the cost of the common good. The way workers strike and otherwise disrupt daily life in Europe illustrates this.

There many jokes about the power of envy in Europe. A European peasant is told by a genie that he will be given whatever he wishes for, on condition that his neighbor will receive twice as much. Instantly, the peasant chooses: “Take out one of my eyes.”

Envy is also a reality in America, of course; but its social role is much diminished. As long as there is economic growth and dynamism, and open opportunity, individuals give themselves over to the pursuit of their own happiness, in their own way, without comparing their personal outcomes overmuch with those of others. In families, one brother goes this way, another another, a third in a still different direction. As long as each is happy doing what he does, why should Joe be envious of Peter or Paul?

In the same spirit, it makes no sense for Europe to be envious of America, or the reverse. Each sees aspects of life in the other that are far preferable to the alternatives at home. For instance, café life in Europe is far more satisfactory than in America, and no doubt in daily life Europeans eat far better (especially in Italy and France). We Americans love traveling in Europe for its superiorities. But many of us would not have the patience to live there for too long a time, since we miss a certain openness and social permeability.

Even so, the way that life in Europe is organized around food and conversation is very tempting to Americans, especially artists and writers. For myself, I think the “celestial banquet” will be more like a dinner in Rome or Umbria or Tuscany than any meal I have ever had in America.

When some American critics (ineptly) describe America as an empire-to make fellow Americans feel guilty — they define empire by an abiding American concern to keep international trade routes open; and by American preparedness since World War II to fight two wars at any one time, as we had to do in Asia and Europe from 1941 right through the Soviet threat until 1989. They blame our economic motives and our military motives. They do not mean acquisition of territory, just worldwide watchfulness and worldwide activities.

But think of the alternative. An isolationist America unwilling or unable to argue for free trade, and to keep the trade lanes open, would dash the hopes of every nation seeking to emerge from poverty by entering the “circle of economic prosperity” constituted by that trade.

An America unwilling to help democratic forces and those seeking protection of their human rights, everywhere around the world, would not have presided over the growth of democracies in the world from 4 in 1900 to 30 in 1974 to 117 today. The vast populations moving out of poverty since 1950, those moving from illiteracy to literacy, and those whose average age at death jumped from roughly 41 to 62, made these advances during the period of American preeminence. At least a little of this worldwide progress is owed to the blood shed by Americans (and many others) in overcoming massive tyrannies, and to the treasure and techniques Americans shared with those in need.

America neither deserves nor desires uncritical love, by Europeans or anyone else. But does it not seem at least a little ungenerous and, compared to real alternatives, utterly groundless to give currency to calumnies about America? Such calumnies now circulate widely among intelligent people in Europe, who have reason to know better. For your own self-respect, dear friends, raise questions about them.

About our faults and misjudgments say all you will. Only, I urge you, cleave to the truth. That garment best becomes what Europe stands for.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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