Politics & Policy

North Atlantic Community, European Community

Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the beginning of the text of a speech delivered for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003. Part II will appear Thursday and Part III on Friday.

BRATISLAVA — To speak of Europe is not to speak of geography, but of a civilization.

It is to speak of a centuries-long argument about the deepest meaning of such terms as God, truth, freedom, justice, and community. At the same time, to speak of Europe is also to speak of the extension of its noble and distinctive civilization (and its passionate arguments) far beyond the geography of Europe itself. It is to speak of the civilization of the North Atlantic, so as to include those far-off children of Europe: Canada and the United States.

It was to protect that whole civilization, the civilization of the North Atlantic, that NATO was formed, the Alliance that forced the peaceful capitulation of the Soviet Union in 1989, and that has so changed the perspective of formerly divided nation states within Europe, that for the first time in a thousand years there is very little prospect of war among them.

Because of that extension westward and the stunning Alliance to which it gave birth, the North Atlantic Community is a grander concept than the European Community. The great oak springing from the roots of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome spreads far outwards over the Atlantic. Its religious vitalities have flourished generation after generation in America, while they have seemed to wither in Europe. The American people are confident and vigorous, while Europe in its secularism seems (from America) to have become complacent, risk-averse, devoted to economic security, its population no longer reproducing itself even to replacement levels.

Forgive me for not being more diplomatic. This is a moment in which anti-American propaganda, most of it false, is so powerful in Europe that it is stirring in America the need to be more frank with our European friends. “The American street” is out of patience with France, in particular, and anti-American journalism in general. A few on the American left — Bill Clinton was one — do see European social democracy as morally advanced. Observing Europe, however, most Americans see few signs of European moral superiority. On the contrary, they see moral decline.

Before addressing the divergences between Old Europe and America, however, let me first count up the strengths of NATO, and then its weaknesses.


NATO is the most successful alliance in history. For more than 50 years, it protected its member nations from violent attack by the most powerful external military force ever assembled in history, the armies and intelligence forces of the Soviet Union. It also carried through an internal harmonization of its own command structures, communications, and (most impressive of all) military industrial production. These are great achievements.

Let me underline the importance of having attained internally harmonious command structures. Whatever the particular national make-up of its leadership and component units at any one time, a NATO unit can in principle work with others under unified command. Furthermore, all units are well practiced in certain basic systems of communication.

It is also a great achievement of NATO to have harmonized the specifications of its military equipment, so that nearly all of it is usable by all troops, no matter where it has been manufactured. To have brought about such technical harmony has required very close unity of purpose. To have done so on a Continent whose various peoples have long prided themselves on their stubborn independence and the charming disparity of their ways verges on the amazing. One might say, in a way, that the experience of blending together such a vast and potent military force as NATO prepared the way for the political and civil unification of a European Community. NATO has been a formidable military force, not only in its superior technology, but also in its moral determination to defend liberty at all costs, and with all possible attention to the humble detail of squad-level coordination.

Yet NATO itself faces a crisis springing from its own success. Less than a decade ago, many scholars were predicting at least the relative “decline” of the United States, as the Japanese economic model blossomed, and as the European Community was nearing its formal debut. Europe, it was said, had a much larger internal market than the United States — 380 million v. 280 million — and a newfound determination to surpass the United States in economic power.

But in the decade since 1990, Japan has fallen into a twelve-year recession and the European economic model has sputtered in fitful stops and starts. Germany and France in particular show woefully high unemployment and forbidding costs for domestic production. (To produce an automobile in Germany, for example, costs nearly nine times more than in Slovakia). Between 1990 and 2000, the European Monetary Union nonetheless managed to add to its gross domestic product an increase of just over 20 percent [from 6.6 trillion dollars to 8 trillion dollars in chained 1995 U.S. dollars], an increase of 1.4 trillion dollars. By contrast, the United States has added to its GDP an increase approaching 40 percent [from 6.5 trillion dollars to 9 trillion dollars], an increase of 2.5 trillion dollars. Similarly, the per capita GDP in the U.S. (in chained 1995 U.S. dollars) spurted from $26,141 to $31,996 — an increase of 22 percent.

U.S. firms have also benefited by a fresh burst of inventions and discoveries during this decade, particularly in communications, precision instruments, lasers, “stealth” metallic surfaces and other militarily useful technologies.

For instance, the weaponry and communications used by American forces in the Gulf War of 1991 were already so advanced that most allies could not operate on a par with American forces. By 2003, no military units, except perhaps the British, could operate at the same level. Through the use of communications drones over target areas and all-weather detection instruments, the American forces were at most times able to see the enemy out in front of them, even when they could not be seen by the enemy. Because of the interconnectedness of all U.S. forces — air, sea, and ground — by means of television images, voice, and instantaneous e-mail communications, American commanders in command centers hundreds or even thousands of miles away were privy to the same intelligence and communications as their front line forces, and in real time. Never in history had a war been fought under such conditions of instantaneous intelligence, universal communication, and informed command.

Because of these advances, the American forces launched barely 20 percent of the bombs — the iron, so to speak — expended in 1991. They did not have to use most of their projected supplies of precision rockets and other weapons. Their intelligence concerning where to place their explosives, and the precision guidance systems that allowed them to target a specific aperture (window or chimney) through which to place them, and a specific room within which to explode them, allowed them to use far less ordinance, while achieving far superior results.

During World War II, bombs were so imprecise that the quantity of explosives packed into each bomb had to be in the thousands of pounds. In those days, to strike within a half-mile of a factory, say, was considered damaging. This may be why, as the second Iraq war impended, Europeans mindful of World War II imagined Dresden, while the Americans were imagining something many magnitudes less damaging. In 2003, the bombing of Baghdad left virtually all-civilian buildings untouched, even when a military targets in an adjoining building had been destroyed. Moreover, in the buildings selected as military targets, the explosives nearly always went off in particular rooms or sections of the building — and with the amount of force chosen in advance. Those choosing targets wanted to save file rooms, for instance.

In terms of “rebuilding” Baghdad, therefore, remarkably little needs to be done, except for the 30 years of neglect that Saddam Hussein visited upon basic infrastructure. Few buildings of a civilian nature were struck by American bombs. The exact targets selected were Saddam’s palaces, and military, secret police, and particular government buildings.

Although the United States has cut its military spending in half since 1989, from about six percent of GDP per annum to three percent, its gross national product has grown so large since the economic reforms of the Reagan Presidency, which began in 1981, that this small three percent still yields a powerful sum of dollars. Even this is far more than any European nation spends, and more than all of them together. Furthermore, a great deal of military spending by European nations tends to go into non-military categories, whereas U.S. spending, while also diffuse, is far more concentrated on military purposes. In addition, the U.S. military is greatly aided by technological research on the part of civilian firms.

For these reasons, the military forces of the European Community are falling ever further behind the war-fighting capacity of the American forces. So much so that this internal disparity is creating a crisis for NATO. I mentioned before the instantaneous intelligence-and-communications capacities of the American forces, all of whom are equipped with a highly secret new cyber-system that allows them to stay in complete and instantaneous contact with one another. In the second Iraq war, NATO allies in the Coalition understandably wanted access to this system, but the Americans were unable to separate the parts of it they could freely share from the parts that involve secrets too valuable to permit sharing at this time.

On the front edge of the skills proper to warriors, the Americans are now very nearly alone. In more traditional peacekeeping and policing roles, by contrast, all NATO nations are used to working cooperatively and that work keeps increasing in range and numbers. NATO has many crucial assignments to its south (in the Balkans and in Africa) and east (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere).


Behind this separation in military capabilities, however, there also lie profound cultural and moral divides. It is true that all of us together, Europe and America, share many common “values,” as is often said, or as I prefer to say, “many common arguments.” We are part of one same civilization, with the same roots, roots quite different from those of other civilizations.

All of us on this one small blue-green planet spinning in the void, as we have come to see it in photos sent back from space, all of us share one common humanity. “Humanity,” however, is differentiated by time and space, and also by culture and civilization. Western civilization, and in particular the civilization of the North Atlantic, is one of the most dynamic of these civilizations, that have ever appeared on earth.

Civilization, Thomas Aquinas once wrote, is constituted by conversation; that is, by argument. Civilized people, treating each other as reasonable, argue with one another. Barbarians club one another, as if values are mere “preferences,” and reason has nothing to do with them. For barbarians, nothing matters but power.

Well, between the United States and Europe, real arguments have emerged with ever-greater strength during the past 15 years, especially after the threat from the Soviet Union was finally removed.

In centuries past, European reason was shaped by feudalism and the emphasis it placed on birth and class. European reason was also shaped by tribalism, collectivism and statism of various types. This was especially true in the twentieth-century, from communism through national socialism to socialism, and social democracy. By contrast, as Tocqueville remarked, America was marked from the beginning by a passion for equality, but equality understood in a non-European way: not a leveling, but an equal chance to compete; an acceptance of unequal outcomes, if fair, rather than envy of the successful. America was also marked by a revulsion against European forms of collectivism. Americans are more communitarian than individualistic. The Los Angeles Olympics, for example, were financed and staffed far more by private funds and associations than by government, federal or state, that is, by individual volunteers organizing themselves. In this sense, Americans are more likely than other peoples to pitch in and help in mutual projects large and small, to put up one another’s houses, to work together smoothly in associations, and to enjoy flawless teamwork. But it is also true that they prefer to stand on their own two feet as individuals, with fewer governmental benefits, rather than to endure European forms of collectivism, even the social democratic ones. I admit that the taste for government handouts is growing, even in America, abetted by the American left; but it is the large-scale resistance that in America is so striking, and almost unique. Europe has few equivalents to the Republican party. (Here candor compels the author to confess to being a lifelong registered Democrat, although in philosophy rather a whig and a liberal, as defined below, than a welfare statist.)

These days, then, NATO suffers from the growing divergence between America and Europe on such points as these. The European political class has been boasting for years that the European economic model — the social welfare state, the “humane capitalism” of the Rhine Valley, the social market economy — is morally far superior to American democratic capitalism, to which they rather refer (against all evidence) as “savage capitalism.” There is only one problem. European welfare states have already pledged such high benefits to future retirees and other beneficiaries that in the next fifteen years they will not be able to pay for them, on account of the demographic squeeze caused by lower birth rates.

Welfare states are predicated on three conditions that no longer apply: an average age at mortality of 65 (when Bismarck promised his generals a guaranteed pension after age 65, he knew that few would actually live longer than that); an ever larger proportion of young workers to the elderly, so that young workers could easily pay the pensions of the old ; and complete monetary and fiscal control by individual welfare states over their own territory. These days, none of these conditions are met in “Old Europe” (Germany, France, Belgium). The numbers of newborn have fallen to unprecedented lows, the average age of those over 65 advances steadily higher year by year, and both capital and labor are subject to international pressures beyond the control of the nation state. In these circumstances, the European welfare states are in an ever-worsening budgetary bind.

One consequence is that the national budgets of welfare states have no money for new military needs. Strapped down by shortages, NATO suffers. European elected leaders must starve the military, because their first priority is to keep feeding the clamoring clients of insatiable welfare states.

These reflections prompt us to examine on a deeper level the diverging paths of the American experiment and the European experiment.


As a general principle, competition between two divergent points of view is quite good. The motto of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, is that “The competition of ideas is essential to a free society.” To be confronted with a sharp competitor is a very great gift, for a gifted person faced with no competition has no way to test how deep his gift goes, or to push himself to his limits. A stiff competition is likely to make both competitors better than they would otherwise be. From experience with such lessons, Americans love competition. For them, competition is a moral term. Even in business, they regard competition as a form of checks and balances, not so much Darwinian — “dog eat dog” — as Madisonian (after James Madison, the Father of the American Constitution; see Federalist #10).

In a competition to understand more accurately the nature of political and economic reality, however, if one competitor is more in touch with reality, the loser is partly living on illusions. In that case, competition has fateful consequences. If the loser is not willing to change his ways, his predicament can only grow worse. If he accepts the competition as a valuable wake-up call to change, on the other hand, the competition was a great blessing. Faced with superior competition from the Japanese during 1970-1980, American business was shocked into dramatic self-reform and restructuring, which led to an immense wave of new technological breakthroughs in fiber optics, computers, the internet, cell phones, genetic medicines, telecommunications, satellites, etc.

Europeans are constantly preaching how much more moral they are than Americans, at least in terms of their economic model. The American model is “savage,” they say. Further, the fact that about half the states in the United States continue to exercise the death penalty is taken as a confirmation by European elites of their own higher level of humanity. The Europeans, they say, embrace the Kyoto Accords, while the Americans will not ratify them (the U.S. Senate rejected Kyoto by about 95-0, as I recall). In actual fact, of course, the Europeans sign the formal documents while actually doing little to meet the requirements, whereas the United States goes a long way to meeting the requirements, but refuses to sign a protocol that it knows will never be observed.

Not to be less than candid, Americans deeply hold that their own experiment in liberty is morally superior to the ways of the Old World. They have their own views about European perfidies. They think that today’s Europeans are shirkers, who do not work enough hours per day, or week, or year; take too many holidays off; and constantly want something for nothing. Traveling in Europe is frequently a disappointment to Americans, when some form of transport or other is rendered unusable by hostile and arrogant strikers, normally protecting some ancient privilege of their own, and utterly heedless of the common good. Europeans seem to Americans always to be defending their “rights” (i.e., privileges), in a fundamentally self-centered spirit, each protecting his own self-interest, while carrying signboards on which appear professionally painted slogans about high principle. To Americans, Europeans seem risk-averse, slow to experiment with the new, usually quicker with dozens of reasons why something cannot be done than with an obvious and open willingness to give a new idea a try. Europeans seem obsessed with the familiar, the comfortable, and the secure.

So much for cultural divergences on what constitutes moral superiority. There is not much point in shouting recriminations across the Atlantic. But it does seem necessary for an American in Europe, who hears so many negatives hurled at the United States on television and reads many others in the journals, to remind Europeans that Americans have their opinions about Europe, too. One should not, I think, encourage isolationism in America, nor in Europe. To maintain a strong alliance, it is not necessary to be blind to each other’s faults or to disguise our own pronounced preferences for our own ways. It is quite enough to have common interests and, on a deeper level, common roots and values — which are under quite hostile worldwide threat, as was shown on September 11. This threat is not aimed solely at America, but at “crusader” Europe, too.

— 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.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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