Comment April 2002

The Case Against Europe

The very things that Europeans think make their political judgment better than Americans' actually make it worse
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The United States is too unilateralist, too religious, too warlike, too laissez-faire, too fond of guns and the death penalty, and too addicted to simple solutions for complex problems. So goes the European indictment of American society, and much of the U.S. foreign-policy elite accepts it at something close to face value. But populist nationalists—Jacksonian Americans, that is—don't.

The twentieth century taught Europeans and Americans different lessons. Europe learned that nationalism could lead to destruction; Americans learned that nationalism could bring safety and prosperity. Europe learned that bureaucratic welfare states and powerful trade unions were the only alternatives to bitter class warfare; Americans learned that government and unions were, at best, necessary evils. Europe learned that Christianity was an exhausted religion that could play no serious part in the contemporary world; Americans learned that personal religious faith was more necessary than ever.

One result is that the United States today is a much more traditional society than Europe. Especially in the "red" states, most of us still believe in God, the family, the flag, and the death penalty. Jacksonians neither trust nor take seriously anybody who doesn't believe in these things. Europeans think that anybody who believes all that crap is too stupid to make good decisions.

Jacksonians don't think about Europe much, except as a vacation destination. Our universities have increasingly moved away from teaching young Americans about European culture and, especially, history; Americans can go for weeks, months, and even years without feeling that European culture, military power, or economic developments have any impact at all on their lives. Europeans think about America all the time. American culture and military power are constant facts of life for them.

When Jacksonian America does think about Europe, it sees what Sheriff Andy of Mayberry saw in Barney Fife—a scrawny, neurotic deputy whose good heart was overshadowed by bad judgment and vanity. The slow-talking, solid Andy tolerated Barney just fine, but he knew that Barney's self-importance would get him into one humiliating scrape after another.

Europe hopes for a world role more or less equal to that of the United States. Jacksonians roll their eyes. Jacksonians think that Europe—with a declining and aging population and an economy likely to grow more slowly than most of the economies of the developing world, to say nothing of the United States'—is likely to continue to lose influence.

Europe's military thinking seems particularly unrealistic. Burdened with colossal welfare costs and pension problems that far outstrip anything the United States faces, European countries can't and won't make the investments needed to develop a significant military presence in the foreseeable future. Even if they spent the money, the major European countries—except possibly Britain—are not very warlike. Europeans think of themselves as mature and evolved. Jacksonians think of them as yellow.

Barney Fife was always looking for new jobs for himself around the station house—new roles, as European politicians would say. European hopes revolve around somehow getting to play global Mom to America's global Dad—getting to be the moderate, kindly half of the global-power couple. When Dad sends Iran to its room without any supper, Mom wants to sneak upstairs with milk and cookies. For this she expects both Dad and Iran to thank her.

Jacksonians think this approach won't get Europe very far. America and the Third World don't need an intermediary. Developing countries want to talk to the people who make the decisions.

Moreover, Jacksonians (and not only Jacksonians) think that for Europeans to believe they have a more sophisticated knowledge of the Third World than Americans do is as silly as Barney's thinking he would make a better sheriff than Andy. Europe's vaunted "experience" in the Third World generally has roots in the old colonial empires. When the Europeans pulled out, they left huge messes and deep hatreds behind them: India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Tutsi and Hutu. In business, academics, politics, and military matters U.S. links with the developing world today generally match anything Europe can offer.

Americans just don't trust Europe's political judgment. Appeasement is its second nature. Europeans have never met a ruler—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein—they didn't think could be softened up by concessions. Europeans tell Americans that in response to September 11 they should deal with the "root causes" of Muslim anger. Jacksonians see this as a call to pay Danegeld—to let the world know that if some people don't like our foreign policy, all they have to do is kill a few thousand American civilians and we will try harder to please them. Europeans think this is statesmanship. Jacksonians think it's pathetic.

Barney thinks Andy doesn't pay him enough attention. That's going to get worse. The twenty-first century will see the United States paying less and less attention to Europe as compared with other parts of the world. Because Europe is relatively stable politically and economically, it matters less to the United States than other, more volatile regions. We have more to hope for and to fear from, say, China and Mexico than Europe.

In a rational world this would not create resentment in Europe. Unfortunately, Europe's seemingly inbred, unshakable faith in its superiority reminds Americans of Wile E. Coyote, in the Road Runner cartoons. The coyote is convinced that he is smarter than Road Runner. He builds one intricate Road Runner catcher after another—machines that Road Runner is incapable of understanding, much less of duplicating. True, the coyote never quite catches Road Runner; but this has no impact whatsoever on the coyote's self-esteem. "Wile E. Coyote, Genius," says the mailbox outside his home. To which Jacksonian America says, "Beep Beep!"

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