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Drifting Apart By: Robert J. Samuelson
Newsweek | Monday, May 17, 2004


This ought to be a moment of great triumph for Europe and America together. Instead there is mutual disenchantment. On May 1 the European Union accepted 10 countries—most of them remnants of the Soviet empire—into membership. The EU is now a massive free-trade area and loose political union with 25 countries, 455 million people and an $11.6 trillion economy. After World War II, farsighted Europeans and Americans promoted European unification to end a history of ruinous continental wars. The vision has succeeded spectacularly, and yet there's no common celebration.

You can see this in coverage of the "enlargement" (the new members are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta). The U.S. media paid scant attention; it was no big deal. In Europe it was a gargantuan deal. But the self-congratulation virtually ignored the huge American role in European unification: in encouraging it after World War II; in providing a defense shield against Soviet invasion and intimidation, permitting the EU to grow; and in maintaining the military and economic pressure that led to the Soviet Union's ultimate collapse.

This was my first European visit in several years. I knew, of course, that widespread opposition to the war in Iraq had darkened opinion toward America. In a March poll, the Pew Research Center found that only 38 percent of Germans and 37 percent of the French had "favorable" views of the United States. In mid-2002, the comparable figures were 61 percent and 63 percent. Still, I was not prepared for the depth of feeling. "Even my parents, who are part of the World War II generation and always supported the United States, think Bush is a war criminal," a 48-year-old German, a midlevel EU official, told me. War criminal?

It's not just that many Europeans oppose Bush's Iraq policies. They mistake the motives—and that's scarier. The implication is not simply that the United States made an error. It's that something about Bush or America (it's not clear which) represents a permanent menace. One view is that Bush went into Iraq for oil. About 60 percent of the French and Germans believe that, says Pew. Another view is that U.S. foreign policy has fallen hostage to Bush's religious fervor. Militarism becomes a heavenly mission.

"We've been much more used to a distinction between the state and God," says John Palmer of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank. It's "deeply worrying ... for the major superpower to be deriving its strategy from fundamentalism." By labeling these views distorted, I don't mean that Bush is bound to prove his critics—at home and abroad—wrong. The outcome in Iraq is unknown; the administration may fail. What I do mean is that prevailing European readings of Bush represent dangerous misunderstandings.

His motives were upfront: finding weapons of mass destruction, fighting terrorism, ending tyranny—and not oil. Although Bush advertises his religious faith, his good-guys-and-bad-guys rhetoric remains firmly in the moralistic tradition of U.S. foreign policy. Enemies (the Nazis, the Japanese, the commies, Al Qaeda) represent evil. Wars become moral crusades—to save the world for democracy, to establish universal peace. Missionary zeal is routine. Indeed, it buttressed the post-World War II U.S. enthusiasm for European unity.

Bush, it's said, created this rift—and can end it by embracing cooperation or (involuntarily) retiring. There's something to this. Love him or hate him, Bush has a knack for offending critics. But the roots of disagreement, I suspect, go much deeper.

In his book "Of Paradise and Power," Robert Kagan argued that Americans and Europeans have divergent views of military power. Americans believe that only raw power can defeat evil, he wrote. Having controlled historical hatreds through the EU, Europeans prefer negotiation and compromise.

Not surprisingly, Europeans and Americans see September 11, 2001, differently. "Americans felt this was the beginning of a war," says Roland Koch, a leading German politician. "This is not the feeling of Europeans." The terrorist threat is seen as "more or less far away." In the Pew poll, 57 percent of the French and 49 percent of Germans said Americans overreacted to terrorism. Even the Madrid bombing didn't much change opinion, Koch says.

Opposition to the United States also distracts from Europe's own problems. There's a growing collision between generous welfare benefits and poor economic growth. From 1996 to 2003, economic growth averaged 1.3 percent annually in Germany, 1.5 percent in Italy and 2.2 percent in France (the U.S. rate: 3.3 percent). Many EU countries have taxes between 40 percent and 50 percent of national income. Aging populations intensify upward pressures on benefits. From 2000 to 2020, the over-65 population in the 15 countries of the "old" EU is projected to rise 38 percent, while the number of people between 25 and 49 falls 14 percent. These economic tensions even affected the "enlargement" process. The 10 countries received membership on grudging terms: economic aid and farm subsidies were limited; immigration rights were curtailed.

The truth is that Europe is too weak to lead and too proud to follow. It doesn't want to undertake costly new commitments. It's already got more than it can handle. In some ways, George Bush is a political godsend. His style and language offend so many Europeans—he seems simplistic, trigger-happy, uneducated—that opposition to him camouflages more basic conflicts. I've been repeatedly reminded here that Europe and America share too much (common cultures, political systems and economic interests) to drift apart. Maybe. But we're still drifting.




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