A few years ago, as I waited for a plane in Phoenix airport, I fell into conversation with a woman from Tucson. She greeted my statement that I had just flown on a plane from Britain with a level of astonishment that would not have been out of place if I had said it was a spaceship from Pluto. ‘And what is the weather like there?’ she asked, wide-eyed with curiosity. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it’s pretty wet, but that’s what comes of living on an island at the edge of the ocean.’
‘Britain is an island!’ she exclaimed. ‘Hey, John,’ she shouted to her husband, ‘did you know the Brits all live on an island?’
Such encounters feed all our prejudices about America. They stand accused of being insular, unsophisticated and ignorant of the rest of the world. In many European eyes, these grave deficiencies make it all the more annoying that they have nevertheless become by far the richest and most powerful nation on our planet. To be seen as stupid invites contempt, and to be powerful produces respect, but to be known as both at the same time creates a particularly intense form of jealousy and resentment.
Such are the feelings of many on this side of the Atlantic towards America’s assertion of its power. Bush is more dangerous than Saddam, they chant. Americans have killed more people than the Iraqis. The US seeks world domination and an oil monopoly. If none of these things is true, then the Americans just don’t understand us in the rest of the world. And allied to the heated chants of demonstrators is the cold power-play of the Elysée Palace, freely confessed to by French ministers in private, determined to take the opportunity to scotch Anglo-American leadership in world affairs.
But what is the true nature of America? Is the US really more dangerous to world peace than a mass-murdering, genocidal dictator who has invaded his neighbours, used chemical weapons, stowed away hundreds of tons of anthrax and tortured tens of thousands to death? Is it now an imperialist nation?
I have been lucky enough to travel across most of the states of America. I have sat with old men on their porches in Tennessee, and ridden with young wranglers in Montana in the mountains of the Great Divide. As a politician, I have visited schools in New York, retirement homes in Florida and technology firms in San Diego. And I have to say that it would be hard to come across a nation of people less imperialist by culture, temperament and inclination. America was forged in the first place by the families of Protestant settlers who had a work ethic, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a hostility to governmental power and royal authority. They went to a new land in order to be away from wars, taxes and kings. Their attitudes, reinforced by the waves of dispossessed people who have joined them in succeeding centuries, remain the central characteristics of America today. Americans are still by nature disrespectful of authority, deeply democratic by instinct, very conscious of their freedom, and particularly happy to live in a vast and beautiful land which is free from external threats.
Such people are difficult to rouse to war. If Americans are insular — and many of them are — they cannot be imperialist at the same time. In British and French eyes, their sin over much of the last century has been isolationism: ‘too proud to fight’, as Woodrow Wilson said. Americans have always hated joining in other people’s conflicts. Only unrestricted submarine attacks off their west coast brought them into the first world war, and only a direct attack on American soil in Pearl Harbor brought them into the second, even Churchill’s brilliant eloquence having made little progress with them until then. Once roused, however, they have responded with a mixture of determination, loyalty and generosity that no other nation has ever matched. Without America, France would have lived in a dark age of dictatorship for decades. Without America, Germans could not have rescued themselves from a racist ideology. And without America, Europe’s only alternative to Nazi tyranny would have been communist tyranny. American troops left behind them an independent and democratic Japan, and brought Europe the Marshall Plan — both supreme acts of enlightenment in foreign policy. They share with Britain, but not with other European powers, the distinction of leaving democracy and freedom in their wake wherever they can.
That very freedom now gives millions the right to protest. South Koreans now resent the US troops without whom their society could not have survived. The French, it seems, have never got over the indignity of having to be rescued. And as the responsibilities of being a superpower in a Cold War required Americans to intervene in a wider range of conflicts, such resentment can be found anywhere on earth.
But now Americans are roused once again. They suffered on 11 September an attack on their own soil more devastating to human life than Pearl Harbor itself. Europeans sympathised, but they did so in the manner of sympathising with a friend who has suffered a bereavement. Americans actually experienced the bereavement. Pre-emptive warfare is their response, and if it had been Canary Wharf or the Eiffel Tower that had been reduced to dust, such a policy would be cheered to the echo. Those Europeans, including British people, who attack American policy have not seen thousands of their own citizens killed before their eyes in a single act. And they are not prepared to do anything about it themselves.
This surely is the crucial point. Americans are not warlike people, but they will now go after rogue states and terrorists because, if they don’t, no one else will. All over the world, America takes on responsibilities because others shirk them. They got involved in Kosovo because Europeans had neither the means nor the ability to sort it out. They pursue a ‘one-sided’ policy on Israel because without it the Jews would be driven into the sea. They need a huge increase in military spending partly because France, Germany and others are not prepared to spend a penny more themselves.
What the present crisis underlines is that Western Europe is losing its influence. In the coming decades, the greatest growth of manufacturing will be in China, the fastest growth of population in the Middle East and India, and the strongest enterprise culture and greatest military power will remain in America. The sound we can hear from Paris and Berlin is not the march of ever closer union, but the rage of ever closer impotence. Once again, when the world gets dangerous, it is the Americans, British and Australians who respond. The vacuum left by others leaves us no choice. And if America leads us yet again in destroying another murdering despot, I will join the woman in Tucson who has no knowledge of where I live, in saying, ‘God Bless America.’