Continental Drift

Continental Drift

To an American, Europe is a cautionary tale.


To an American, Europe is a cautionary tale. From Jefferson’s warning that when we “get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall be as corrupt as Europe” to Madison’s explanation that separation of church and state was the only way to avoid “the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries,” the Founding Fathers used the Continent to signify everything our new nation was not. A century later the Gilded Age’s yearning for cultural validation complicated matters, requiring a Henry James or an Edith Wharton to do justice to the shifting balance of social insecurity, moral superiority, confidence and naïveté. But even the most starry-eyed grand tourist knew they were traveling backwards in time. Well into the last century, Europe was the “old world,” a fading catalogue of postcard views and primitive plumbing where Americans came to lose their innocence.

This was still true in 1977, when I first lived in Europe as a student. Parisian literary theory may have been avant-garde, but French public phones seldom functioned (and still required a jeton, a slotted token), hot showers were a luxury and the future, from architecture to music to technology, was Made in the USA. Italy and Spain seemed even more backward–vast gorgeous museums where you could look at art, eat and drink incomparably well and admire the past, but where the train stations were tiny islands of modernity. The Italian lira was in perpetual free fall–a Roman friend told me the chewing gum and candy I was usually given in lieu of small change was worth more than the coins–and Spain was just emerging from Franco’s suffocating embrace. When I arrived in Madrid the Communist Party was still illegal; back in Paris the newly elected mayor was a right-wing Gaullist named Jacques Chirac. France’s president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was also a conservative, as were the leaders of Italy and Germany–West Germany, that is. In England, where I came to study a few years later, all the Americans at my college were put in the same building–the only one with central heat. None of my student friends had cars or telephones, and the pay phones were even worse than in France. Public anger over the lack of heat–and electricity–for days at a time during a coal strike helped bring down Britain’s Labour government and usher in Thatcherism, a genuine European innovation, if not a welcome one.

When did Europe’s olde curiosity shoppe turn cutting edge? For Timothy Garton Ash the seminal event was the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989. A British journalist who reported extensively on the rise of Solidarity and the collapse of the Soviet empire, Garton Ash has come a long way since the early 1980s, when he found the German Green Party’s pacifism far more alarming than anything Ronald Reagan was up to. Garton Ash’s unmitigated delight at the demise of “actually existing socialism” may be hard for some Nation readers to take, but his perception that the end of the cold war severed many of the ties that bound Europe so firmly to America is surely correct. (Longtime Nation readers may recall that E.P. Thompson predicted precisely such a drifting apart once European politics were allowed to thaw.)

Culturally the traffic across the Atlantic has been two-way for rather longer. Even in 1977, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou announced an architecture firmly rooted in European soil, one that no longer took America’s post-World War II dominance for granted. Punk rock in Britain shared little more than a name with its American cousin; Barcelona reinvented its Ramblas without even a glance at Broadway. But as long as Soviet tanks faced west, Europe was obliged to huddle together under Uncle Sam’s nuclear umbrella.

Europe today is an economic power, the largest internal market in history, whose Benetton-clad, Prada-shod citizens scarf Alpen Bars on the way to work, fill up their German, French and Italian cars with BP, Shell and Elf, read books published by Pearson/Penguin and Bertelsmann, and chat endlessly on Finnish-made Nokia phones over the British-owned Vodafone network. As do increasing numbers of Americans, mostly without noticing it. Such icons of everyday American life as Dunkin’ Donuts, Bazooka gum, Dr Pepper, Brooks Brothers, Jiffy Lube and Household Finance are also now European owned. As are Jeeps (made by Germany’s DaimlerChrysler) and even Baby Ruth bars! When my family and I moved from Brooklyn to London ten years ago, the standard of living was at least as high as in the United States–and that was just in Britain. On the Continent the trains not only ran on time but were faster, more frequent and far better appointed than anything on Amtrak’s rails. Today, even in poorer countries like Greece and the Czech Republic, cell phones are ubiquitous, childcare is state-subsidized and supermarket and bookstore shelves alike are near occasions of sin. Fly from JFK to Milan, or Baltimore to Bilbao, and you are in little doubt which way the money goes.

Politically, though, Europe remained underdeveloped. Sheer complexity, an inevitable consequence of the six-member European Economic Community becoming first a twelve-member European Community and then a twenty-five-member European Union, was partly to blame. Garton Ash looks at Europe’s cumbersome governmental structure and superfluous sovereignties and sees a “postmodern Commonwealth.” As a native-born Virginian, I know a confederacy when I see one. Still, so long as Europeans were content to follow America’s lead, nobody minded much. Henry Kissinger might complain, “If I want to pick up the phone and talk to Europe, whom do I call?” Bill Clinton might rail against European paralysis over Bosnia or resent EU fecklessness in Kosovo, but when America did decide to act, Europe was–for the most part–happy to follow. We did the cooking (bombing, bullying, coalition-building); they did the washing up (peacekeeping, nation-building, war crimes trials). It was a division of labor that functioned, or seemed to, until Iraq.

What made Iraq different was George W. Bush’s evident disdain for the scutwork of multilateral diplomacy. What also set Iraq apart was the German and French refusal to fall in line. Differences with the French were déjà vu, but Germany? A country Americans had remade in our own image, and where there were still more than 70,000 American soldiers? Was this the end of the Atlantic alliance? Could this marriage be saved? From the Carnegie Endowment to Chatham House, an agreeable sense of crisis spread across the land.

First to weigh in was Robert Kagan, who in his 2003 polemic Of Paradise and Power declared, “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” Americans, said Kagan, “are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” Faced with military might, Europeans come over all girly not because they are more virtuous, Kagan explained, but because they are weak. Europeans fetishize the United Nations Security Council as “a substitute for the power they lack.” How influential was Kagan? “Of Paradise and Power ranks with Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History and Sam Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations,” Raymond Seitz, former US Ambassador to Great Britain, wrote in the London Times. He meant it as a compliment.

Kagan’s thesis that Europe, though in terminal decline, was still worth a little buttering up has spawned its own cottage industry. The Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, which first published Kagan’s essay in abbreviated form, has just issued an entire volume of responses, Beyond Paradise and Power, edited by Tod Lindberg, the journal’s editor. The spectrum of views is somewhat restricted, ranging from triumphalist to mildly skeptical of American power, but some interesting divisions do emerge. Walter Russell Mead, propagandist-in-chief for the “resistance is futile” school, argues that Europe’s “cultural preference for a strong state” puts the Continent at a permanent disadvantage. “Although Americans have never consciously embraced Marx’s philosophy,” he writes, displaying a hitherto unsuspected talent for understatement, “they have come very close to embracing Marx’s vision of capitalism as an irresistible, world-conquering force.”

Since America is destined to supersize its way to world supremacy, why bother with “old” Europe? “What will matter to the United States, in the foreseeable future, are allies who can help provide bases, flyover rights, peacekeeping troops, and possibly the odd specialized chemical weapons or special operations troops, not to mention moral, political, and intelligence support. These are things the Poles, Spaniards, and Italians can do as well as the Belgians, Luxemburgers, or even the Germans,” writes Anne Applebaum, magnanimously pardoning Spain for joining the coalition of the unwilling.

Lindberg’s Europeans are not so convinced of their own insignificance. Gilles Andréani of the French Foreign Ministry argues that a successful dominant power never relies on force alone. Instead it “tries to shape the international order, to influence international norms, and to surround its own dominance with legitimacy.” The alternative, though Andréani is perhaps too polite to say so, is unfettered imperial paranoia. Wolfgang Ischinger, German Ambassador to the United States, makes a similar point by distinguishing a hegemonic power, which both sustains and is bound by the rules of an international order, from an imperial superpower, which “only plays by the rules when it suits its interests.”And Kalypso Nicolaidis, a Franco-Hellenic contributor, dares to pose a question that, in this context, seems truly heretical: “What if Europe’s story of peace building had more relevance to the rest of the world than the U.S. story of liberal imperialism? What if not to be the superpower–or even a superpower–was itself the key to Europe’s international influence?”

Did such a thought ever occur to Tony Blair? “We are building a new world superpower,” Blair told Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid. “The European Union is about the projection of collective power, wealth, and influence. That collective strength makes individual nations more powerful–and it will make the EU as a whole a global power.” Of course, that was back in the days when Blair promised to put Britain “at the heart of Europe,” before he decided it was more prudent to attach himself to a different portion of George W. Bush’s anatomy. The Accidental American, James Naughtie’s well-informed account of the Bush-Blair courtship, makes it clear that it was not 9/11 but Blair’s own craving for power that drove him into Washington’s arms. Having ruthlessly discarded the Labour Party’s socialist principles as an obstacle to electoral success, Blair came to office as a French-speaking, Chianti-drinking Euro-modernizer. Unlike most well-off Britons of his generation, the Prime Minister had never even visited the United States, but in Bill Clinton’s mercurial triangulations Blair recognized a fellow operator. What really hooked Blair on the perks of the “special relationship,” though, was the campaign against Serbia’s Milosevic. Clinton’s willingness to back British rhetoric with American air power proved intoxicating. By the time Bush replaced Clinton, Blair’s habit was out of control.

Naughtie suggests that Afghanistan was already in Blair’s sights in February 2001, when Britain’s Foreign Office was asked to report on “the Taliban regime, the extent of its violations of human rights, the scale of the heroin traffic that originated in Afghan poppy fields and led to the streets of British cities, and the threat from al Qaeda.” According to Naughtie, “Blair even raised the prospect with Bush that they would find themselves at war in Afghanistan” in a conversation in the spring of 2001–months before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Even more disturbing–and equally unremarked in the US press–is the revelation that American spying on UN Security Council delegates during the run-up to the war in Iraq was actually aimed at preventing a deal on a second resolution. In Naughtie’s account Blair and Bush were equally committed to war. Blair just wanted a little more time. Bush, his eye firmly on the electoral calendar, said no. Bush got his war and, eventually, his electoral victory. Thanks to the feeble nature of the opposition, Blair is also likely to be returned to power later this year. Politically, however, Blair is a spent force, a gangrenous limb rotting away on the body politic, whose latest desperate distraction from the Iraq debacle–a bill in the name of the “war on terror” to legalize imprisonment without trial and impose South African-style banning orders–slid through the House of Commons, leaving it to the House of Lords, the archaic chamber Labour once promised to abolish, to defend British liberties. On March 11, a revised version passed the Lords as well, breaking a promise to British “freemen” that had stood since the Magna Carta.

With a new ice age gripping Britain and the United States, some see fairer skies over mainland Europe. Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream is a veritable celebration of “community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil”–you get the idea. This is a truly dreadful book, which is too bad, since Rifkin’s heart obviously beats on the left side of his chest. Badly written to the point of self-parody–“We became existential nomads, wandering through a boundaryless world full of inchoate longings in a desperate search for something to be attached to and believe in”–it is also very uninformed.

To Rifkin, his own country is a coercive melting pot; “the European Dream, by contrast, is based on preserving one’s cultural identity and living in a multicultural world.” Try telling that to a Muslim schoolgirl or an Orthodox Jewish teacher in France, forced to uncover their heads. Rifkin’s Eurotopia of prosperous farmers, protected workers and environmental enlightenment might reflect his own social circle: “Almost everyone I know in Europe among the professional and business classes has some small second home in the country somewhere–a dacha usually belonging to the family for generations. While working people may not be as fortunate, on any given weekend they can be seen exiting the cities en masse.” But it doesn’t give him much of a handle on the destruction of local agricultural markets in Portugal or Greece, the exploitation of migrant labor in Spain, urban squalor in Scotland or the scale of environmental devastation in Poland and eastern Germany.

Rifkin’s European Übermenschen are kind, gentle and terribly concerned about the Third World. Europe’s $8 donation for each sub-Saharan African does look generous compared with American stinginess–less so in light of the $913 a head Europeans spend subsidizing their cows. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder may be heroes of the antiwar movement, but part of the price of solidarity was German backing for French efforts to block reform of the Common Agricultural Policy–a system of subsidies paid mostly to wealthy West European farmers who then dump cheap food on Third World markets, driving out local producers. Germany also dropped many of its objections to a draft European Constitution whose author, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is better known for accepting diamonds from a cruel Central African dictator than for progressive zeal. (Giscard’s most recent claim on public attention was his pronouncement in Le Monde that if Turkey were allowed to join the EU, “in my opinion, it would be the end of Europe.”)

If Europeans haven’t quite built the cooperative commonwealth, what have they built? The EU, writes T.R. Reid, betraying just a hint of patriotic anxiety, already has “a president, a parliament, a constitution, a cabinet, a central bank, a bill of rights, a unified patent office, and a court system with the power to overrule the highest courts of every member nation. It has a 60,000 member army (or ‘European Rapid Reaction Force’ to be precise) that is independent of NATO or any other outside control. It has its own space agency with 200 satellites in orbit and a project under way to send a European to Mars before Americans get there.”

As befits a reporter for the Washington Post, Reid follows the money. Mario Monti is hardly a household name even in London, but as the EU Director General for Competition he scuttled American management idol Jack Welch’s biggest deal, a merger between GE (based in Connecticut) and Honeywell (headquarters in New Jersey). Last year Monti slapped Microsoft with a $600 million fine and ordered the firm to rewrite the Windows operating system. Far from the hidebound dirigiste cripple conjured by Mead or Kagan, Reid’s “United States of Europe” is an economic superpower fully capable of challenging the USA. Indeed, the euro has already put the dollar in the shade. Reid, who headed Post bureaus in Tokyo and London, really earns his trench coat with his account of the European currency’s unexpected triumph (Kissinger was famously dubious; George Will flatly predicted “it will not work”).

Europe’s other enormous achievement is a half-century of peace on what was once the killing floor of the West. Much of the credit may well be due to the cold war, and a lot of the rest to American aid and protection. Still, the growth of what the Germans call Zivilmacht–harder than Harvard professor Joseph Nye’s “soft power,” a muscular sense of civil society as a force in world affairs–is one fruit of Europe’s long peace. The European social model is the other. Here again it is important to be clear on what that model is not–in a word, socialism. But the breadth of the European consensus, and a sense of how wide the Atlantic has become on these matters, can be seen when Reid quotes the leader of Norway’s conservative Christian Democrats: “We have decided that raising a child is real work. And that this work provides value for the whole society. And that the society as a whole should pay for this valuable service. Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values.” And Norway isn’t even in the EU!

As Timothy Garton Ash points out, the United States actually spends more public money on Medicaid coverage for 40 million poor Americans than the National Health Service does looking after all 60 million Britons. Free World, his optimistic paean to the “surprising future of the West,” is extremely kind to the United States; he even takes seriously a senior Administration official’s description of the Bush doctrine as “merg[ing] Wilsonianism with power.” But Iraq was too much of a stretch even for a man who spends part of the year as a fellow of the Hoover Institution. Readers whose formative political experiences were in the antiapartheid or disinvestment fights, or in Central American solidarity work, will find much to argue with in Garton Ash’s passionate belief that “the West” and freedom are synonymous. Many of us would join David Calleo in wondering, “[Was] the collapse of the Soviet Union, in itself, a vindication of capitalism?”

Yet for those of us on his left, Garton Ash is not just an honorable opponent–he’s also worth learning from. His account of how European integration shaped the Continent–“the politics of induction”–is particularly elegant: “First, there’s magnetic induction. The magnetic attractions of West European freedom and prosperity induced in Spaniards, Poles, Czechs and Portuguese a desire to emulate and come closer to them. Then there’s formal induction into membership of the club. Because Europeans not in the club have been so strongly attracted to joining it, they have been prepared to accept its intrusive demands as they strive for membership. Those demands…[extend from] free elections, the rule of law and free markets to respect for individual and minority rights.” Turkey’s newly professed tolerance for political and cultural minorities–though far from perfect–is just the most recent example of what the carrot of European entry can achieve.

Zivilmacht, the politics of induction, or what Tzvetan Todorov in The New World Disorder calls “tranquil power,” will not always be sufficient. “After all,” Todorov admits, “the European Union became possible only through a military victory, that of the allies over Nazi Germany.” When it does work, peaceful change takes longer. “And yet, from the democratic point of view, when the same end can be reached by two means–rapidly by violence or slowly without it–slowness is preferable. It is better to disarm Iraq in four months without killing anyone than to disarm it in four weeks while killing thousands of people.” A Bulgarian-born French intellectual who began as a literary critic and has lately become the most interesting moral thinker on the Continent, Todorov rejects the alibi of “humanitarian war” so often invoked by imperialism’s liberal apologists: “The law of the excluded middle doesn’t rule in the political domain, and non-military action remains possible; democracies are not really obliged to choose between Munich (cowardly capitulation) and Dresden (murderous bombing).”

This refusal of forced choices is, I would argue, the real source of Europe’s radical promise. Increasingly Americans are told we must choose: Social Security or economic prosperity, job growth or workers’ rights, Homeland Security or civil liberties. The right in America is well aware of the threat. Listen to Walter Russell Mead trying to console himself: “given Europe’s low birth rates, the rise of an alienated, mostly Muslim, disaffected population seems inevitable.” Notice the caricature, on Fox and talk-radio, of a continent of anti-Semitic cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Or the use of “European” as an epithet in the presidential election. And notice, too, how attentive the Hoover Institution has suddenly become to Western Europe. Likewise the American Enterprise Institute, which launched a New Atlantic Initiative, chaired by Radek Sikorski (married to Anne Applebaum), and whose patrons include José María Aznar, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Havel.

Militarily weak, institutionally clumsy and with its own internal contradictions–over immigration, religious diversity and how best to respond to the pressure of multinational corporations–Europe offers not a paradise, or even a dream, but a thriving alternative to the American Way. Neoliberals who cast labor unions as enemies of prosperity have to explain why jobs have grown faster in Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands–all countries where workers enjoy the full European menu of workers’ rights–than in the United States. The recent Supreme Court decision halting capital punishment for minors was an acknowledgment of the force of European example, as was Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Lawrence v. Texas. In support of his argument to overturn the Texas sodomy law, Kennedy cited a European court decision upholding “the rights of homosexual adults to engage in intimate, consensual conduct.”

Exhortation and example are not the EU’s only leverage. When President Eisenhower wanted the British to withdraw from Suez, he threatened to sell US holdings in sterling and set off a run on the pound. Javad Yarjani, the Iranian head of OPEC’s market analysis department, has already suggested that oil should be priced in euros instead of dollars, since Europe imports far more oil than America–a shift that would drive the dollar even lower, forcing US interest rates (and the cost of living) upward.

“The ‘problem’ of America is not that it is uniquely evil or violent or corrupt, but that it is dominant. The only real question is whether anyone in the world can yet be saved from its influence.” In 1968, when Andrew Kopkind wrote those words, the American empire was going through a troubled adolescence. Much has changed since then, not least the necessary acknowledgement by progressives that many of the empire’s opponents do not share our values or our goals. Given the global reach of American influence, perhaps the fundamental question also needs to be re-phrased: Can America be contained? Less a call to the barricades than a recognition that in the world we’re in, the struggle to contain America is tranquil power’s greatest challenge. In this fight, we are all Europeans now.

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