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Explaining American Europe-Bashing

Simon Tisdall has a thumb-sucker at Foreign Policy on the strain of 'ignorant, narcissistic' Europe-bashing that prevails on the American right. Highlights:

Beside himself with indignation [at a recent speech by Obama], columnist and pundit Charles Krauthammer led the charge on Fox News:

"Obama says, 'In America there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world.' Well, maybe that's because when there was a civil war on Europe's doorstep in the Balkans, and genocide, it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because when there was an invasion of Kuwait it didn't lift a finger until America led. Maybe it's because with America spending over half a trillion a year, keeping open the sea lanes in defending the world, Europe is spending pennies on defense. It's hard to appreciate an entity's leading role in the world when it's been sucking on your tit for 60 years."

Many Americans shared his fury. But in his eagerness to condemn Obama's European "apology tour" (as former Bush advisor Karl Rove later dubbed it), the spluttering Krauthammer inadvertently revealed that he suffered from the very problem Obama was trying to address. After all, it is one thing to disagree with a president and his policy. It is quite another to be so bitterly and scathingly contemptuous of an entire continent and its people, especially one that, for better or worse, is a historical ally and a close political, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic relation.

Uncertain whether to laugh or cry, Europeans ask: Is this sort of thing to be taken seriously? What is going on?


Seen from Europe, of which Britain is (arguably) a part, the roots of American anti-Europeanism appear many and varied. At one end of the spectrum, there is the widely shared view that Europe does not pull its weight in a world that Washington would like to order according to its lights. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the unpalatable fact of widespread American ignorance, exacerbated by indifference, of all things European.


Fear, envy, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, cultural inferiority-superiority complexes, trade, political and military rivalries, and America's quest for identity all fed anti-European feeling as the new country sought to differentiate itself from the old countries whence most of its people came. Many of these phenomena remain relevant today.

"Expressing one's anti-European sentiment can be a way of building up and displaying one's American identity and patriotism," said Patrick Chamorel in a European University Institute study published in Italy in 2004. "Anti-Europeanism has always been part of American exceptionalism, which defined itself in contrast to European history, politics, and society."


It would be easy for Europeans to shrug off America's Europhobic generalizations and mischaracterizations if they were exclusive to would-be-intellectual neoconservatives, Bible Belt evangelists, and provincial Midwest xenophobes. But ever since the European Union dropped the ball in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, a potent mix of influential American thinkers, policymakers, and commentators have given anti-Europeanism a new respectability that cannot be dismissed out of hand. On the major issues that preoccupy Americans -- defense, security, terrorism, intervention, free trade, sovereignty, and nationalism -- the argument that Europe has lost its way has gained in influence. And as a debt-laden European Union stares at the fiscal abyss, one can almost feel the schadenfreude emanating from across the pond.

There's something to Tisdall's argument, but I think he misses one root cause of this anti-Europeanism. What needs explaining is why there is so much bile and contempt in the Europe-bashing of many conservatives. After all, the mere fact that Europe may not be 'pulling its weight' (however that may defined) doesn't really justify the snotty, mocking tone of much anti-Europe commentary. After all, you'd usually reserve such rhetorical fireworks for a country that actually posed a threat to you. And Europe hardly 'threatens' America in any sense worth taking seriously.

Except one. Europe has more extensive social-welfare benefits than the U.S., guaranteed universal healthcare, and all the other familiar goodies. And providing them hasn't bankrupted European countries. Even after the wave of belt-tightening currently underway across the Continent, European social welfare policies will still be more generous than their American counterparts. These policies stand as a constant reminder that the choices that shape the American economy and workplace are just that -- choices. Other countries have made different choices about how to allocate social resources, and it is thus always possible for the United States to do the same. 

In boom times, Americans rarely concern themselves with the possibility of a more generous social welfare system. But with American unemployment hovering well over the catastrophic level of 9 percent and long-term unemploymen growing rapidly, a more generous welfare system -- along with the kind of counter-cyclical job benefits that helped European countries weather the economic crisis without a dramatic spike in unemployment -- might look more and more tempting. Conservatives tirelessly warn that 'socialism' kills the goose that lays the golden egg of growth, but millions of Americans have looked around recently and asked, what golden egg? Even when productivity increases, real wages don't:



And, thought Tisdall mentions several instances of American provincialism in his piece, there's still some awareness among Americans that Europe does things differently, and a vague idea what it does differently. Witness Newsweek's recent cover story arguing that 'We're All Socialists Now', or any of Michael Moore's films. And, as Anne Applebaum recently pointed out, the notion that ordinary Americans are all rugged anti-government individualists is also largely bogus -- Americans are quite fond of government programs -- so long as the benefits flow primarily to people like them. (Which also explains the obsessive American suspicion of foreign aid):

If you don't live in [America] all of the time, and I don't, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans -- with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs -- demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don't simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

If your core message is 'we don't want to end up like Europe', you need to carry the argument further and explain why that would be a bad thing. Conservatives, thus, will always need to portray Europe as 'other', and a rather unimpressive other at that: weak, vacillating, directionless, declining, and increasingly irrelevant.

Needless to say, European politicians delivers regular examples of fecklnessness, which helps U.S. critics no end...