February 24, 2005

Conservative Europeans & Dynamic Americans

Everybody likes to have his personal opinions reinforced ... and I'm no different. This quote from Der Spiegel (a major German magazine) is something that everybody needs to both hear and understand before engaging in any long-term discussion of the relative conservatism of the US and Europe.

    Europeans today -- just like the Europeans of 1987 -- cannot imagine that the world might change. Maybe we don't want the world to change, because change can, of course, be dangerous. But in a country of immigrants like the United States, one actually pushes for change. In Mainz today, the stagnant Europeans came face to face with the dynamic Americans. We Europeans always want to have the world from yesterday, whereas the Americans strive for the world of tomorrow.
This is a very perceptive quote. It's funny that most people see the US' attachment to capitalism and our relative faith in religion and God as reasons we're more conservative. Neither is true. That's a shallow political analysis from those that are incapable of critically analyzing politics. Those who parrot the line that the US is the most conservative country in the world are no more intelligent than the thousands of semi-literate pre-teens shouting the exact same thing in chat rooms.

There was an editorial for the April 12th, 2003 Financial Times (a UK paper) that really hit at the distinction. I don't have the full version any longer, but I do have the highlights. I'll re-post it here. In case you didn't recognize the timing, this was a few days or weeks after the Saddam statue was dragged down and beaten by jubilant Iraqis.

    Americans, almost alone in the world, have a serious, unironic, uncynical, even simplistic belief that their country is a force for enduring good. They acknowledge it does not always get it right, that at times its antics fall far short of its highest ideals, but all but the most hardened cynics really believe in America as a force for freedom and prosperity and in the universality of these goals...

    For most of the rest of the world, this ingenuous faith in the nation's unyielding will and power to produce beneficial outcomes for everybody is almost non-existent. Europeans, especially, live in a post-religious, post-ideological, rationalist-pragmatist haze. Coming off a century that left millions of them dead at the hands of successively failed ideologies, and a succession of wars that almost everyone lost, they are understandably sceptical of politicians and pundits who claim their country is an effective force for good. They are more inclined to see the world as a complex struggle between morally equivalent interests...

    It is not hard to see why this self-belief evinces such cynicism around the world. The US record - supporting tyrants, even in places such as Iraq where it eventually topples them - is hardly unblemished. At times, America's commitment to liberty has looked a little selective.

    But you can hardly blame Americans as they contemplate once again a rapid victory by the force of their arms, followed by scenes of jubilation in a foreign land, for thinking that they sit on the right side of history. And you surely cannot help but marvel at the fact that they are almost alone in seeing themselves that way."
    - Gerard Baker 4/12
I don't really agree that Europeans are especially rational (in my experience, many are more willing than Americans to be irrational if it serves some self-interested motive) but I think the best part is that Europeans see the world as a complex struggle of morally equivalent elements.

They don't necessarily see the US, UK and USSR as having freed Europe in WWII, but simply another ghastly war fought by bad guys and worse guys. They don't see the US and UK as fighting terrorism and fascism in Iraq to supplant both with freedom and democracy, but simply one big country and one follower-country beating up a dark-skinned country.

They refuse to believe the idealistic answer, because after the apparent 'failure' of both pre-WWI idealism and pre-WWII cynicism they don't know what to do. World War I shattered their view of the world as being relatively civilized and safe. Freud, Nietzsche and other Romantics saw increasing popularity for their dark views of human nature. But then these ideas did nothing to prevent World War II, which was ten times worse than World War I. With both idealism and anti-idealism squashed, what were they to do? Sit around in a funk, apparently.

Europeans have trouble believing anything will work because they've seen so many things fail. The American response to horrible things like world war and Holocaust is reform. After both world wars, American presidents came up with grand ideas, themes and policies to not only avert war but actually build peace. Wilson's League would have been ratified by the Senate if he had only allowed a few important, reasonable changes to happen.

Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points is a dramatic contrast to the greedy, selfish, short-sighted actions of Georges Clemenceau, Vittorio Orlando and David Lloyd George. FDR's Atlantic Charter, though signed by Winston Churchill, was a striking contrast to the blatant imperialism of the Stalin-Churchill "percentages agreement." Even Harry Truman -known over here for his down-to-Earth, common-sense, Midwestern charms- was comparatively idealistic next to the European and Soviet tendencies for compromise and subversion.

Now, this is not something that all Americans have and that all foreigners lack - far from it. There are and have always been a great deal of intelligent, educated idealists coming out of Europe. The problem is that so many of them left for European colonies there aren't a great deal left back in Europe.

Australia and New Zealand, for example, are famous (infamous?) for their say-what-you-mean attitude. Australian politicians are often getting into trouble regarding Asia, human rights and sovereignty, because to almost all Asian leaders and politicians it is highly inappropriate and ghastly rude to call into question the behavior of other countries without burying it in subtler comments. The brash, loudspoken ex-British colonies down there don't like it when Asian countries behave undemocratically or un-freely, and they say as much. Asian leaders prefer a subtle interplay of words, actions, apologies and visual symbols to communicate (in some Asian cultures, the type of fruit served with tea can indicate friendship or hostility).

Anyway, the point is not "America good, foreigners bad" (though that may be true) but rather that this is something Americans have more of than others usually do. Many Europeans don't like a big powerful country talking about change, idealism and democracy. They want nuances, complicated relationships - and most of all they want to "go along to get along" in regard to the authoritarian countries of this world.

Well, no dice. They can either sign on board to try and fix things in the world or they can sit there like whining, aged men talking about the good old days when European kings and states colonized the world.

The world doesn't belong to imperialism anymore, and if our best intentions are any indication, idealism will be its heir.

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