Much has been made of “American unilateralism” of late, particularly regarding the war in Iraq. We all know the war is not literally unilateral, although we also all know that the U.S. has called the shots, provided the vast majority of manpower and funding, and suffered a similar majority of coalition casualties.
But is there really a Great Rift with Europe? France, Germany and Russia know in their heart of hearts that a substantial reason why they opposed the war so vehemently is their own venal, and at least partially illegal, entanglements with the Saddam regime. But we can understand if not condone this because ALL countries, including if not especially the U.S., look out for their own economic interests first.
I do not believe our rift with Europe is particularly serious or insurmountable: we share too much and are too intertwined to go our separate ways, and there is too much at stake at this critical juncture in history. And although the U.S. truly IS the great melting pot with citizens and long-term visitors from every region and nation on earth, demographically we still ARE Europe more than anything else.
However, the perception of a rift can very easily harden into a true rift if we and the Europeans do not make concerted efforts — despite political pressures against such coziness on both sides of the Atlantic — to publicly focus on commonalities and areas of cooperation and not just carry out these realities underneath the radar.
Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford historian and mid-Atlantic commentator, addresses this vital topic in his new book Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West, the purpose of which he told the Boston Globe in an interview is to “chip away at the mind-walls of prejudice and constructed difference between Europe and America.”
“Our present situation is simply far too dangerous to allow divisions between and within Western democracies to distract us from urgent crises in the Middle East, from global warming, and from crippling poverty and disease in the developing world. If we don’t get these things right, the epitaph on the West’s gravestone may read: ‘They squabbled as the Earth burned.’
- IDEAS: You write of the US-Europe divide over Iraq as a “crisis of the West.” Yet is it possible that Europeans have this sense of a crisis and Americans don’t?
GARTON ASH: Perhaps many Americans are less inclined than Europeans to think that it matters so much. You know, I can have a crisis with my cleaning lady, but I don’t think that matters as much as the crisis with my wife. So is Europe the wife or the cleaning lady?
IDEAS: There’s another analogy — Europe as the jilted lover.
GARTON ASH: Yes. America spends its time talking about America. Europe spends its time talking about — America.
IDEAS: It’s not good, they should really get over us.
GARTON ASH: Well, that’s part of American soft power — and it’s part of American hyperpower, too. Everyone is fascinated by what’s going on here. . .. A very important example is Germany. We talk so much about France, but the one that matters more is Germany. And Germany, which was of course liberated, occupied by America, and became extremely Americanized, feels that its love has not been requited, that it’s been spurned.
….IDEAS: How far apart, really, are the US and Europe?
GARTON ASH: In some respects, the Atlantic is narrower than the English Channel. I think the divide is much more in mutual perceptions than it is in reality. But perceptions can become reality. And if we go on thinking of each other as the “other” for a few more years, then that can become so.
IDEAS: And what’s at stake in that?
GARTON ASH: I would say what’s at stake is genuinely the future of freedom. If we duck these big challenges because we’re involved in these absurd squabbles, what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences,” then the world will be a much more dangerous and nasty place for our children in 20 years.
So yes, we should be less self-absorbed and self-possessed and “unilateral,” and Europe should be less disingenuous, envious, passive-aggressive and paranoid. Sounds like a pretty modern relationship.