Europeans See Change, But Is It True?

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2004

The reelection of George W. Bush sent a cloud of gloom over much of Europe. "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" was the headline of the post-election edition of the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid.

Once the European intelligentsia recovered its wits well enough to speak, a common theme emerged: America was not what they thought it was. Before November 2, it could be hoped that Bush was a fluke, a truly "accidental president" who did not really represent Americans. After November 2, Europe had to come to grips with the fact that a majority of American voters actually liked the 43rd president, or at any rate preferred him to the suave Europhile John Kerry. As one European diplomat said, "Now we know it’s not just the group of people who rules; it’s the way American society is evolving. It’s distinctly less European than it used to be." Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, agreed that "There’s a feeling in Europe today that America has profoundly changed."

Such sentiments naturally lead to two questions. Has anything really changed? And, if so, is it America that changed—or Europe?

In one sense, it is clear that there is at least some exaggeration about the degree to which anything has changed. Did French-American relations become strained because of Iraq? Hardly. In World War II, some of the first combat Americans faced in the European war was against French troops fighting for the Vichy regime in North Africa. In 1956, the U.S. found itself on the opposite side from France (and Britain) during the Suez crisis. In 1966, France removed itself from the military arm of NATO, meaning that France has not been a military ally of the United States for nearly 40 years. In 1980, French President Valery Giscard d’Estang infuriated Jimmy Carter when he met secretly with Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev to discuss ways around Carter’s post-Afghanistan anti-Soviet toughness. In 1986, American pilots on their way to bomb Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack were put at risk when France refused to allow them to fly over French territory. Throughout the 1990s, French leaders portrayed the European Union as a conscious counterweight to America. In 1999, France opposed Bill Clinton’s war in Kosovo.

More generally, Europe has long been awash in knee-jerk anti-Americanism among its elites, who have viewed Americans as rough, uncultured upstarts. It has also long been afflicted by higher levels of collectivism and statism, as well as an appeasement reflex that goes back at least as far as travails with the Barbary Coast pirates in the Mediterranean in the early 1800s. The Europeans preferred to buy the pirates off; Jefferson preferred to send the Marines to the shores of Tripoli. For their part, Americans have long liked to view their country as part of the New World, a place where one could escape the feudal hierarchy, the pointless jealousies, and the authoritarianism of Europe.

To the extent that something has changed, though, the Europeans have it backwards. It is Europe that has "evolved" and red-state America that has adhered to older norms, in at least three key areas.

First, while the values divide between Europe and America may be growing, it is not because America is growing more religious. Rather, it is because Europe has all but abandoned the religious heritage that has served as the moral foundation of Western Civilization for two millenia. Europeans are free, of course, to take their moral guidance from Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Derrida rather than Moses and St. Paul, but they are not entitled to embrace nihilism and hedonism as their new religion and then accuse Americans of changing.

Second, while the United States has long valued international organizations and still gives them every bit of respect that they earn, most Americans are reluctant to surrender their national sovereignty to those organizations, especially when their freedom and safety is at stake. This, however, is not a new position; it is a position as old as the nation-state. It is Europeans who have embarked on the unprecedented experiment of voluntarily subsuming their national identities to the whims of international bureaucracies.

This point leads inexorably into the third. Americans continue to cling to old verities of natural law and natural rights, not least of which is the supreme demand for government based on the consent of the governed. It is precisely the connection between consent on one hand and accountability and legitimacy on the other that causes Americans to prefer fealty to their Constitution over international organizations. We can hold George Bush (or Tom Daschle) accountable, but how can we hold accountable Kofi Annan or Hans Blix? There is a growing recognition by observers that the European Union has been built at a great cost to democracy; Europeans themselves refer to a "democratic deficit." Many Europeans may be willing to throw overboard one of the most central principles of a free society, but they can hardly complain when Americans prove not so willing.

Altogether, Europeans have effectively removed themselves from Christendom while surrendering their sovereignty and much of the basis of their liberty. It is Europeans who have stopped having children and who have instead opened the floodgates to a potentially decisive fifth column of anti-Western immigrants; Europeans who have adopted the historically novel view that diplomacy with tyrants can succeed in the absence of a credible threat of force. And now it is Europeans who argue that Americans are the ones who have changed. This might be a good time for self-reflection among Europe’s elites, if they can spare a moment from their mourning.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.