American relations with Europe are at their lowest point in decades. What happened? By Hoover fellow Timothy Garton Ash.
In the aftermath of the war against Iraq, you will doubtless see more articles in the American press on “Anti-Americanism in Europe.” But what about anti-Europeanism in the United States? Consider this:
To the list of polities destined to slip down the Eurinal of history, we must add the European Union and France’s Fifth Republic. The only question is how messy their disintegration will be.
—Mark Steyn, Jewish World Review, May 1, 2002
Even the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is used [to describe the French] as often as the French say “screw the Jews.” Oops, sorry, that’s a different popular French expression.
—Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online, July 16, 2002
Or, from a rather different corner:
“You want to know what I really think of the Europeans?” asked the senior State Department Official. “I think they have been wrong on just about every major international issue for the past 20 years.”
—Quoted by Martin Walker, UPI, November 13, 2002
Statements such as these recently brought me to the United States—to Boston, New York, Washington, and the Bible-belt states of Kansas and Missouri—to look at changing American attitudes toward Europe in the shadow of the Iraq war. Virtually everyone I spoke to on the East Coast agreed that there is a level of irritation with Europe and Europeans higher even than at the last memorable peak, in the early 1980s.
Pens are dipped in acid and lips curled to pillory “the Europeans,” also known as “the Euros,” “the Euroids,” “the ’peens,” or “the Euroweenies.” Richard Perle, now chairman of the Defense Policy Board, says Europe has lost its “moral compass” and France its “moral fiber.” This irritation extends to the highest levels of the Bush administration. In conversations with senior administration officials I found that the phrase “our friends in Europe” was rather closely followed by “a pain in the butt.”
The current stereotype of Europeans is easily summarized. Europeans are wimps. They are weak, petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic, and often anti-American appeasers. In a word: “Euroweenies.” [Their values and their spines have dissolved in a lukewarm bath of multilateral, transnational, secular, and postmodern fudge.] They spend their euros on wine, holidays, and bloated welfare states instead of on defense. Then they jeer from the sidelines while the United States does the hard and dirty business of keeping the world safe for Europeans. Americans, by contrast, are strong, principled defenders of freedom, standing tall in the patriotic service of the world’s last truly sovereign nation-state.
The Mars-Venus Debate
A study should be written on the sexual imagery of these stereotypes. If anti-American Europeans see “the Americans” as bullying cowboys, anti-European Americans see “the Europeans” as limp-wristed pansies. The American is a virile, heterosexual male; the European is female, impotent, or castrated. Militarily, Europeans can’t get it up. (After all, they have fewer than 20 “heavy lift” transport planes, compared with the United States’ more than 200.) Following a lecture I gave in Boston an aged American tottered to the microphone to inquire why Europe “lacks animal vigor.” (The word “eunuchs” is, I discovered, used in the form “EU-nuchs.”) The sexual imagery even creeps into a more sophisticated account of American-European differences: In an already influential Policy Review article by Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace entitled “Power and Weakness.” “Americans are from Mars,” writes Kagan approvingly, “and Europeans are from Venus”—echoing that famous book about relations between men and women, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Not all Europeans are equally bad. The British tend to be regarded as somewhat different and sometimes better. American conservatives often spare the British the opprobrium of being “Europeans” at all—a view with which most British conservatives, still mentally led by Margaret Thatcher, would heartily agree. And Tony Blair, like Thatcher before him, and Churchill before her, is cited in Washington as a shining exception to the European rule.
The worst abuse is reserved for the French—who, of course, give at least as good as they get. I had not realized how widespread in American popular culture is the old English pastime of French-bashing. “You know, France, we’ve saved their butt twice and they never do anything for us,” Verlin “Bud” Atkinson, a World War II veteran, informed me at the Ameristar casino in Kansas City. Talking to high school and college students in Missouri and Kansas, I encountered a strange folk prejudice: The French, it seems, don’t wash. “I felt very dirty a lot,” said one college student, recalling her trip to France. “But you were still cleaner than French guys,” added another.
Two prominent American journalists, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Joe Klein of the New Yorker, back from extensive book tours around the United States, separately told me that wherever they went they found anti-French sentiment—you would always get a laugh if you made a dig at the French. The National Review Online editor and self-proclaimed conservative “frog-basher” Jonah Goldberg, who also can be seen on television, has popularized the epithet quoted above, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” which first appeared in an episode of The Simpsons. Goldberg told me that when he started writing anti-French pieces for National Review in 1998 he found “there was a market for it.” French-bashing became, he said, “a shtick.”
An Axis of Appeasement?
Clearly it will not do to throw together neoconservative polemics, Kansas City high school students’ prejudices against French bathroom behavior, remarks of a senior State Department official and senior administration officials, and then label the whole bag “anti-Europeanism.” As a European writer, I would not want to treat American “anti-Europeanism” in the way American writers often treat European “anti-Americanism.”
We have to distinguish between legitimate, informed criticism of the EU or current European attitudes and some deeper, more settled hostility to Europe and Europeans as such. Just as American writers should, but often don’t, distinguish between legitimate, informed European criticism of the Bush administration and anti-Americanism, or between legitimate, informed European criticism of the Sharon government and anti-Semitism. The difficult question in each case, one on which knowledgeable people may reasonably disagree, is, Where’s the dividing line?
We also need to keep a sense of humor. One reason Europeans like to laugh at President George W. Bush is that some of the things he has said—or is alleged to have said—are funny. For example: “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” One reason Americans like to laugh at the French is that there is a long Anglo-Saxon tradition—going back at least to Shakespeare—of laughing at the French. But there’s also a trap here. Conservative writers such as Jonah Goldberg and Mark Steyn make outrageous statements, some of them obviously humorous, some semi-serious, some quite serious. If you object to one of the serious ones, they can always reply, “but of course I was only joking!” Humor works by exaggeration and playing with stereotypes. But if a European writer were to describe “the Jews” as “matzo-eating surrender monkeys” would that be understood as humorous banter? Of course the context is very different: There has been no genocide of the French in the United States. Yet the thought experiment might give our humorists pause.
Anti-Europeanism is not symmetrical with anti-Americanism. The emotional leitmotifs of anti-Americanism are resentment mingled with envy; those of anti-Europeanism are irritation mixed with contempt. Anti-Americanism is a real obsession for entire countries—notably for France, as Jean-François Revel has recently argued. Anti-Europeanism is very far from being an American obsession. In fact, the predominant American popular attitude toward Europe is probably mildly benign indifference, mixed with impressive ignorance. I traveled around Kansas for two days asking people I met, “If I say ‘Europe’ what do you think of?” Many reacted with a long, stunned silence, sometimes punctuated by giggles. Then they said things like “Well, I guess they don’t have much huntin’ down there” (Vernon Masqua, a carpenter in McLouth); “Well, it’s a long way from home” (Richard Souza, whose parents came from France and Portugal); or, after a very long pause for thought, “Well, it’s quite a ways across the pond” (Jack Weishaar, an elderly farmer of German descent). If you said “America” to a farmer or carpenter in even the remotest village of Andalusia or Ruthenia, he would, you may be sure, have a whole lot more to say on the subject.
In Boston, New York, and Washington—“the Bos-Wash corridor”—I was repeatedly told that even people who know the Continent well have become increasingly indifferent toward Europe since the end of the Cold War. Europe is seen neither as a potent ally nor as a serious potential rival, like China. “It’s an old people’s home!” said an American friend who attended both school and university in England. As the conservative pundit Tucker Carlson remarked in an exchange on CNN’s Crossfire: “Who cares what the Europeans think? The EU spends all of its time making sure that British bologna is sold in kilos not pounds. The whole continent is increasingly irrelevant to American interests.”
When I asked a senior administration official what would happen if Europeans went on criticizing the United States from a position of military weakness, the gist of his response was, “Well, does it matter?”
Yet I felt this claim of indifference was also overstated. Certainly, my interlocutors took a lot of time and passion to tell me how little they cared. And the point about the outspoken American critics of Europe is that they are generally not ignorant of or indifferent to Europe. They know Europe—half of them seem to have studied at Oxford or in Paris—and are quick to mention their European friends. Just as most European critics of the United States fiercely deny that they are anti-American (“don’t get me wrong, I love the country and the people”), so they will almost invariably insist that they are not anti-European.
Anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism are at opposite ends of the political scale. European anti-Americanism is mainly to be found on the left, American anti-Europeanism on the right. The most outspoken American Euro-bashers are neoconservatives using the same sort of combative rhetoric they have habitually deployed against American liberals. In fact, as Jonah Goldberg himself acknowledged to me, “the Europeans” are also a stalking-horse for liberals. So, I asked him, was Bill Clinton a European? “Yes,” said Goldberg, “or at least, Clinton thinks like a European.”
There is some evidence that the left-right divide characterizes popular attitudes as well. In early December 2002, the Ipsos-Reid polling group included in its regular survey of U.S. opinion a few questions formulated for the purposes of this article. Asked to choose one of four statements about American versus European approaches to diplomacy and war, 30 percent of Democratic voters but only 6 percent of Republican voters chose “The Europeans seem to prefer diplomatic solutions over war and that is a positive value Americans could learn from.” By contrast only 13 percent of Democrats but 35 percent of Republicans (the largest single group) chose “The Europeans are too willing to seek compromise rather than to stand up for freedom, even if it means war, and that is a negative thing.”
The divide was even clearer when respondents were asked to pick between two statements about “the way in which the war on Iraq should be conducted.” Fifty-nine percent of Republicans as opposed to just 33 percent of Democrats chose “The United States must remain in control of all operations and prevent its European allies from limiting the United States’ room to maneuver.” By contrast, 55 percent of Democrats and just 34 percent of Republicans chose “It is imperative that the United States ally itself with European countries, even if it limits its ability to make its own decisions.”
It seems a hypothesis worth investigating that actually it’s Republicans who are from Mars and Democrats who are from Venus.
For some conservatives, the State Department is also an outpost of Venus. William Kristol, one of America’s hereditary neoconservatives, writes of “an axis of appeasement—stretching from Riyadh to Brussels to Foggy Bottom.” Down the Bos-Wash corridor, I was several times told of two groups competing for President Bush’s ear over Iraq: the “Cheney-Rumsfeld group” and the “Powell-Blair group.” It is rather curious for a British citizen to discover that our prime minister has become a senior member of the State Department.
Atlanticist Europeans should not take too much comfort here, for even among lifelong liberal State Department Europeanists there is an acerbic edge of disillusionment with the Europeans. A key episode in their disillusionment was Europe’s appalling failure to prevent the genocide of a quarter of a million Bosnian Muslims in Europe’s own backyard. Since then, there has been Europe’s continued inability to “get its act together” in foreign and security policy, so that even a dispute between Spain and Morocco over a tiny, uninhabited island off the Moroccan coast has to be resolved by Colin Powell.
“They are not serious” was the lapidary verdict on “the Europeans” delivered to me by George F. Will over a stately breakfast in a Washington hotel. Although Mr. Will is very far from being a State Department liberal, many in the department would agree. Historically, the tables are turned. For what was Charles de Gaulle’s verdict on the Americans? “Ils ne sont pas sérieux.”
The Decline of the West?
So there is, in significant quarters of American life, a disillusionment and irritation with Europe, a growing contempt for and even hostility toward “the Europeans,” which, at the extreme, merits the label “anti-Europeanism.” Why has this come about?
Some possible explanations have emerged already; to explore them all would take a book. Here I can only indicate a few more places to look. For a start, there has always been a strong strain of anti-Europeanism in the United States. “America was created as an antidote to Europe,” Michael Kelly, the late editor of the Atlantic Monthly, once observed. “Why,” asked George Washington, in his Farewell Address, “by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” For millions of Americans, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe was the place you escaped from.
Yet there was also an enduring fascination with Europe, famously exemplified by Henry James, a desire in many respects to emulate, and then outdo, two European countries above all, England and France. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quoted to me the old line “when Americans die, they go to Paris.” “Every man has two countries,” said Thomas Jefferson, “his own and France.” When was it that American attitudes toward England and France diverged so sharply? Was it 1940, the year of France’s “strange defeat” and England’s “finest hour”? Thereafter de Gaulle recovered French self-esteem in opposition to the Americans while Churchill conjured a “special relationship” between his parents’ two nations. (To understand the approaches of Chirac and Blair to the United States today, the key names are still de Gaulle and Churchill.)
For 50 years, from 1941 to 1991, the United States and a growing fellowship of Europeans were engaged in a joint war against a common enemy: first Nazism, then Soviet communism. This was the heyday of the geopolitical “West.” There were, of course, repeated transatlantic strains throughout the Cold War. Some of today’s stereotypes can be found fully formed in the controversies of the early 1980s about the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles and American foreign policy toward Central America and Israel. They were formed in the minds of some of the same people: Richard Perle, for example, then widely known for his hard-line views as “the prince of darkness.” These transatlantic arguments were often about how to deal with the Soviet Union, but they were also finally constrained by that clear and common enemy.
Now no longer. So perhaps we are witnessing what the Australian writer Owen Harries foresaw in an article nearly 10 years ago in Foreign Affairs: the decline of “the West” as a solid geopolitical axis, owing to the disappearance of that clear and common enemy. Europe was the main theater of the Second World War and the Cold War; it is not the center of the “war against terrorism.” The gap in relative power has grown wider. The United States is not just the world’s only superpower; it is a hyperpower, whose military expenditure will soon equal that of the next 15 most powerful states combined. The EU has not translated its comparable economic strength—fast approaching the U.S. $10-trillion economy—into comparable military power or diplomatic influence. But the differences are also about the uses of power.
Robert Kagan argues that Europe has moved into a Kantian world of “laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation,” while the United States remains in a Hobbesian world where military power is still the key to achieving international goals (even liberal ones). The first and obvious question must be, Is this true? I think that Kagan, in what he admits is a “caricature,” is actually too kind to Europe, in the sense that he elevates to a deliberate, coherent approach what is, in fact, a story of muddled seeking and national differences. But a second, less obvious question is, Do Europeans and Americans wish this to be true? The answer seems to be yes. Quite a lot of American policymakers like the idea that they are from Mars—on the understanding that this makes them martial rather than Martian—while quite a lot of European policymakers like to think they are, indeed, programmatic Venutians. So the reception of Kagan’s thesis is a part of its own story.
As a soon-to-be-enlarged European Union searches for a clearer identity, there is a strong temptation for Europe to define itself against the United States. Europe clarifies its self-image by listing the ways in which it differs from America. In the dread jargon of identity studies, America becomes the Other. Americans don’t like being Othered. (Who does?) The impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks increases Americans’ own readiness to accept a martial and missionary account of America’s role in the world.
Stanley Hoffmann has observed that France and the United States are both nations that see themselves as having a universalizing, civilizing mission. Now there is a European, rather than a merely French, version of the mission civilisatrice, a “EU-topia” of transnational, law-based integration, and it clashes most acutely with the latest, conservative version of an American mission. Thus, for example, Jonah Goldberg quotes with irritation the claim by the veteran German Atlanticist Karl Kaiser that “Europeans have done something that no one has ever done before: create a zone of peace where war is ruled out, absolutely out. Europeans are convinced that this model is valid for other parts of the world.”
Each side thinks its model is better. This applies not only to the rival models of international behavior but also to those of democratic capitalism: the different mix of free market and welfare state, of individual freedom and social solidarity, and so on. For the political scientist Charles A. Kupchan, the author of the recent book The End of the American Era, this presages nothing less than a coming “clash of civilizations” between Europe and America. Where Kagan thinks Europe is characterized by enduring weakness, Kupchan sees it, not China, as the United States’ next great rival. Many Europeans would love to believe this, but in the United States I found Kupchan almost alone in his view.
There is, I think, one other, deeper trend in the United States. I’ve mentioned already that for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries American suspicion of things European was mixed with admiration and fascination. There was, to put it bluntly, an American cultural inferiority complex. This has gradually faded. Its fading has been accelerated, in ways that are not easy to pin down, by the end of the Cold War and the United States’ consequent rise to a unique preeminence. The new Rome no longer feels in awe of the old Greeks. “When I first went to Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, Europe was superior to us,” a retired American diplomat with long European experience wrote to me recently. “The superiority was not personal—I never felt demeaned even by condescending people—but civilizational.” Not any more. America, he wrote, “is no longer abashed.”
Nous sommes tous des Américains?
All these trends were somewhat obscured for eight years after the end of the Cold War by the presence in the White House of an honorary European, Bill Clinton. In 2001, George W. Bush, a walking gift to every European anti-American caricaturist, arrived in the White House with a unilateralist agenda, ready to jettison several international agreements. After September 11, he defined his new presidency as a war presidency. I found that the sense that America has been at war ever since September 11 persists more strongly in Washington than anywhere else in America, including New York. It persists, above all, in the heart of the Bush administration. The “war against terrorism” strengthened an existing tendency among the Republican elite to believe in what Robert Kaplan has called “Warrior Politics,” with a strong seasoning of fundamentalist Christianity—something conspicuously absent in highly secularized Europe. As Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations put it in his book Special Providence, it brought back the “Jacksonian” tendency in American foreign policy. Al Qaeda terrorists were the new Creek Indians.
The American question to Europeans then became, as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer put it to me: “Are you in the trenches with us or not?” At first, the answer was a resounding yes. Everyone quotes the Le Monde headline “Nous sommes tous des Américains.” But a year and a half later, the only European leader who most Americans think is in the trenches with them is Tony Blair. Many in Washington feel that the French have reverted to their old anti-American attitudes and that the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, won his reelection last September by cynically exploiting anti-Americanism.
The Middle East Divide
When and where did European and American sentiment start diverging again? In early 2002, with the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. The Middle East is both a source and a catalyst of what threatens to become a downward spiral of burgeoning European anti-Americanism and nascent American anti-Europeanism, each reinforcing the other. Anti-Semitism in Europe, and its alleged connection to European criticism of the Sharon government, has been the subject of the most acid anti-European commentaries from conservative American columnists and politicians. Some of these critics are themselves not just strongly pro-Israel but also “natural Likudites,” one liberal Jewish commentator explained to me. In a recent article Stanley Hoffmann writes that they seem to believe in an “identity of interests between the Jewish state and the United States.” Pro-Palestinian Europeans, infuriated by the way criticism of Sharon is labeled anti-Semitism, talk about the power of a “Jewish lobby” in the United States, which then confirms American Likudites’ worst suspicions of European anti-Semitism, and so it goes on, and on.
Beside this hopeless tangle of mutually reinforcing prejudice—difficult for a non-Jewish European to write about without contributing to the malaise one is trying to analyze—there are, of course, real European-American differences in approaches to the Middle East. For example, European policymakers tend to think that a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a bigger contribution to the long-term success of the “war against terrorism” than the war on Iraq. The larger point, for our purposes, is that where the Cold War against communism in Middle Europe brought America and Europe together, the “war against terrorism” in the Middle East is pulling them apart. The Soviet Union united the West, the Middle East divides it.
Coolly examined, such a division is extremely stupid. Europe, just next door and with a large and growing Islamic population, has an even more direct vital interest in a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Middle East than the United States does. Moreover, I found two senior administration officials in Washington quite receptive to the argument—which is beginning to be made by some American commentators—that the democratization of the greater Middle East should be the big new transatlantic project for a revitalized West. But that’s not how it looks at the moment.
At the moment it seems that the Iraq war is widening the gulf between Europe and America. The Middle East is the vortex in which real or alleged European anti-Americanism fuels real or alleged American anti-Europeanism, which in turn fuels more anti-Americanism, both being aggravated by sweeping charges of European anti-Semitism. A change might come through a major conscious effort on both sides of the Atlantic, or with a new administration arriving in Washington in 2005 or 2009. Yet a lot of damage can be done in the meantime, and the current transatlantic estrangement is also an expression of the deeper historical trends I have mentioned.
You might say that to highlight “American anti-Europeanism,” as I have done in this essay, will itself contribute to the downward spiral of mutual distrust. But writers are not diplomats. American anti-Europeanism exists, and its carriers may be the first swallows of a long, bad summer.
Timothy Garton Ash, an internationally acclaimed contemporary historian whose work has focused on Europe’s history since 1945, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Garton Ash is in residence at Hoover on a part-time basis; he continues his work as a professor of European studies and the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.
Among the topics he has covered are the liberation of Central Europe from communism, Germany before and after its reunification, and the European Union’s relationships with the United States and rising non-Western powers such as China. His most recent book is Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name (2010). His current research focuses on global free speech in the age of the Internet and mass migration (see the 13-language interactive Oxford University project at www.freespeechdebate.com).
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the New York Review of Books, February 13, 2003.Available from the Hoover Press is Foreign Policy for America in the Twenty-first Century: Alternative Perspectives, edited by Thomas H. Henriksen. Also available is NATO: Its Past, Present, and Future, by Peter Duignan. To order these titles, call 800.935.2882.