Chords of Memory

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Remember The Sound of Music, the 1965 film that became one of the best-loved films ever made? The film, shot in Salzburg, is a musical tour de force that combines elements of power and politics, song and sentiment, youth and age, romance and sadness, religion, and courage and conviction. The protagonist, Captain von Trapp, is among those Austrians who reject the Nazi Anschluss. As the situation in Europe worsens, Captain von Trapp faces alternatives with dire consequences. He considers collaboration with the Germans unthinkable, and to remain in Salzburg would be disastrous for his entire family. So he chooses the third alternative open to him: escape.

There is a compelling analogy in the story of The Sound of Music for the present European-American relationship, one we ignore at our peril. Europe and America both arrived at a crossroads in the late 1930s. The paths open to them led to war or peace, to freedom or oppression, to weakness or to courage of conviction. Europeans and Americans made choices about which road to take. One result was a devastating war of an unprecedented nature. Another was the division of Europe for some 50 years. And for many, both Europeans and Americans, the consequences were a painful reminder of words written by an Englishman, Edmund Burke, toward the end of the eighteenth century, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Now, more than 60 years later, Europeans and Americans have come to a new crossroads. Our differences of opinion bring the crossroads into sharp focus. This time we will decide whether our interests are more important than our friendship or whether our interests and our friendship coincide. The choice we make will affect the nature of our future relationship, the quality of our leadership, and the influence we will bring to bear on shaping the affairs of the world.

Some Europeans and Americans believe that we have common interests and that those of lasting value are found precisely in the friendship shaped by our hearts, history, heritage, and habits of life, not in short-term coalitions of the willing and opportunistic. Others argue it is naive, sentimental, and unrealistic to claim that our friendship is more important than our interests, that there is a difference between the two.

Where does this leave us? Do we have to choose just one path or just the other? And which one should we take? Are Americans wiser today than their predecessors were on the eve of World War II? Do we recognize the existing deterioration of our relationship and acknowledge the potential consequences if it continues to unravel? Or is our friendship a matter of importance at all?

Unlike Captain von Trapp, Europeans and Americans cannot escape the answers to these questions because there is no safe place to go. But many know that an absence of American-European leadership will create a vacuum and that there are those around the globe who will try to fill it with chaos and terror. If we do not put a halt to the deterioration of our friendship, the nature of the American-European relationship may change in ways that we can neither predict nor manage and undermine our ability, both separately and together, to provide clear and strong leadership in a world badly in need of it.

More than two centuries ago Benjamin Franklin gave the 13 American colonies some sage advice at the time they signed their Declaration of Independence. “We must all hang together,” he urged, “or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” That warning, if he were to give it today, would be addressed to Europe and America.