Quite a lot of angst has arisen over the distancing of the United States and Europe, and this is unlikely to go away. The cracks became clear on George Bush Two's accession to the American throne. Europeans felt uneasy seeing a president selected by dubious means, visibly backed by limited interests, and advocating policy measures best befitting a fiction plot. These cracks are not new, just widened. They go back at least to Reagan's and Nixon's times, and a change of president won't fix the problem. From a European viewpoint, it's not just regime change but a deeper change that seems necessary – a change preventing regimes such as that of George Bush from gaining power.
It's not that Europe is perfect, and defensive American commentators have good cause to point to Europe's flaws and hypocrisies. What troubles most ordinary Europeans is the extent to which USA takes things – that is, too far. The United States is now seen in Europe as the world's most dangerous, damaging and uncooperative nation.
But something lurks beneath this too. Europe has a guilt complex over its past and, while there is a movement to redeem this, it too is stuck with its vested interests and innate social conservatism. Change is seen to be needed and welcome as long as nothing much really changes. To some extent, Europe's flaws are concealed by the sheer scale of America's. Yet European values are shifting, and things which once were acceptable are no longer so. There is disquiet in the European psyche. This unease exacerbates its relations with the United States, inasmuch as the United States seems to be heading in the opposite direction to Europe in many key international issues.
Many Europeans have reservations about Europe's place in the world and its history. To take one example, many are unhappy about the global arms trade and Europe's historic role in permitting and promoting it. They see the United States expanding its arms industry, exporting warfare worldwide, and domestically riddled with small arms too. Europeans want to go the other way. And here's the rub: they don't yet have the guts to do so.
Partially, they don't want a major showdown with the United States. Europeans aren't afraid of the United States, since American geopolitical dramas have a somewhat hollow and unsustainable timbre to them. the United States is, in the final analysis, too dependent on the rest of the world to boss everyone around too long. Yet there is a deeper fear than this: Europeans are nervous about rocking the boat. They know the primacy of the West is not everlasting – Europe's primacy evaporated 80 years ago. There's also a creeping awareness that the 'developed world' has lost the plot, and the artifices propping it up are growing thin. Faced with pensions crises, social dilemmas, climate change, irksome demographics and a growing tide of antipathy toward the world's wealthy by its poorer majority, recently voiced at Cancun, their confidence is waning. And confidence is what keeps capitalism going.
America's confidence is punctured too, but the United States stands in a different historic position. Europe once dominated the world. Since then it has seen decline and disaster, and its people are as a result emotionally more prepared for change – they're nervous but more philosophical. America, as a world-dominator, achieved its peak of success during the last 50 years, so the prospect of a fall from grace is larger for Americans than for Europeans. Additionally, for the United States, downturns and decline are not part of the nation's identity: it is founded on a basis of success, conquest of all limitations, prosperity and constitutionally-guaranteed pleasure, at least for a proportion of its citizens. So, emotionally, the prospect of decline is far more precipitous and fear-inducing than for Europeans. This leads to denial and a plethora of strategies designed to leverage America away from facing its hidden fears – and George Bush & Co are a manifestation of this.
Europeans fear loss and change, yet they are, on balance, aware that all is not well, and that fortunes can both rise and fall. The European Union strives to level up all Europeans, even though recent experience in Germany (with merging East and West Germany) has already demonstrated that the net levelling can be downward. Europeans, like Americans, have their illusions, but what is different is that Europe has more of a conscience, a social-democratic sense of fairness, and feels itself to be more part of the wider world than the United States feels. Its multilateral and humanitarian credentials are, on the whole, ahead of Americans' – and this is a major distancing factor.
Europeans, even the British, don't like being associated with crass, domineering and increasingly corrupt American-style capitalism. Europe itself is capitalist, competing in world markets and thus suffering grubby hands too – it has a good few cover-ups and subtle corruptions, but not quite as gargantuan and systemic as America's. What stops Europeans from cleaning up their act is a fear of the consequences of no longer playing the 20th Century capitalist game. So they hedge their bets, subscribing to a social-capitalist model in hope that this will work. But it still causes the clear-felling of rainforests, implicitly supports dictators and inadvertently wrecks other people's societies.
Something else lies underneath all this too. It concerns visionlessness. This is a problem for the developed world as a whole. America overcomes its visionlessness by pursuing an agenda of more, bigger and better – the logic of raw capitalism. Europe hedges by acting concerned, sending out peacekeepers, subscribing to the Kyoto accords and dishing out development grants. It tries to ameliorate the consequences of consumptive capitalism in order to avoid looking for more fundamental solutions.
The developed world's visionlessness arises from two big causes: first, when things seem hunkydory, there is little incentive to seek vision and change, even though it is wise because the gift and resources are there to do it.Second, the West found a new vision in the 1960s and rejected, diluted and twisted much of it, successfully marginalising most of its key ideas, proponents and pioneers. This vision encompassed spiritual, social, economic, ecological, cultural, medical and psychological areas, providing a basis for a new agenda in the West. Had this agenda been implemented from the 1970s onward, life would certainly not have been problem-free but, by now, we would have been seeing serious results. It wasn't, and we aren't seeing those results – we're seeing other results instead. The results of a predominant visionlessness, a world thrashing around for meaning and busy getting fat.
Out there in the 'rest of the world', something else has been happening. Whether 'developing' or not, the 'rest' know they're faced with an uphill climb, not only because of their circumstances, but because of hurdles set in place by rich people and rich nations. This was clear in the 1960s, in the days of decolonialisation. But they were induced into Western style development (which became the 'Washington Consensus' of the 1990s), especially when alternatives such as Maoism, African nationalism and the Soviet model proved wanting. Some countries developed quite well, others were promising, then crumbled under the weight of the 'Washington Consensus', some made little progress and others sank. Painful stuff, when it affects you, your family and your people. Overall, despair and dilemma have generated new thinking in the 'rest of the world', and this is gradually gaining momentum and being beaten into shape.
The developed world, convinced that its way is the only way, enters the 21st Century with little sense of direction. It resorts to new technological, scientific, business and economic innovations and heists to overcome what otherwise is a rather lifeless formula for the future. But 'the rest', uncomfortable with the Western package and its impact on them, and possessing their own cultural and social strengths and potentials, are digging up new solutions. Few Westerners see this, because these developments do not happen on Western terms or according to Western values. Whether drawing on tradition or expediently innovating, less-developed nations are facing something new and responding with new ideas.
This is a complex and longterm process, and events such as the Iraq invasion and the Cancun conference mark notable milestones where values, contexts and facts have shifted. The 'international community' is far from ready to act truly as a community, to provide a workable substitute framework of international relations. Hence that superpower dominance, though inadequate to the world situation, still proves necessary as a means of preventing global chaos.What is in question is the style of such dominance and the vision driving it. America, or at least its neo-conservatives, believes this is America's century – nothing could be more incorrect. This is the world's century. The much-vaunted 'international community' will eventually replace superpower geopolitics. This is just a matter of time. It would make sense for the United States to foresee such a readjustment and accept it as unavoidable – and to make sure it has a good seat at the table of the future. Bizarrely, the United States, in flexing superpower muscle in its war against terror and other sundry evils, has arguably accelerated and worsened the style of its demise. It has forced the 'rest of the world' through changes, and alienated itself from them in the process.
Meanwhile, Europe is caught with its feet in two camps. Identified with and bound to the United States through their mutually shared prosperity and position, it also identifies with and contributes to the emergent global consensus, from which America is largely a detractor. It therefore plays a double game toward the United States. This could even be intentional, adopted as a confounding strategy: in the buildup to the Iraq invasion, the contrary positions adopted by Britain and France-Germany had the virtue of convincing both America and its victims that Europe was on their side (well, kind of). America does the same with Europe: while playing Lone Ranger, it nevertheless depends greatly on European (and Japanese, and other client states') moral support, complicity and acquiescence. Hence, in the Iraq invasion, we had Rumsfeld and Powell speaking for the US administration, giving two messages to cover all parts of the global audience.
But this isn't the main point. The transatlantic cracks are there, a showdown is almost inevitable, and it just depends how nasty it gets. This isn't just a policy issue, or something that a new, Euro-friendly US president can resolve. The issues are deeper, potentised by a dreadful lack of discussion during the long years of the Cold War. There are big ideological, social, cultural, historic and situational differences, recognised perhaps more by Europeans than Americans. Both sides try to keep the matter quiet, except when sticking-points come up and angry words are exchanged. As bastions of the developed world, both parties have an interest in being seen to stick together.
This uneasy détente cannot last. The world is reconfiguring itself into cultural and continental blocs – the constituent entities of a new international community – and superpower dominance is an old formula. There are global issues before us that far exceed the developed world's capacity to resolve them. America's post-9/11 preoccupation with war is seen by many non-Americans as an enormous diversion from the real issues. A new world agenda is taking shape. It is ill-defined and by no means unified – after all, the perspectives of Africans, Latinos, Chinese, Indians and Arabs are only starting to properly come to meet. This concerns global community-formation, which always involves arguments. It involves accepting people we otherwise might not choose to live with. It is a fundamentally different agenda to that of imperialism or superpower dominance.
Underlyingly, many Europeans sense this. Many Americans seem not to – though it's clear the American nation is deeply divided here. This doesn't make one better than the other – it just puts us in different positions. It is also not the biggest issue. The big issue is this: the time of Euro-American, developed-world global dominance is drawing to a close. The sooner Europeans and Americans get wise to this, the better everything will be – especially for them. In 1922, Britain was a global superpower, and by 1942 it was an aid recipient, even from its own colonies. Things turn around.
This was one of the key subtexts lying behind 9/11, and open-minded Americans saw it. The direct assault on America and its symbols suggested that, if the United States and the richer countries wish to avoid certain kinds of problem (such as, in this case, terrorism) they need to look at and work with the causes of those problems. Because, here on planet Earth, we're all in the same boat and, together, we all rely on that boat staying afloat.
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