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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Europe Rising

I have recently run across a couple of books and a newspaper column that have intrigued me and helped me to synthesize some thoughts about America and our culture. (hyperlinks to the New York Times require free registration at NYTimes.com - sorry!)

The two books are The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream By Jeremy Rifkin (reviewed in the
New York Times, 9/1/04), and The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy by T.R. Reid (reviewed in the New York Times, 12/16/04). There was an op-ed piece in the Times along similar lines on December 17th, 2004. I will make the most use of Rifkin, as I heard an interview with him on Milt Rosenberg's talk show, Extension 720, on October 1, 2004.

The upshot of these writings is that there is another viable way to be modern and Western, and this can be seen in Europe, which is rising in economic and political power to become a rival to America. Ultimately a trans-national entity such as the European Union will trump one nation's (even a super-power's) maverick, go-it-alone actions.

Continue reading Europe Rising

Jeremy Rifkin claims that the European Union has set itself the goal to become the largest economic power on the planet by 2010. They won't make this goal, he says, but will certainly achieve it by 2015. As further evidence of Europe's rising economic power, Rifkin points out that of the world's 150 largest companies, 50 are headquartered in the United States, and 60 are based in the European Union. Couple this with the observation from the Op-Ed piece that the EU, unlike the United States, is growing as countries such as Poland and Turkey join, and this starts to become a case that needs to be taken seriously.

In the Op-Ed piece, Timothy Garton Ash elaborates, saying: (next four paragraphs are pulled quotes.)

"Why is it that Americans do not understand the power of the European Union? Is it because they are simply not well informed by reports from Brussels and other European capitals? Or is it because, as citizens of the world's last truly sovereign nation-state, Americans - and especially American conservatives - find it difficult to acknowledge the contribution of a transnational organization based on supranational law? It's as if they can conceive of power only in the old-fashioned terms of a classical nation-state.

"Robert Kagan describes the difference between America and Europe as the difference between power and weakness - American power, that is, and European weakness. This description is sustainable only if power is measured in terms of military strength. In the way that some American conservatives talk about the European Union, I hear an echo of Stalin's famous question about the Vatican's power: how many divisions does the pope have? But the pope defeated Stalin in the end. This attitude overlooks the dimensions of European power that are not to be found on the battlefield.

"In economic power, the European Union is the equal of the United States: the combined gross domestic product of the union's 25 member states is some $11 trillion at current exchange rates, about the same as the G.D.P. of the United States. American business has long recognized the importance of the European market, and it is also beginning to understand the influence of its regulators. Three years ago the union blocked the merger of two American companies, General Electric and Honeywell - after American regulators had already approved the deal.

"The European Union is also strong in a less tangible kind of power - what is known as "soft power." The European way of life, its culture and societies, are enormously appealing to many of its neighbors. Meanwhile, the policies of the Bush administration have prompted a wave of hostility toward America around the world, while its security measures have made it more difficult for foreigners to study or work in the United States. So Europe may currently have a comparative advantage in the exercise of soft power, if only temporarily."


It seems, if Ash and the other authors are correct, that Europe is not only rising, but that we might potentially find ourselves quite surprised if/when it eclipses us.

Now I should note that Richard Bernstein and Roger Cohen do not give wholehearted approval to these books and their theses. Bernstein in particular, in reviewing Rifkin, takes issue with some of the author's facts, presentations, and interpretations. So the jury is certainly still out as far as the predictions of Europe's imminent dominance go.

But here is what most struck me about these accounts: not that Europe might eclipse America economically or politically, but that they hold rather different values than we do, which give rise to very different "dreams". Rifkin takes particular pains to show this, theorizing that (in part) many of our differences arise from such different geography. I would agree, adding that they also arise from our very different stories, including our history.

Because geographically, Europe has been settled for so long with no discernable frontier, they are much more likely to want to negotiate and resolve problems among people, rather than simply move on, unreconciled, as here in America. They are also more likely to stay in one place for their lives, rather than moving over great distances and from one region to another (say, for a job). This gives a greater sense of rootedness; it also contributes to their being less socio-economic mobile. But this latter point is not so much of a problem for them because they do not define success in terms of accumulating wealth without limitation in order to rise as high as they can, but in terms of living well within their class. It is more static, yet less stressful. Further, America tends to define freedom as freedom from limitations, and as having sufficient opportunity to flourish. Europe, on Rifkin's account, sees freedom as the freedom to live at peace with one's neighbors, and the freedom to live well. The upshot of the European dream is a society that favors sustainable living (in environmental and social terms).

Now, I have admitted that I am an unrepentent Anglophile. I am also, derivatively, something of a Europhile. But I raise these points here not simply to belittle the U.S. and say that we need to be more like Europe to get things right. Europe certainly hasn't gotten everything right: they seem not to value children, for example, in their surprisingly low birth rate; they are struggling against racist impulses as needed foreign workers enter their countries; and I am quite put off by their secularism, which seems especially prominent on the continent, but is not unknown in England. They also seem to have drunk more deeply at the well of the French and German Enlightenment than America (and England) has, which may explain some of the hostility to the church.

But I do have some real questions about American notions of freedom and individualism and the way that we have shaped our American Dream, and the European Dream may provide something of a tonic to this. Moreover, it calls into question the idea that the way America has risen to power and now leads politically and economically is the only way that that could happen -- for example, that having viable welfare programs only stands in the way of national flourishing, or that to have an worthwhile life people need to be willing to uproot and become corporate nomads, or (this is especially close to my heart) to have a livable society, everyone must have an individual (tract) house, a plot of land, as many cars as adults residing in the house, and demonstrate that they posess all the top consumer items for their socioeconomic status.

(One way in which we have never even dared to approach Europe, much less surpass it, is in the beauty and livability of the built environment. Areas in New York and Boston border on this kind of salutary construction of space, but all recent trends (think Big Box retailers, for example) give ample cause for discouragement.)

It might be objected that there are an awful lot of people banging on our doors to get into our nation, to become Americans, or at least take their share of the American Dream. But my response to that is that success in marketing a product is rarely related to the inherent value, beauty or goodness of that product. There are reasons to believe that our Dream may not be entirely healthy or realistic; just because it is in demand does not mean that it is beyond reflection or reconsideration.

So I am not saying that we need to mimic Europe. But I think we do need a good dose of self-reflection as Americans on just what our dream is and why, and how we might recast that in more globally responsible, humanly livable terms for the 21st century.



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11 Comments:

Blogger Joel said...

Some problems with this thesis:

1) The rapid growth of Islam via immigration in Europe.
2) I don't think "Europe" exists. It could fracture and fall apart quickly if history is a guide.
3) They have no effective military. Like it or not, being a great power requires having a strong military.

Monday, December 20, 2004 11:58:00 PM  
Blogger Fellow Traveler said...

Alabama, USA and New York, USA have more in common than Italy and France. Europe never has pulled together. More likely they will go to war against each other ... as History (capital H) is likely to repeat itself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 6:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Joel:
Thanks for your response. I should say at the outset that the thesis is not my own, and I'm not sure I have enough data to say one way or the other. I was pointing out that several other people seem to be saying similar things at the same time (although, as I mentioned, the reviewers of the books raised some salient criticisms).

But as for your three points, I'm not sure.

Point one does not specify what the problem is, but I assume you mean something like "Europe has an increasing problem with cultural tensions between native Europeans and immigrants, most of whom are Muslim." This is true and the authors admit as much. Time will tell whether European countries can turn this tension into something else. (Part of the issue is that European countries tend to have the lowest birth rates of any countries in the world.) I mentioned these points in my initial post. Of course, we in America also need to get over our racism, whether over immigrants and migrant workers such as Mexicans, or the ongoing racism experienced by African-Americans, or even Middle Easterners, whether Muslim or not. Although we have lived with our situation longer, and it does not seem as immediate, it is only different in degree, not in kind. Interestingly, if Turkey joins the EU, many Muslims will be full participants in the EU without having to migrate to (say) France.

Your second point is an interesting one. I think that only time will tell (moreso than previous history). Before the Civil War, it would have been an open question whether or not there was such a thing as The United States of America. Before James I/ VI there was no Great Britain. And well into the 19th century, there was no such thing as Italy or Germany. (The latter two points need nuancing, I know, but the analogy holds: new political syntheses arise over time.) Might the EU and other similar "new" arrangements have precursors in policies such as the Monroe Doctrine? I am not sure, but I suspect so.

As for your third point, I have been looking up data on the internet in vain to find hard numbers, but I am sure you are correct that even the combined forces of Europe are dwarved by America (although they have more people). Thunder Jones mentioned on his blog that America spends $600 billion dollars on its military and the second highest total in the world is Russia, which spends less than a sixth of that. But again, I am not sure that is the point. Being an old style empire requires a great military (Rome of old, Great Britain in the 19th c., America now), sure. But maybe what constitutes power (a "new style" empire) has changed, and the power of a dream -- always America's true power, anyway -- might be the *real* power. That is the foundation of most of our empire already: for example, we are dismantling African tribal culture far more effectively with television and other media, and the marketing of urban youth culture than we would with tanks and guns.

What the books are saying in part, and what I am picking up on primarily, is that there might be another dream besides the American one, another way of life that is more sustainable, more humane, more...livable. And again, as I mentioned in the inital post, I don't think this means we need to ape Europe. But it might mean we have a unique opportunity to actually reflect on who we are and who we should be as a nation and a culture, and recast that in new terms.

As a P.S. I must 'fess up that part of my difficulty with the American Dream as it is currently envisioned is that I think it clashes with my commitment as a Christian (which is another (true) dream). But perhaps if we actually re-imagine the American Dream, they might not clash with as much.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 7:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Fellowtraveler:
Thanks for your response. I'm not nearly so pessimistic, but (for the most part) I also don't have much stake in the EU making a "go" of it -- or America, come to that.

For my money, if the people of South Africa can hold it together without going up in flames, then there is hope for anyone, anywhere. As for History (capital "H"), I guess I'm not so sure that it repeats itself that straightforwardly. Nor am I sure that the nations of the world ultimately have as much to do with History as they might think.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 7:16:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Young said...

The question of whether or not Europe will unify ultimately comes down to ´╗┐synthesizing the individual national identies into a larger European identity. And while it was done in America, the process took over 400 years (that is assuming it is complete today. For the time frame I am going from colonialization until the end of the civil rights movement.) And most of this time was simply outward mistrust. In Europe's case they must deal with 2000 years of attempting to kill each other.

But I do see parallels with America. The government of the EU is very similar to that of the Articles of Confederation, small weak central government afraid to step on anyones toes. However, unlike the Art of Confederation America, Europe has very defined boarders and at least a hundred years of nation states dealing with nation states under treaties. So this form will last longer than the Articles of Confederation did in America.

But I think the authors are trying to find a viable antithesis for the American way (personal freedom untied to any social contract). The only way that they can make that claim is if Europe in fact succeeds. However, in the end I don't agree with their hypothesis.

I see Europe becoming more like America. Freedom of movement and the ability to start over have been the hallmarks of the American Dream. They have also been the greatest flaws, according to some. The flip side to starting over and finding greener pastures, may be a tendancy to cut and run despite any implications on others. Now that Europeans have a greater ability to move around will they have the same reactions to that freedom that Americans have had.

I think it is telling to look at Japan. For years we have heard that the Japanese culture of lifelong employment with one company and their undying devotion to honor and family would overtake the American way. But now, these ideals are under attack from within Japan. They are now facing companies who will move factories overseas for cheaper labor (however, this trend seems to be reversing slightly) and elderly people left to fend for themselves.

Also we can see some cracks develping in Europe regarding their social contract lifestyle. Scotland and Italy are panicing now about their negative population growth rate, since without an expanding tax base they will be forced to cut social welfare programs. But they don't wish to further tax business as they fear that plants will close and move over seas or worse to cheaper EU contries.

As the central governments of these nations have taken on the social programs that used to be funded by the religious and other NGOs (its only a new term, not a new idea), these governments will be forced to make some choices in down times which will be very unpleasant. These are the questions that will ultimately test Europes's social contracts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Peter:
As usual your response is lucid, cogent, and urges me to expand and clarify my thinking (or at least my expression of my thought) on this issue. Thank you. I have an initial response to your points in mind, but I shall wait and incorporate them into another post when I have more time, most likely in a review of the book _American Providence_ by Stephen Webb. Maybe that will be sometime next week? Until then, thanks again. -JF

Thursday, December 23, 2004 1:04:00 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

A few points:

1.Turkey entering the EU will actually flood all the member countries with cheap labor in the form of Turkish immigrants.

2. The European dream seems to be secularism, godlessness, abortion, euthanasia, and resentment over loss of position in the world.

3. Militarily, Europe couldn't even handle Kosovo, but had to ask for our help.

4. The EU is being imposed top-down by elites, I doubt it can hold up.

5. The US under the Articles of Confederation was still largely an English, Protestant country. The EU is an amalgamation of languages and cultures with little in common other than the Christianity that they have abandoned.

Monday, December 27, 2004 12:34:00 AM  
Blogger Mysticman said...

Well Jason certainly interesting stuff. I love surfing Blogs! I was looking for dream meaning stuff and I landed on your page. I was looking more for dream meaning
info, but was interested in your posts. Keep it up Take care.

Monday, October 31, 2005 6:51:00 AM  
Blogger Mysticman said...

Hi There Jason how you going? I was sufing blogs for information on dream meaning and I came across yours. while Europe Rising wasn't exactly what I was looking for, It was most interesting. I can see why I found your page when I was looking for dream meaning stuff. Thanks for the read!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Mysticman said...

Greetings from Down Under, no not Australia, NZ the real downunder! Hi Jason I was surfing blogs (as you do) looking for dream dictionary information when I came across your site. While Europe Rising wasn't an exact match I enjoyed reading your posts. Thanks for the read, I'll visit again some time. take care.

Sunday, November 13, 2005 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger Mysticman said...

Hi There Jason how you going? I was sufing blogs for information on what dream mean and I came across yours. while Europe Rising wasn't exactly what I was looking for, It was most interesting. I can see why I found your page when I was looking for what dream mean stuff. Thanks for the read!

Saturday, November 19, 2005 3:23:00 PM  

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