27 January 2012
Anti-European sentiment is on the rise among Republican presidential candidates in America, raising questions about the fragility of transatlantic ties - writes Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
Mitt Romney, one of the leading Republican United States presidential candidates, has informed his countrymen over the past few weeks that Barack Obama is working to turn America into Europe. This, one might think, is good news. Presumably it suggests that a unified west is closer to becoming a reality. The president is working for ever greater convergence in the world's greatest alliance. After decades of unabashed Americanisation of Europe, it seems, the tables are turning. In due time, the need for transatlantic learning and knowledge transfer between friends and partners will be obsolete. We will all be one happy family.
Indeed, from the perspective of a Republican presidential candidate, there is much to like about Europe these days. After all, Europe is largely run by fellow conservatives. They preach, and increasingly, practice fiscal responsibility and structural reform to fix the ills of the continent - a strategy candidate Romney calls on Obama to embrace. Let us pause right here and stop fantasizing. The reality is quite different. Yes, Romney sees the US as being transformed into another version of Europe. But in Romney's eyes that is no compliment, rather it is an insult.
Romney contends that under Obama, a "European-style welfare state" is America's destiny. Or, in another version of this horrific vision that permeates most of the candidate's campaign speeches, "a European-style entitlement society". Obama, according to Romney, "takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America". Learning from Europe seems to "poison the very spirit of America". Fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum agrees, claiming that Obama is "trying to impose some sort of European socialism on the US". Not to be outdone - candidate Newt Gingrich, in his South Carolina victory speech last Saturday night, detected the emergence of a "brand new, secular European-style bureaucratic socialism" in America.
So, why are the Republican presidential candidates running against Europe rather than against each other? Why is Europe a dirty word in this campaign? First of all, the vilification of Europe is not a new phenomenon in US politics. Remember the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? That epithet, common during the debate about the intervention in Iraq in 2003, referred to the French; for whom the worst abuse is traditionally reserved. The French, often linked with the Germans to form an alliance of "Euroweenies," chose to sit out the war against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and were, therefore, scolded for having lost their "moral compass". That incident happened barely 10 years ago, but one might go back hundreds of years and still detect the same type of argument about Europe.
As Princeton historian Linda Colley has pointed out, Americans have traditionally understood their history, culture and identity in contrast to Europe's. The US was founded as the antidote to Europe. The old continent was "the other," against which to define oneself. The history of immigration helped to entrench the view that one side of the Atlantic was intrinsically better and more blessed than the other. European decadence was replaced by "authentic Americanism". Europe, as described by the novels of Henry James, was both corrupt and corrupting. "America was a country of innocence, virtue, happiness, and liberty as against a Europe of vice, ignorance, misery, and tyranny," writes historian C. Vann Woodward. And so, it was anti-Europeanism that reinforced the new idea of US exceptionalism.
Initially, anti-Europeanism has risen in combination with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the supposedly culturally superior Europeans. Certainly, the Second World War and Europe's inability to solve its own problems at that time cured Americans of any sense of humility. Since the Cold War, anti-Europeanism has by no means been a US obsession. It has come and gone in waves and has only established itself as a staple of the intellectual life of one wing of American conservatism, just as its sibling - European anti-Americanism - found its home mostly on the political left. The Eurobashers on the US right use a few standard leitmotifs to make their case against the "EU-nuchs", whose "values and spines have dissolved in a lukewarm bath of multilateral, transnational, secular, and postmodern fudge", to quote the ironic characterisation of writer Timothy Garton Ash. At times, anti-Europeanism can be quite funny. Especially, when skillfully expressed by George W. Bush who famously said: "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur."
The question is how seriously to take all of this Eurobaloney? In this Republican presidential primary campaign, Europe has been nothing but a foil. Anti-Europeanism has been a code word for anti-liberalism. At the same time, Americans have long appealed to European politicians not to pander to the anti-US segments of the European public, fearing that fleeting prejudice could turn into lasting chauvinism. Gerhard Schroeder, then-German Chancellor, earned condemnation in the US when he played to the pacifist anti-Americanism of his electorate to gain re-election in 2002. Should Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Republican candidates really be held to a different standard?
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank, which first published this article here Eurobaloney on the Campaign Trail