US-Europe divide gets personal
SCENE: An elevator in a hotel in a small town in Germany, about a week ago.
Dramatis personae: Your humble columnist, your humble columnist's mother, a German gentleman in his 60s.
My mother and I exchanged a few words in our native Russian, whereupon the German gentleman inquired amicably, "Russisch?" I explained that we did, in fact, come from Russia originally, but had lived in the United States for nearly 25 years and were now American.
The man's demeanor changed visibly. After a glum silence, he remarked sourly as we were leaving the elevator, "America is always starting wars everywhere in the world. It's not good for people."
I was so shocked that the most obvious comeback did not occur to me until a couple of minutes later, when he was out of sight: "You mean, like World War II?"
I'd heard the stories before -- tourists in Europe being subjected to anti-American verbal outbursts. But there's nothing like running into it personally.
Most of my experiences traveling in Europe, I hasten to add, have been positive. Most of the Germans my parents and I met on our trip were friendly and helpful. On the streets of the charming medieval town of Rothenburg, I ran into an American couple who had been living and working in Frankfurt for five years and who had nothing but good things to say about their interaction with the people around them.
Some claims of rampant European anti-Americanism are exaggerated. (One article in a conservative web magazine suggested that in London, it's practically impossible to open one's American-accented mouth without being subjected to a tirade about Bush and America.)
Nonetheless, the phenomenon is real. Polls in Europe have shown that alarming numbers of Europeans regard America, along with Israel, as the most dangerous country in the world. In a recent survey, about one in five European consumers said that they planned to avoid buying goods and services from at least some American companies to express their anger at US policies.
People have every right to be critical of US policies. The problem is that criticism of America often turns into an irrational hate, based on flagrant double standards, arrogance and misperception.
Take my German encounter. First: Sorry to bring up an unpleasant past, but it takes some nerve for Germans to lecture anyone on starting wars. (I don't believe in collective guilt -- but if American tourists can be harangued about US policies, it's only fair to remind their accusers of their own country's recent history.)
No less remarkable is the fact that the gentleman was quite friendly when he thought my mother and I were from Russia -- a country which doesn't have a stellar record with regard to military aggression. (Hungary, anyone? Czechoslovakia? Afghanistan? Chechnya?) Germans have every reason to love the Russians, I suppose; the Russians built them such a nice wall across Berlin, and free of charge too.
Such double standards abound. For instance: An indignant European chorus that includes France has excoriated the United States for denying judicial protections to suspected terrorists held prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Yet France's own antiterrorism policies dating back to the late 1980s give police and prosecutors broad powers of preemptive detention and drastically limit the rights of suspects.
To some extent, European-American tensions are nothing new. Many commentators now say that during the Cold War, a common enemy -- communism -- brought the United States and Europe together in a way that the terrorist threat has not. But they may be overstating the old unity. In the 1980s, the deployment of US missiles in Europe sparked furious opposition. America, led by the "cowboy" Ronald Reagan, was often seen as a greater threat to peace than the Soviet Union.
Today, America's status as the world's sole remaining superpower has certainly exacerbated the tension. There is, unquestionably, an American arrogance that contributes to the problem -- a view that we can pursue unilateral interventionist policies around the globe. European anti-Americanism is often matched by America's anti-European biases.
The divide is a tragic one. For all our differences, there is much of a common Western culture that Europe and America share. Many secular Europeans today see the United States as a country on a crusade to impose its simplistic religious values around the world. But we aren't at war against Holland or Belgium to stamp out same-sex marriage. Just as during the Cold War, we are fighting a totalitarian force that would crush freedom -- and in this fight, Europe and America have, or should have, a common cause.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.