What Europeans Think of America.

Author:Walker, Martin

The traveler heading south from Paris to Toulouse and Spain no longer needs to thread the streets of the old Gallo-Roman city of Perigueux, marvel at the many domes of its cathedral and ponder the establishment, this far to the west, of a building so evidently Byzantine in inspiration. Instead, the Route Nationale runs south from the fabled oak forests of the Limousin, whose trees to this day provide the casks that endow Chardonnay, Cognac, and the better malt whiskies with their distinctive woody flavor, and skirts Perigueux in a great loop.

At the principal intersection of this ring road, where the roads go west to Bordeaux, south to Spain, or east to the distant industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand, sprawls a gigantic shopping complex. Its approach is signaled by car dealerships and warehouses selling instant kitchens and bathrooms. There are huge furniture stores, a monster supermarket, discount clothing shops, garden centers, and endless car parks. The mall is anchored on the one side by a McDonalds and on the other by a red-roofed building that sports a jaunty set of cow's horns stretching perhaps 30 feet in length and proclaiming this to be Buffalo Bill's Steakhouse.

Toto, I don't think we're in France anymore. In fact, young Judy Garland would feel quite at home in this little patch of Kansas in Perigord. This is the mall architecture, and even the brand names, of middle America. But go back into the town of Perigueux, past the market stalls where they sell cheap copies of Levi jeans and Nike trainers, and the music stands blare out French rap, and into the bookshop behind the cathedral. Instead of closing its doors promptly at the end of the working day, it is holding one of its regular evenings [acute{a}] l'Americaine, with glasses of wine and coke, and pretzels, while an author talks to customers about his book and signs the copies they buy.

Or go south to the old inland port of Bergerac, whence the great wine barges have taken their cargo down the Dordogne River to the quays of Bordeaux since Roman times, and learn that the new white wine that is winning all the prizes and getting the write-ups in the Guide Hachette is called Ch[hat{a}]teau de la Jaubertie. It is owned and run by Hugh Ryman, an Englishman who made his fortune in the stationery business, went off to Australia and California to learn how to make wines, and imported New World equipment and winemakers to this most traditional part of la France profonde. His venture has been a triumphant success, in part because it goes so well with the new dishes like blackened tuna with kiwi fruit that have invaded the menus of this ancient heartland of the truffle and foje gras.

What's New

It is an oddly schizoid experience to live in Europe these days. It is a place where more and more people live and work and eat and dress and relax like Americans, while exercising considerable ingenuity in finding new complaints about the United States. Critics of the cliche that Europe and America share a common democratic value system cite America's use of the death penalty and its addiction to handguns, its draconian rules against smoking, and its cult of political correctness. They compare the power of the Christian Coalition in American politics with the very different political pattern in Europe, where parties emerging from the fringe into the mainstream include French, Italian, and German communists, J[ddot{o}]rg Haider's right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, and Mussolini's heirs in Italy. The contrast is startling between the enthusiasm with which most Europeans welcome the cheapness and convenience of their increasingly suburban lifestyles and the grumpiness in the public discourse about their cultura l source. It's not enough to say that America is far less popular than its products; it probably always has been. But there is something new in the mix.

Take, for example, a letter written by a young American student, who witnessed demonstrations by Austrians in Vienna four days after the NATO bombing of Serbia began, and published in the Harvard Salient: "There was little of America to be seen. Except for our flag lying on the ground covered with spittle.... The posters grew increasingly threatening: 'USA = Nazi,' '1939 = Hitler, 1999 = Clinton, Jews = Then, Serbia = Now....' These could have been young American children by the way they looked; their hearts and minds, however, are a world" away. [1]

Or take another example from a rather more mature source, a former minister in the Socialist government of Greece, George Mangakis, writing in Eleftherotypia last November, on the eve of Clinton's scheduled visit to Greece: "We are exasperated at the very thought of the U.S. President's presence that will contaminate the blood-sanctified soil of our motherland. We forbid him to set foot on Pnyka Hill, the temple of democracy, and in the Parthenon, the temple of ineffable beauty. We regret that the Greek government ignores the feelings of the Greek people towards a murderer of people, ideals, values, beauty, and life. We are proud that once again the Greek people resists and fights against the threat of barbarism and will thus mobilize against the visit of this lord of the planet." [2]

Americans should be accustomed to this by now. Anti-Americanism has been a part of Europe's cultural furniture for 50 years and longer. For every admiring Tocqueville, there was always a Heinrich Heine mocking American democracy as the place where "the most repulsive of tyrants, the populace, hold vulgar sway." Within living memory, British civilians during the Second World War complained that their allies were "overpaid, over-sexed, and over here." The National Assembly voted to outlaw Coca-Cola throughout France and its colonial possessions, even as those colonies were being reoccupied with American arms and loans, and as the Marshall Plan was being drafted.

France has always been unique, in that its governments have been ready to lend some official endorsement to a suspicion of America that elsewhere in Europe has long been officially muted. In 1992, during the national referendum on the Maastricht Treaty to approve European economic and monetary union, the French government's main poster calling for a "yes" vote featured an American in cowboy hat squashing the globe; the slogan read "Faire l'Europe, c'est faire le poids." Building Europe gives us some weight.

Some of this is to be expected. Europeans have always resented the strongest power on the block, and at various times the arrogant Spaniard, the bullying German, the patronizing Frenchman, and perfidious Albion have played that scapegoat role that Americans have filled since 1945. But some striking new features have emerged in recent years, which appear to break down into four main attitudes. They may be summarized as a series of resentments: of America's traditional military power; of its new economic-technological power; of its cultural influence; and in a distinctly new feature, of the force of its political example.

Before analyzing these resentments in turn, some crucial elements of the background should be stressed. Europe no longer lives under the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of Soviet power, and this essential glue of the Atlantic Alliance has lost its hold. Germany is no longer divided and has been increasingly free in the past decade to act as a normal nation-state. However, a combination of habit and economic difficulties and internal politics have restrained successive German governments from trying to exercise that political dominance its economic weight might imply. The European experiment has taken on a tangible new form with the launch of the single currency, the euro, although its feeble performance in the currency markets suggests that considerable doubts remain. So they should; despite cyclical economic recovery and the boost given to exports by the weak euro, unemployment in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain remains at or above 10 percent of the workforce.

Another important factor is that Britain is no longer semi-detached from its partners in the European Union (EU). Despite its reluctance (because of an economic cycle more in tune with the American than with the European mainland's, as well as for domestic political reasons) to join the single currency regime, the Blair government is determined to demonstrate its strategic commitment to Europe in other ways. The new attempt to create an autonomous EU defense capability began as a British initiative, breaking with 50 years of devotion to the "special relationship" with the United States, which required that any such European effort be interpreted as a dire threat to NATO.

Finally, the traditional custodian and locomotive of the European idea, the Brussels-based European Commission, has been badly weakened and discredited by a series of scandals over fraud and mismanagement, which in 1999 forced the resignation of all 20 commissioners. The subsequent attempt. to reinvigorate the commission with the appointment of the respected former Italian premier Romano Prodi has faltered, amid repeated rumors of palace coups against him. [3]

The American Way

There are also three ephemeral but probably important foreground features that have colored European attitudes to America in the immediate past. The first was the unsuccessful impeachment of President Clinton for lying about his sexual dalliance with a young aide, Monica Lewinsky. The response in Europe, which likes to pride itself on a certain sophistication in romantic matters and takes both infidelities and discretion about them to be fairly natural, was broadly one of amused bafflement. One very senior French politician was heard at a private dinner party to say, "Of course, the Monica nonsense could never happen in Europe...

To continue reading