The New Face of European Anti-Americanism

The New Face of European Anti-Americanism - Zach Messite

The idea that American political values were the wave of the future has long been part of Western Europe's collective consciousness. It was placed there, per­haps, by Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that the defining aspect of the new American society represented an "equality of conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived."1 In the past few years, European voices have been challenging the idea that the American political tradition is a model for Europe. Behind the giggling over Monica Lewinsky, puritanical right-wing zealots, the O.J. Simpson trial, banana republic-like election results, tanking dot corns, and the California energy crisis, a new European consensus is building that is more persistent than prior incarnations of European anti-Americanism. The difference is the range of grievances with US policy, not only the intensity of the feelings. The array of disputes, ranging from the environment and the American justice system to missile defense and trade policy, is the new variable in the anti-US equation that makes today's apprehensions unlike the Vietnam War and the anti-missile demon­strations of the 1960s and 1980s.

Paradoxically, the reaction comes at a time when America has never been more accepted by Europeans. American cultural and military dominance is already yesterday's news. More Europeans live, work, relax, eat, and dress like Americans than ever before. MTV broadcasts music videos throughout Europe, and it is easy to catch the National Basketball Association Game of the Week on Eurosport. It is no longer enough to say that America is less popular than the cultural products it exports. The new European fear is that the strength of the American hyperpuissance or "hyper power," as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine calls it, will impose unwanted political changes as well.

This helps to explain the European media and political elite's preoccupation with American support for the death penalty, its lack of universal health care cov­erage, its permissive gun laws, and its apathetic internationalism, including the perception of abdication on global warming, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty-bust­ing missile defense plans, and a self-interested commitment to free trade policy. Throw in the American mistrust of international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC), charges of industrial espio­nage, and American grumbling about EU plans to develop its own 60,000-member Rapid Reaction Force, and the political hyper-power is born. Not surprisingly, not a single one of these issues, so important to Europe, was more than a blip in the recent US presidential elections.

President George W. Bush, who visited Europe only once in 1998, said in the second Presidential debate that he did not think the world should look to America with "envy." Instead, he argued, "I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, 'We do it this way, so should you.'"2 As much as the Bush administration might like to be able to turn off the American example, it will not be so easy. However, the new Bush administration does have one advantage in its quest to become unenviable. The new president's guiding foreign policy prin­ciples distinctively embody much of what Europeans have come to loathe about American politics.

A German parliamentarian recently stated, "What we know about the new president is just two things. He is the son of President Bush, and he has sent 150 people to their deaths in Texas, including the mentally ill."3 Jack Lang, the French Education Minister and candidate for mayor of Paris, traveled to Texas to break bread with convicted murderer Odell Barnes, Jr. in order to score political points at home. Thousands of Italians, whose government has been at the forefront of calls for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, marched in Rome during the height of the election last fall to protest the execution of an Italian-American in Virginia. The marchers were supported by a broad coalition of politicians and the Pope. The Italian national television station, RAI, aired the film Dead Man Walk­ing and provided live media coverage from outside the execution site in Virginia. The subtext of the debate in general was: how could America, of all countries, find common ground with the Iraqis, the Taliban, and the repressive State Law and Order Restoration Committee in Myanmar by using death in the name of equal justice under law. America is supposed to be better than that.

On the environment, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been clear about their views of America's energy policy and international responsi­bilities. Both are former oilmen, and neither will be quick to back conservation or ready to push research into alternative forms of energy. The Europeans rightly blamed American intransigence for the collapse of the November 2000 United Na­tions Framework Convention on Climate Change, the follow-up to the Kyoto Con­vention. The role of the United States is the key to moving the Kyoto process for­ward. The United States, with about four percent of the world's population, emits more than 20 percent of the world's carbon dioxide. President Bush's opposition to the Kyoto process is already on the record. Europeans do not understand why the US should be given exceptions in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets with­out actually cutting carbon emissions that negatively impact the entire world. The Republicans ceaselessly mocked former Vice President Gore during the campaign for his concern about global warming, and they are now ready to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for new fossil fuel resources. Couple these is­sues with Bush's defense of the American gun culture, his advocacy of national missile defense, his opposition to the ICC, and an election victory that seemed any­thing but democratic, and you have the makings of a poster boy for European anti ­Americanism.

The Office of the President is already a flashpoint for what America stands for in the age of globalization. Consider the range of recent European responses to President Bill Clinton. On his farewell tour in Ireland, he was mobbed by fawning well-wishers, many of them students lining the streets to wait for his motorcade to pass in the early morning hours. In Germany, he was welcomed by mostly cheering crowds when he became the third American after Marshall and Kissinger to receive the Charlemagne Prize for his efforts to promote peace in Europe. However at the same time, a few protestors pointed out that he had actually waged war in the former Yugoslavia. Rewind to 1999, when the same President was forced to cut short his visit to Greece: a NATO ally, EU member, and a country that has sent millions to the United States to live and work. There he was greeted by thousands of angry protestors, including many students, lining the streets of Athens and throw­ing Molotov cocktails. The protestors even coined a special word to describe the American President: planitarchis, or ruler of the planet. As one demonstrator told The New York Times, "He is the planitarchis, so of course he should visit Greece. It's a province of his empire."4

While the American President may be welcomed enthusiastically in Aachen and not in Athens, it does not necessarily mean that all Germans approve of the American-led bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia or that all Greeks disap­prove of Hollywood. The Greeks are resentful of American foreign policy interven­tions, whereas the Irish are pleased by President Clinton's personal interest in try­ing to solve their domestic troubles. However, some basic mistrust of American political power now runs the European political spectrum. Social democrats find fault in the American über-capitalist mindset that ignores the destitute; conserva­tives attack self-interested American trade policy and cheap cultural exports; and Greens despise American efforts to undermine global environmentalism.

The new government in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia looks to Europe to bolster its own anti-American political strength. President Vojislav Kostunica recently said that he likes being recog­nized as a "democratic nationalist," someone able to stand up to what he describes as the American "orientation of foreign policy." That he identifies General Charles DeGaulle as a role model is not surprising.5 De Gaulle's na­tionalism, anti-Americanism, and at­tempts to restore France's civilizing mission tapped into a unique connec­tion between the French nation and its place in the world. According to Renan, mankind has learned the French prin­ciple of nationality.

However, polls conducted in the last few years suggest that the French are not alone in having deep reserva­tions about the United States. Approxi­mately 68 percent of Frenchmen said they were worried about America's sta­tus as a superpower. Germans, Span­iards, and Britons all had their fears as well. Even a majority of Italians, who consistently poll as among the most pro-American of Europeans, said that they should not look to America for inspiration in their way of life or culture.6

The negative feelings about America in Europe are no longer geared at a single, specific policy but rather at a feeling that globalization has an American face and is a danger to the European view of how to govern a society. There is the sense that America with its extraordinary power can crush everything in its way. In France, the reduction of the work week to 35 hours, the attack on McDonald's restaurants to prove a point about hormone-injected beef, the blockage of Pepsi's takeover of Orangina, the passage of laws about English language television and film program­ming, and the backlash against the use of English words in French (franglais) are instinctive national reactions to American power.

Greece is another example of a country that claims special reasons for being resentful of American power. Greece's contribution to democracy, history, and the culture of civilization are essential parts of its national sense of honor. This link to past glory is constantly stressed to Greeks and foreigners alike. Greek politicians routinely emphasize the heavy responsibilities associated with the nation's dedica­tion to liberty and the invention of democracy, as well as the special complexities of Greek history and its role in shaping the modern world. The perception that Ameri­can power has been, and will continue to be, the key to the stalemate division of Cyprus, relations with Turks, and the balance of power in the Balkans upsets these principles. In February 1994, when the US was debating whether to recognize the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as an independent nation, there were mas­sive demonstrations at the US Consulate in Thessaloniki. The Greeks claimed that Macedonia was appropriating "Greek" names and symbols for its new country.

Even the national response to the most visible of Greek anti-American terror­ist groups, November 17th, testifies to a political distrust of the United States. Over the past three decades, the group has killed five American Embassy officials, in­cluding the CIA Chief of Station. However, November 17th is so small, perhaps no more than a dozen people, that it is difficult to gauge a national Greek sentiment towards America based on this group's actions alone. Yet, what seems to be more telling is the general neglect that Greek society has shown towards cracking down on the terrorist group. The government claims that no arrests have been made due to the incompetence of national security forces or the cunning of the group itself, rather than because of any lack of political will to curb the violence. However, dur­ing President Clinton's 1999 trip to Greece, where the President also apologized for past transgressions against Greek domestic political life, the Simitis Government shied away from signing an agreement to cooperate on terrorism. Greek officials explained that any suggestion that the government was caving into American de­mands would be politically embarrassing. Nationalists in parliament asserted that the treaty would oblige Greece to give data to Washington that could then be re­layed to the Turks.

European political nationalists are not alone in their uneasiness with the American model. The romantic European left remains one of the most vocal of the anti-American voices. The French film director Jean-Luc Godard recently said that the 1945 landings in Normandy are directly connected to the invasion of American cinema in the past half-century." To my mind, I think that's even the reason why the Americans landed, it's for the American film... the first thing is always the films. Cheese, airplanes-those come later." Godard lays much of the blame on America for the loss of the past and the failure of modern European popular cul­ture.7

While European pop culture still has its share of bad American knock-offs, it is hard to argue which part of the French past has been lost irretrievably due to the popularity of, say, the Senegalese-born rap star MC Solaar, who spins out his Brook­lyn-influenced, but unique, hip-hop tunes in French and English. Is he any less a part of today's cultural France than Edith Piaf was more than half century ago? Is the Italian opera singer and pop star, Andrea Bocelli, somehow inferior to the great Italian tenors of the past because of American influence? Both MC Solaar and Andrea Bocelli have large followings around the world.

If America has succeeded in invading Europe culturally, it is because there was, and continues to be, money to be made in selling movies, jeans, and hamburg­ers. Before the emergence of mad cow disease complicated things, McDonald's, the French culinary Death Star, was a raging success. The first McDonald's opened in Strasbourg, France in September 1979. Today there are 760 restaurants with 30,000 employees throughout France. They have adapted to French foods such as salads and yogurts and offer more ambiance than the American drive-thru versions.8

Of perhaps greater importance is the growing European acceptance of Ameri­can business practices and economic success based on entrepreneurial spirit and the rapid application of technological breakthroughs. European markets have be­come more open and competitive by adopting American business practices. The American model of low taxes, the privatization of state-owned monopolies, minimal wage increases, and more flexible labor markets contributed to the EU's robust 3.4 percent economic growth in 2000. EU unemployment is below 10 percent for the first time since 1991. However, there is still the general perception that if the United States slides into a recession, the European economy will be pulled down with it.

The fear of recession has not deterred the increasing tide of young Europeans coming to America to start their careers or study in a variety of graduate programs. The journey has become something of a pilgrimage for the middle class and univer­sity educated, bent on subverting the world of pantouflage and old money connec­tions. The benefits an American graduate degree can bring back home and the man­datory nature of English-language fluency in the economic and political world drives this phenomenon. Winning the green card lottery is even better since it sanctifies the possibility of interesting jobs and living wages in the United States for Europe­ans in their 20s and 30s. All of this adds up to a convergence of lifestyles with Europeans becoming more comfortable with American cultural power, while at he same time, rebelling against the threat of American political domination.

Today's spasms of European anti-Americanism are taking place as a result of a perceived imbalance between the promise of American political values and the reality of current policies. Now what Europeans seem to crave is more respect for their own political ideals, rather than merely a greater dialogue with Washington. They need to receive reassurances that they will be treated as allies and full part­ners, instead of satellite states. The visit of President Bush's new Defense Secre­tary, Donald Rumsfeld, to Europe in the first month of the new administration attempted to defuse opposition to missile defense. This trip shows that there is at least some recognition that there will be no free ride from European allies on this issue, but it also shows little recognition of how domestic and unilateral interna­tional policy decisions threaten European political principles and raise the anti-­American volume.

If President Bush truly wants to make good on his debate promise that it is no longer the role of the United States to "walk into a country and say, 'We do it this way, so should you,'" then Washington needs to find a middle ground on the Euro­pean Union's opposition to missile defense, carbon emissions, etc. Otherwise, given the interconnectedness of today's policy issues, there will be more of the same, and the Bush administration may do little more than continue to listen respectfully before hyper-powering ahead.


Zach Messite is currently a public information officer at the United Nations in New York and a PhD candidate at New York University in politics. He holds an MA from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.