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Why just look to Europe? There's more to this world.

By Jock O'Connell


This article appeared in teh Sunday Forum section of the Sacramento Bee on May 4, 2003.


Now that President Bush has officially declared an end to the war in Iraq, the issue that has pundits in the Boston-New York-Washington triangle, along with their European peers, wringing their hands, pointing their fingers and occasionally exchanging even ruder gestures is the evident demise of the Atlantic Alliance.

For those of us whose ocean of reference is the Pacific, it may be hard to appreciate what all the fuss back East is about. Sure, we're concerned with the state of America's relations with the nations of Europe. But, both commercially and culturally, our predominant orientations on the West Coast increasingly point us away from the Old World.

This appears especially true here in California, where everyone is a minority and where millions of us have keener attachments to the peoples of Asia, Latin America and Africa than we do to Europeans. Our perspective on the world is understandably apt to be distinct from the Atlanticist orientation espoused by those who have historically charted America's foreign relations

So why is it that the most populous and most economically productive state in the union seems so relatively disenfranchised when it comes to defining America's foreign policy? Why have our politicians, scholars, editorialists and other opinion-shapers consistently deferred to the judgment of a foreign policy establishment whose perspective on world affairs belies an Atlanticist bias that is arguably becoming less and less consistent with the broader outlook of an ethnically and racially diverse nation with truly global interests?

Let's begin by looking at what the current ruckus is about. In what is probably the most widely discussed political treatise since Francis Fukuyama's "End of History and the Last Man" was published 10 years ago, Robert Kagan's celebrated essay in the June-July 2002 issue of Policy Review goes so far as to suggest that Americans and Europeans have evolved into two distinct species. "It is time," Kagan writes, "to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world ... on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

The sharp differences that emerged within the Atlantic Alliance over Iraq merely served as a catalyst for a repeatedly postponed reappraisal by both Europe and America over what form and through what institutions, if any, they propose to manage their future relations.

NATO, the centerpiece of the old construct, has outlived its historical purpose of keeping the Soviets out, the Germans down and the Americans in Europe. It may have a modest peace-keeping function to play within Europe or on the Continent's immediate periphery, but it is difficult to imagine any significant extra-territorial role for NATO. A Europe with a common foreign policy and a military potent enough to back it up requires an even greater stretch of imagination.

A recent series of diplomatic and commercial disputes have been aggravating transatlantic relations and further adding to the figurative distance between Brussels and Washington. These include the Bush administration's rejection of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and a global ban on land mines. They also include Europe's refusal to undertake substantial reforms of its agricultural policies, especially those affecting international trade in farm products.

On the ever-incendiary matter of Arab-Israeli relations, the U.S. and Europe tend to see the conflict through very different lenses, with mainstream European officials and editorialists routinely voicing anti-Israeli sentiments of the sort one hears only from the fringes of American politics and punditry.

Absent an overt military threat from an as yet identified source, most Americans in 2003 are unlikely to regard Europe as a particularly useful partner in any but an essentially symbolic grouping, perhaps not unlike a college alumni organization.

The truth is that, beyond the ranks of the genealogically obsessed, Europe has never held all that much appeal for most Americans. Later sentiments notwithstanding, the great majority of European immigrants risked a dangerous sea crossing to escape a harsh and often brutal life at home. For those Americans of a more conservative or fundamentalist bent, Europe was presented as a deplorable realm of "rum, Romanism and rebellion" in the 19th century and, in the 20th century, as a place of decadence, socialist governments and lax morals.

Until Pearl Harbor was attacked, American public opinion - it should be remembered - was as adamantly opposed to taking up arms against Hitler's Germany as a later generation of Europeans would be reluctant to wage war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

In many respects, the hue being raised today in such unabashedly Atlanticist periodicals as Foreign Affairs and The Economist over the reported death of the Atlantic Alliance is reminiscent of concerns that have been expressed over the years about the viability of the so-called "Special Relationship" said to exist between Britain and America.

It was in 1943 that the future British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, told Richard Crossman: "We, my dear Crossman, are the Greeks in the American Empire. You will find the Americans much like the Greeks found the Romans - great big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are."

Seeing themselves as sly and wily veterans in the often hypocritical ways of the world, successive postwar governments in London - whether Labor or Conservative - saw their foremost role on the stage of international affairs as the avuncular cousin tempering the rasher inclinations of the West's superpower.

Even now, the same patronizing attitude that informed Foreign Office thinking in the immediate post-World War II era appears to have infused Tony Blair's foreign policy. How else does one explain Blair's almost concupiscent affinity for American presidents regardless of their political or ideological dispositions?

Many years ago, while living in London, I was asked to give a talk on the subject of the Special Relationship to one of those numerous bilateral associations comprising tweedy, slightly condescending Brits and some too-serious-by-half Americans over for a (presumably) tax-deductible week of cultural exchange.

No doubt my hosts expected me to abide by the customs prescribed for such occasions. I should be witty - the grand English tradition whereby fools and jesters furnished the after-dinner entertainment having been partially entrusted by the 1970s to resident Yanks. But most of all, I should give praise to the resilient unity of the English-speaking people by invoking the legacy of Churchill and Roosevelt, perhaps even of Wilson and Lloyd George - relationships in which, if the truth be told, the goodwill barely exceeded the mutual insufferability.

But the more I pondered the topic, the more my contrarian impulses took charge. So when I rose to address my audience, freshly sated on the requisite claret, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and apple pie dessert, I began by recalling how my hometown on the Maine coast had been razed by a Royal Navy bombardment in 1775, after which bilateral relations went decidedly downhill for a spell. I next mentioned the War of 1812, during which British troops looted and torched the White House, before then going on to reference Britain's troublesome flirtation with the Confederacy up until Gettysburg.

Bringing matters into the 20th century, I asked: Why should the British-American relationship be regarded as especially special by the 40 or so million of us whose ancestors came from Ireland or the even larger number of Americans who traced their lineage to Germany? Never mind all those Americans of French or Russian or Polish or Italian descent, what about the millions and millions of African Americans, Asian Americans or Americans of Hispanic origin? What of the surviving Native Americans? What possible reason could any of these Americans have for celebrating a supposedly organic relationship with an island nation situated just off the coast of Europe?

Shifting focus, I then cited the toxic views of America espoused by so many in Britain. It was bad enough to encounter the genteel snottiness with which British conservatives airily dismissed American institutions and culture; it was quite another to encounter leftists who genuinely held Kremlin leaders in higher esteem than they did a succession of postwar American presidents.

By then, my hosts were visibly aghast at the direction I was taking. Although I concluded on a vaguely positive note - that, far from being natural, the Special Relationship depended for its existence on the dedication of groups such as theirs - there was no question about my being invited back the following year to reprise my remarks.

In the 27 years since that episode, American demographics have made us a much less European nation and much less an Atlantic-oriented country. At the same time, a generation of social critics have aggressively laid siege to "The Canon" - the works of all those dead, white, largely European writers, philosophers, artists and composers who had long defined Western Civilization. Despite the fierce resistance of the likes of Harold Bloom, there is now a far greater awareness, if not wholehearted acceptance, of the multifaceted provenance of contemporary American culture.

Similarly, the economic links between America and Europe have also been diminishing. More and more of our business is being conducted with Asian and Latin American trading partners, although, paradoxically, more and more of the friction we encounter in world trade involves Europe. In the latest instance, the Doha round of multilateral trade talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organization faltered when negotiators failed to meet a particularly crucial March 31 target for defining an agenda for relaxing barriers to agricultural trade and eliminating trade-distorting export subsidies. In this instance, even the European press blamed the impasse on the intransigence of European Union officials.

Policy differences are not the only corrosive factors undermining the Atlantic Alliance. The EU's center of gravity is moving farther east with the scheduled addition of 10 new member states - mostly from the former Soviet Bloc - next May. Integrating these economies with those of the existing 15 members of the EU will no doubt absorb the energies of European policymakers every bit as much as West Germany's reunion with East Germany has consumed German leaders for over a decade now.

Nor are fundamental demographic trends on Europe's side. With low birth rates, Europe's population is expected to ebb substantially over the next few decades. Absent a dramatic reversal in continental fecundity, only increased immigration will prevent Europe from shrinking in size as well as in relative economic and political importance.

Yet the massive immigration needed to offset a declining indigenous population will almost certainly alter the fabric of European society as dramatically as it has changed America. The presence of millions of aliens already presents a vexing challenge in countries long accustomed to celebrating their unique cultural identities while also striving to be open and tolerant societies. It remains to be seen, for example, how a country like nominally Catholic France will be able to accommodate five million Muslims, many of whom espouse fundamentalist religious beliefs wholly at odds with traditional French values.

As societies change, so too do the links between them. The Atlantic Alliance reached its zenith as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Today, there is no significant military threat to any of its partners. The struggle against terrorism, which Americans perceive as a war, is seen in a much different light in Europe, no doubt because Europeans have endured much more terrorism from many more sources than we have. Over there, terrorism is a malaise to be combatted by police agencies and intelligence services, not invading armies.

There are those who will incessantly remind us of how much the U.S. and Europe have in common. But the more important fact is that Americans and Europeans also have less and less in common than we did one, two or certainly three generations ago. While it is always nice to stay in touch with old relations and even to visit occasionally, the time has probably come for America to jettison its Atlanticist anchor in favor of a broader, more inclusive outlook that better reflects not only contemporary global realities but also the progressively diverse nature of American society.

Such a policy transformation is unlikely to happen, however, so long as there is no coherent voice articulating an alternative foreign policy vision that accords as much emphasis to Asia and Latin America as it does to the Old World of Europe. This alternative view is not apt to spring from the nation's current foreign policy establishment.

If a new foreign policy paradigm is to emerge, it will require policymakers and opinion leaders in California and other Western states to assume a more thoughtful and active role in defining U.S. foreign policy.


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