by Ken Feltman
Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.
– Mohandas Gandhi
The key word in Gandhi’s hopeful statement is not disagreement but honest. Frankly, most political disagreements are about little that is honest. They begin over petty things and grow, sometimes taking on a life of their own. The political disagreements between Europe and the United States are growing now. Differences in attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic may mean that Europe and the United States are headed for a generation of estrangement.
What disagreements? Tomorrow’s leaders on both continents have developed attitudes that can lead to troubles. As I have listened for the past two and a half years to the “next generation” of European leaders – younger people who are poised to move into key positions in several European governments – I have heard their fundamental antipathy toward the U.S. At the same time, when I have listened to their American counterparts – many of whom are filling policymaking positions in the Obama administration and elsewhere – I have found ambivalence, disenchantment, cynicism and mistrust. My conclusion: This coming rift involves unfortunate statements that grab attention. Behind the statements are hardening attitudes that signal risk for people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Unfortunate and risky
Unfortunate because, for example, these younger Europeans gave the impression that they were almost gleeful when the U.S. hit the mother of all economic bumps. Risky because the Europeans seem to underestimate their own economic peril. Unfortunate because Europe previously has spoken with so many voices that a mixed message was the usual result. Now, Europe’s rising generation of leaders speaks out with a more unified message. Risky because rising U.S. leaders hear this voice and, thin skinned, become offended by what they see as European smugness.
Perhaps the many voices of Europe are becoming one. Shared increasingly by tomorrow’s European leaders is a common attitude toward many things, including the U.S. As they find common ground and a unified voice, their message – whatever it is – may be the brightest sign that European political unification is possible. In the long run, the content of the message matters less than the fact that it is a common message.
For their part, the “next generation” of American leaders seems to be finding reasons to be upset with Europe. More than any previous American generation, this one has traveled and lived throughout Europe. In going back to their roots and then beyond, this generation’s observations are personal, not as filtered as in previous generations. These young Americans have tales to tell about the anti-Americanism they perceive (even if Europeans would insist that the perceptions are wrong).
The legacy of 9-11
Europeans cannot understand how deeply 9-11 affected so many young Americans. Take the extreme but not isolated experience of one young woman, a physician of Dutch heritage. Her family is firmly established in the U.S. and she was educated in one of the best schools on the Eastern seaboard. Like many others of her age and background, she became disenchanted with her country and was happy to leave. She settled into her medical practice in the Netherlands. She loved the European lifestyle, she spoke admiringly of European cosmopolitanism and European culture. Then came 9-11.
As her Dutch colleagues and neighbors reacted with derisive comments (“You had it coming” was common), she became haunted by the realization that the friendly Dutch had harbored those sentiments all along but had kept quiet till the terrorists attacked. She felt betrayed. She now practices in the U.S. and is one of many who returned, disillusioned, hurt, even seething with anger. Certainly, her experience was not the norm for expatriate Americans in Europe. But it was repeated enough to have created an undercurrent of distrust that at some level may affect American attitudes and actions for years to come.
Contrast that with a generation of Europeans who have also spent their time discovering Europe. When they travel beyond their continent, it is often to Asia and other continents, and not as much to North America beyond typical destinations such as New York, Southern California and Florida. These rising European leaders seem to have less firsthand experience and more filtered information about the U.S.
How did a generation of Europeans become so, well, anti-American? Several European researchers have been following the trend for years and suggest that it is not the whole generation, just the privileged members of this rising generation who have been educated at the better schools. They have created a European version of what Americans recognize as “Hollywood chic.”
“Chic” on both sides of the Atlantic is coercive. Would-be adherents are pressured, subtly but persistently, into adopting a certain “attitude” as well as a set of beliefs. Failure to adopt the proper “attitude” leads to banishment faster than failure to agree on issues. Horrors! You mean I need to have an “attitude” or I might not be invited to the best cocktail parties?
In the marketplace of ideas in any field, those who buck orthodoxy suffer marginalization. Today’s rising European political orthodoxy is dismissive of the U.S. But unlike previous U.S. leaders, who ignored Europe’s opinions or were clueless, tomorrow’s U.S. leaders have picked up on the language of condescension. Tomorrow’s European leaders convey that they think Americans are uninformed, poorly educated, bullying, wrong. Where does this lead?
First, some good news: It turns out that miffed young Americans react just about the same as miffed Europeans when they believe they are being ignored or taken for granted. Americans do not like it when they get a dose of their own medicine. So a single solution, not a separate solution for each side of the Atlantic, is more likely to work. If the Americans get over their hurt feelings, or put them aside, or stop looking for reasons to be offended, then relations may take a less bumpy road. The young Europeans are less likely to modify their behavior or change their views. They are emerging from a horrible 20th century. They are regaining a sense of pride and importance and many Europeans have a renewed feeling of patriotism, but might not call it patriotism. No matter: Americans understand.
Just a fire department?
Now, some bad news: America’s future leaders seem to agree with a statement made by a Rhodes scholar from California: “Europe wants the U.S. to be the fire department. When they have a fire, we are supposed to rush in and put it out and go away. They really think that we are just for their emergencies. Then they want us gone. Of course, our dollars should stay.”
Part of this problem comes because European-Americans are the ones having trouble cutting their ties with their European roots. Europeans seem to have severed the cord with their Diaspora. A Chinese-American speaking to a group of mostly European-Americans summed it up: “What’s with your tie to Europe? The Europeans don’t reciprocate. I’m Chinese by ancestry but American in my brain and heart. Can’t you get it? We’re not Europe West. We’re a big and diverse country, but we’re all alone. China won’t help me. Europe won’t help you.”
How did a generation of Americans become so sensitive? Look to the formative years of today’s rising U.S. leaders. Perhaps the future projected by President Reagan was too difficult to attain. Three decades ago, Margaret Thatcher brought to Britain, but not to Europe, a rough restructuring of the welfare state. Shortly after that, Reagan brought a similar restructuring to the U.S. As the restructurings took hold, Britain thrived and military spending in the U.S. swamped the Soviet Union’s ability to keep pace. The Communist system was left behind, without much continental European help.
The legacy of those years is a generation of Americans that came of political age under Reagan. Today, members of that generation may be Democrats, Independents or Republicans. This generation of Americans remembers the successes of Reaganism more than the failures.
Is the cynical new “Europe is feckless” generation of American leaders simply feeling sorry for itself? A young Frenchman said that “Americans need to grow up.” Is that all it will take? A German said that “Europe is struggling with growing pains that dwarf anything in the U.S.” Both are correct; but the Europeans might grow up a little, too, and Europe has a history of growing pains, as does the U.S. and every other place on earth. Still, the two comments can teach us about perspectives, about impressions, about deeply held feelings.
A difference in coming of age
For Europe’s future leaders it may mean understanding just how different the political “coming of age” has been in the U.S. and Europe. A declining empire never goes quietly. Giving Americans some of their own medicine is not constructive foreign policy, even if it makes young Europeans feel better.
Notice how many of the disagreements involve feelings and not facts? These are superficial attitudes, perhaps lacking the maturity that age will bring. What about the policy attitudes that can be critical to avoiding the coming clash? Everyone must recognize the obvious: Tomorrow’s European leaders see a different world from their American counterparts.
The young Europeans want to avoid Europe’s recent past. The young Americans are concerned that their successful past may not extend into the future.
The young Europeans see the U.S. as a competitor, even an economic enemy. They see a declining U.S. The Americans see Europeans as ungrateful and – worse – undependable. The young Americans still see the U.S. as the “last best hope” for the world.
The Europeans see China and India as markets to be exploited for mutual benefit. The young Americans see China as a potential enemy and hope for a greater and mutually beneficial relationship with India. The Europeans find friends in Asia and Africa. The Americans are undecided.
The young Europeans see Americans as hopelessly patriotic and too religious. The young Americans see Europe as corrupt and godless.
The Americans think Europe is ungrateful. The Europeans think the U.S. is demanding, almost clawing.
The Europeans have in-jokes at the expense of non-Europeans, especially racial minorities, with Americans as favored targets. The Americans are petulant, withdrawn, yet eager for European acceptance.
Are the rising leaders in Europe and the U.S. mature enough to make the judgments required of leaders? Based on what I have heard, we cannot assume that they are. For all their schooling and pampered lives, on both side of the Atlantic, they are almost childish in their desire to please their own clique. They think they know much more than they do.
Growing up may be hard to do
The “chic” seem to compete with each other for clever new ways to show their dismissiveness of the people across the Atlantic. They need to grow up.
The best way to alleviate disagreements is to have wise leaders. Wisdom is the proper blending of intelligence, knowledge and experience. Wisdom is rare and maturity is no substitute. But maturity is wisdom’s companion. Therefore, young leaders with a mature outlook should be nurtured because a few may attain wisdom.
On the other hand, nations never mature. Nations are always growing up. Wise leaders are valuable because they can bring their nations back to the better path, at least for a time.
We have clever young leaders. They lack wisdom. Worse, they lack maturity.