EUROPEAN SOFT POWER—LITTLE UNDERSTOOD IN THE U.S.—IS SURPRISINGLY EFFECTIVE
NONETHELESS, ITS HANDLING OF GREECE DOES NOT IMPRESS.
WILL EUROPE EVOLVE TO BE MORE CONSTRUCTIVE AND DECISIVE?
IT HAD BETTER
The following is a truly impressive—and disturbing—article on the fundamental differences between the U.S. and Europe by the ever perceptive Roger Cohen (see photo) of the New York Times.
After 14 years in the U.S., I cannot but agree. Unfortunately, the differences are profound—though not, I’m glad to say, normally to the point of hostility. We just have different outlooks on life—and, insofar as we think about such matters (less than we should) we agree to differ.
I am extremely fond of the U.S., and of my American friends, but my values—I have learned—are European.
I am no fan of governments in general—but I don’t believe in rugged individualism (to the degree Americans do). I do believe in personal responsibility, but it is in the nature of life that we all need help at some time or other—and government is (or should be) cooperation write large.
The Right Wing American argument is that government doesn’t work—and it is always less efficient that private enterprise.
The evidence—and there is a great deal of it, from many counties, over decades—is that such an American viewpoint is wrong.
Governments, like private companies, vary hugely—some are abysmal—but a substantial number, where economic wellbeing and quality of life are concerned, serve their populations well. Look no further than Northern Europe.
A few years ago, Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.”
In the United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62 percent.
This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance.
Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency.
The French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights. Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.
To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.
In his intriguing new book, “The United States of Excess,” Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist, cites the 2011 Pew survey as he grapples with these divergent cultures. His focus is on American overconsumption of fuel and food. Why, he asks, is the United States an “outlier” in greenhouse gas emissions and obesity, and what, if anything, will it do about it?
Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are about twice those of the other wealthy nations of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. American obesity (just over a third of American adults are now obese) is running at about twice the European average and six times the Japanese.
Paarlberg argues persuasively that these American phenomena are linked. He finds their causes in demographic, cultural and political factors. A resource-rich, spacious nation, mistrustful of government authority, persuaded that responsibility is individual rather than collective, optimistic about the capacity of science and technology to resolve any problem, and living in a polarized political system paralyzed by its “multiple veto points,” tends toward “a scrambling form of adaptation” rather than “effective mitigation.”
Americans, in their majority, don’t want to increase taxes on fossil fuels or tax sugar-sweetened drinks because they see such measures as a regressive encroachment on individual freedoms — to drive an automobile and consume what you want. They won’t go the German route of promoting renewables like solar and wind power by guaranteeing higher fixed prices for those who generate it because higher electricity costs would result. Whether it comes to food or fuel, they don’t want measures where “voting-age adults are being coerced into a lifestyle change.”
Individualism trumps all — and innovation, it is somehow believed, will save the country from individualism’s ravages.
Paarlberg notes that: “Americans eat alone while at work, alone while commuting to work in the car, alone at the food court while shopping, alone at home while watching TV, and alone in front of the refrigerator both before and after normal mealtime.”
But if all that eating continues to generate obesity — as it will — Americans tend to put their faith in “improved bariatric surgeries, and new blockbuster diet drugs” that “will be challenges welcomed by America’s innovative and responsive private market institutions.” Rather than cut back, they prefer to consume more — whether fuel or food — and then find ways to offset excess.
With the strong policy measures needed to control excess consumption — taxes, regulations and mandates — blocked, political leaders are “tempted to shift more resources and psychological energy toward the second-best path of adaptation,” Paarlberg writes: Easier, and potentially more profitable, to develop drought-resistant farm crops or improve coastal protection systems than tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
His conclusions are pessimistic. The world should not expect America to change. Its response to overconsumption is inadequate. On global warming, the country adapts but does not confront, content “to protect itself, and itself alone.” On obesity, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities.
The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn, vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic conclusion is that they probably are.
Roger Cohen’s insightful article largely skips over one decidedly relevant aspect—and that is whether both are equally valid approaches to life, each capable of delivering what their respective populations expect, and require.
Neither Europeans nor Americans are entirely happy with their respective situations—it would be contrary to human nature if they were—but it is my observation that the European approach is delivering markedly superior results (despite aberrations like Greece). Here, it is worth appreciating that the European Union consists of at least 28 nations, so the fact that a few of them are experiencing some crisis or other should scarcely be surprising. Similarly, the performance of some U.S. states is scarcely stellar.
It is worth asking what will happen if the U.S. continues along its current egregiously unequal individualist path—complete with ever growing underclass and the income of most Americans in decline.
It seem to me that there will have to be some change in direction—or the results will be catastrophic.
But the recent Great Recession was as blunt a warning as a country is ever likely to receive—short of full scale war—and that seems to have changed little—so perhaps the momentum of the U.S. is such that it will continue on its current course regardless.
I cannot see that such an outcome will be good—for Americans, in particular, or the world in general.