© 2001 The Washington Post Company

It's All the Rage in Europe

By Martin Kettle

Sunday, January 7, 2001; Page B04

 

It is hardly a secret that Europeans, along with many other inhabitants of the planet, had a prolonged laugh at America's expense during the aftermath of last year's presidential election. In Europe, those sniggers appear to be part of something that is at once more serious and more sustained: a new form of post-Cold War anti-Americanism that reflects mounting unease with the American capitalist model and its cultural outgrowths.

This phenomenon was already beginning to make itself felt well before the election, over three issues in particular: the death penalty, global warming and national missile defense. For several months, all have generated increasingly bitter headlines against U.S. policies, and all have triggered protest movements in France, Britain, Holland and elsewhere that seem likely to grow in the future.

Here in the United States, none of these issues figured greatly in the election campaign. Nor did the gun culture, another intensively reported aspect of modern America that mystifies and disturbs many beyond its shores. These are issues, however, that many Europeans readily associate with this country, a fact that poses a special challenge for the new president.

The mood against capital punishment is especially strong in France and Italy. The U.S. ambassador to France, Felix Rohatyn, has pointed out that the issue is harming America's standing there. Even in Britain, where public opinion traditionally favors the death penalty, America's ready use of capital punishment has caused widespread anger.

Under the headline "Bush's Shame -- Shock Issue," the left-wing daily tabloid newspaper, the Mirror, devoted no less than the first nine pages of its Nov. 16 issue to a case-by-case examination of the 150 people executed in Texas while George W. Bush was governor, concluding with a much wider editorial comment: "Do we really want a man like him making snap decisions on whether to drop bombs or go to war? Do we really like the idea of his finger on the big trigger? No, we don't." Bush, it continued, "is a thoroughly dangerous, unpleasant piece of work who shouldn't be let anywhere near the White House."

America has become the villain on the issue of global warming, too. Throughout much of Europe, the collapse of November's conference in The Hague on climate change was blamed on the Americans. Rightly or wrongly -- and as an Englishman who has lived in America since 1997, I accept that we Europeans can sometimes seem very pious -- most Europeans believe that while they grapple with sustainability amid limited resources, Americans are simply burning fuel like there is no tomorrow. Europeans believe that no American administration has the gumption to confront American consumers over their fuel consumption habits. The energy crisis in California, widely reported in Europe, is seen as living proof of American energy profligacy.

National missile defense has provided a third rallying point. Not since the United States deployed short-range cruise missiles in western Europe during the mid-1980s has an arms issue so galvanized European opposition, ranging governments as well as protesters against America's efforts to turn itself into what Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, acutely describes as a "national gated community."

The European mood of exasperation with the United States was building through much of the past year, but the election energized it still further, producing an astonishingly contemptuous press response across Europe. "Shambles," "Mickey Mouse" and "banana republic" were some of the politer responses. In Britain, the conservative Daily Mail, normally as pro-Republican a newspaper as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay could wish for, asked its readers on the eve of the election: "Will the U.S. really pick Dubya as its next President?"

Americans, as well as those of us Europeans who work here, are going to have to get used to this kind of disdain. For, as Al Gore said too often during the campaign: You ain't seen nothing yet.

From the days of John Winthrop, Americans have liked to imagine their nation as a model for the rest of the world. For many of the intervening 370 years, such a view was both understandable and true -- most recently perhaps when the Berlin Wall fell and communism was swept away in Eastern Europe.

But the city upon the hill is not standing the test of new times. Increasingly, Europeans sense that they exist across a cultural and political gulf from Model America. In what is increasingly a single world, the two continents are drifting farther apart.

Anti-Americanism may seem like a term with an anachronistic ring to it. Unless you live in Baghdad or Havana, there hasn't been much of it around for a good few years. The more contemporary form of anti-Americanism that is creeping, and perhaps even bounding, onto the world stage looks considerably different from its former incarnation. During the Cold War, anti-Americanism was almost always an expression of opposition to the actions of the American state. It was overwhelmingly a response to macro-political issues like American military intervention overseas (preeminently in Vietnam), or U.S. nuclear weapons policy, or America's covert and overt support for a variety of corrupt and brutal dictatorships in all parts of the globe.

That old form of anti-Americanism has largely gone with the wind. American military action overseas can still spark protests, of course, as can U.S. nuclear weapons policy (as the national missile defense project may show), but the scale and intensity of such protests is minuscule in comparison with the mass movements that were provoked by earlier arms issues during the Cold War.

The new anti-Americanism is less focused on external acts of the American state; it is more likely to be triggered by internal things such as the American love affair with the automobile, the cult of the gun or the uncritical assumption that American is always best. In some respects, today's critics are taking issue with the American way of life itself.

In the post-communist world order, in which the United States sees itself as the necessary nation, Americans should not be surprised at such a shift. But Americans should not be indifferent to a growing sense in Europe and elsewhere that there sometimes appears to be one law for privileged America and another law for other countries.

That feeling seems to me to be the common factor in European responses to issues such as global warming and national missile defense. A lot of Europeans simply believe that Americans are too self-absorbed to either know what is happening or to care how the rest of the world sees them. My own e-mail postbag from those who read my coverage of the United States on both sides of the Atlantic certainly bears this out. As one reader from Florida -- she had to be -- wrote at the height of the battle there: "I think it best if you minded your own business there in the U.K. and let us decide our destiny."

But it's our destiny, too, and The Hague conference provided a particularly dramatic example of why such unilateralism is increasingly provocative. Another example lies in the inevitable fate under the new administration of the treaty setting up the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the Clinton administration signed in the last hours of the last day of 2000. The treaty is not legally binding without Senate approval, which is unlikely to be forthcoming because of objections from Republicans.

The outright Republican refusal to participate in the new court -- a position that would place the United States alongside such human rights paragons as Iran, Iraq and Libya, which in other circumstances are dismissed as threats to global stability and order -- sends a barely credible message to post-communist Europe. Underlying this refusal seems to be an American belief that human rights abuses are committed only by other nationals, not by Americans and not by the uncriticizable American military.

There is surely a disjunction here. Universal modern American values supposedly reign supreme alongside American entrepreneurial dynamism. Yet while the rest of the world is struggling to make itself answerable to global legal standards, America is increasingly determined to stand aloof. It's a message that says the United States is happy with double standards.

As I say, the mounting global impatience with these aspects of America predates the rise of President-elect Bush. Some of the hostility applied as much to the Clinton administration as to its successor. But by luck or judgment, Americans have now acquired a president who uniquely embodies many of the interests and assumptions that are helping to feed the growing global alienation from American values and policy. He is an energy unilateralist. He is an opponent of the ICC. He is a defender of the gun culture. He was the governor of the leading death penalty state. He is an advocate of the most far-reaching versions of national missile defense. He was also, of course, the overwhelming beneficiary of a tarnished election.

Bush has a huge job to do if he wishes to reverse the new mood, though it is far from clear whether the new administration really cares about such consequences. Most Americans have barely considered these problems, and many will be inclined to dismiss them. That could be a costly mistake. For Bush's mere arrival in the White House is likely to be the best recruiting sergeant that the new anti-Americanism could have hoped for.

Martin Kettle is Washington bureau chief for Britain's Guardian newspaper.