James Melton: Why Europeans Are Fed Up with Us

Roundup: Historians' Take

James Melton, history professor and chair of German studies, discussing the roots of anti-Americanism on the Continent, at Emory University's daylong conference called "A New Balance in Europe?" (as presented in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 2, 2004):

What do Europeans think is wrong with us?

Anti-Americanism in Europe today is not a new phenomenon, but at least in my own experience, hostility to the United States among Europeans is deeper and more widespread than I can remember since I first began traveling to Europe on a regular basis some 25 years ago. You just have to visit a European country, read its newspapers, watch its news broadcasts, talk with a reasonably broad range of inhabitants, and you see that. . . .

These attitudes have a history. . . . [They] are an integral part of a discourse, the elements of which arose at different times in the centuries that followed American independence, but they became more or less visible by the period between the first and second world wars. OK, then, what are the elements of this anti-American discourse? Or, to put it less academically, what do Europeans think is wrong with us?

* Americans' belief in their exceptionalism. Since the latter decades of the 19th century, Europeans have often been annoyed by Americans' insistence that the United States is different from and indeed better than other nations, particularly European ones.

The Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who worked for a time very unhappily at menial jobs in the American Midwest during the 1880s, wrote, "It is incredible how naively cocksure Americans are in their belief that they can whip any enemy whatsoever. There is no end to their patriotism. It is a patriotism that never flinches. And it is just as loudmouthed as it is vehement."

By this time, American patriotism, which previous commentators like de Toqueville had seen as more or less benign, had come to be seen as more menacing by European observers, all the more so because Americans had not only subjugated their own continent but had emerged as a sea power and had begun to build their own overseas empire. Europe's devastation in the Great War sharpened these fears of an American imperium.

* The second component of this anti-American discourse has to do with what Europeans see as a messianic moralism that is at best naive, at worst hypocritical. I don't think it's any accident that in the 20th century the three American presidents most disliked by Europeans were Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, all of whom were inclined, albeit in different ways, to couch U.S. foreign policy in moral terms.

If you read Sigmund Freud's psycho-biography of Woodrow Wilson, you get a sense of just how pathological Europeans viewed this moralism to be. Former President Carter is revered in Europe today, but it's worth remembering that in the 1970s, he was highly criticized for what Europeans saw as his . . . simplistic moralism. You had Europeans waxing nostalgic for the days of Nixon and Kissinger --- realpolitik, that sort of thing. . . .

* America as an immature and callow adolescent. This image, which European observers began to invoke not long after the founding of the republic, has developed over time to include a number of invidious comparisons between Europe and the United States. Europe has a history; America doesn't. Europeans, like any good adult, acknowledge limits and boundaries; Americans do not. Europeans possess a maturity and patience born of centuries of experience; Americans are an impatient people with too much energy who, like a 2-year-old child, want what they want and they want it now, even if it means ruining the environment or provoking a world crisis.

* Americans and their culture or, precisely, their lack of culture. This is a stereotype that anyone who has spent time in Europe has seen. . . . the image of Americans as shallow, crass, materialistic, deracinated, ruthlessly utilitarian --- no roots, no higher culture, no attachment to anything that doesn't carry a price tag. And if this isn't bad enough, according to this view, our technological know-how, our . . . obsession with efficiency, allows us to export this culture to the rest of the world. . . .

What the war in Iraq has done, whatever one thinks of the decision to invade Iraq, has been to mobilize and galvanize all these disparate elements of anti-American discourse in Europe. So for European critics of American policy, this U.S. decision to "go it alone" epitomizes American exceptionalism --- the belief that we're different, we can do it alone, we don't need the advice or help of the Europeans, thank you.

Second, for these European critics, the arrogance and hypocrisy of American moralism are evident in the administration's justification of the war as an effort to implant democracy in the Arab world. What I hear again and again in talking with Europeans and reading European newspapers is this emphasis constantly on, "This is just a moral fig leaf --- what the Americans are really interested in is oil. This is a war for oil." A very cynical view.

Third, the U.S. decision to undertake military action in Iraq, which is considered a precipitous decision by many if not most Europeans, evokes for them an image of America as an immature, ungainly adolescent who doesn't know what to do with his energy, who turns over the chessboard when things don't go his way. And again, there's this invidious comparison with the Europeans, who are of course cool-headed, mature, have the wisdom of centuries of experience, and so forth.

And finally, the war in Iraq is seen by many Europeans as yet another attempt by the United States to impose its will on the rest of the world. And it has mobilized these European fears of globalization, these fears of Americanization, of a homogenized world of Starbucks and McDonald's.

comments powered by Disqus