New Europe, Old Europe


Universe Column for March 23rd 2003

By David Alton

When describing the differences between the sexes one writer famously wrote that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” This thought has now been extended to the world of transatlantic diplomacy and politics. Americans are portrayed as active against European passivity.

Like most generalisations there is probably some truth in this but ultimately it is only a generalisation.

What is true is that the old Cold War threat of the Soviet Union and Communist hegemony united Western Europe and America. By contrast, the Middle East divides us – and with 20 million Muslims living in Europe that is unlikely to change.

We are also divided by our different histories.

Europe sees life through the lens of two World Wars fought primarily on its soil. It remembers the ruined cities and the carnage and is reluctant to use its military power through fear of precipitating similar events.

America, by contrast, sees life through a different lens. For them, the appeasement of Munich was Europe’s point of capitulation; they believe that democratic values must be fought for and that military might can be deployed in its service. That  radical commitment to idealism was entrenched by 9:11 2001.

The U.S. sometimes talks disparagingly about “old Europe” and approvingly about “new Europe.”

But this is as much a generalisation as the analogy with Venus and Mars. America would be wrong to calculate that the recently freed countries of Central and Eastern Europe will always have a hostility to Germany and France – just as the French and Germans will have to reassess their recent hostility to the USA. It’s not in their long term interests to do otherwise. Indeed, there is already the beginning of a backlash in Germany against their Government’s recent strident anti-Americanism.

And what exactly do we mean by new and old?

“New” America, for instance, has had democratic institutions for the best part of three hundred years, whereas parts of “Old” Europe have had them only since 1945 and 1989.  “New” America is happily a much more deeply religious society than cynical, old, secularised pagan Europe.

If anti-Americanism is intensifying in Europe so is anti-Europeanism intensifying in the USA. Some of that is sparked by the vitriolic irrational hatred of President Bush. It was bad enough to impute a moral equivalence between Bush and Saddam Hussein. Now it has gone further with Saddam achieving poular cult status in some quarters because “he is against the Americans.” Never mind what he has done to the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, the Assyrian Christians, the Shia Muslims and to Iraqi dissenters.

It is this sort of irrational nonsense that will make America anti-European and unilateralist.

That’s why ultimately we had better stop talking about Mars and Venus – or about Americans “doing the cooking while Europeans are left to do the washing up” and learn how to live together on the same planet – bringing all our respective gifts to the table. The bottom line is that we have many shared values. We may sometimes differ about how to defend them, but defend them we must.

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