Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The United States is a child of Europe. Thanks to our national language and our legal system, we are closest most of all to Great Britain, but because of millions of Italians, Germans, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans who emigrated from Europe in the past century, our ties to that continent remain.

In the present crisis, it is noteworthy that our relationship with our English ally, once our bitter foe in the decolonizing era of 1776-1815, is so durable and so reliable. France especially, as well as Germany, Belgium, and now Spain, have each distanced themselves from our efforts, but many more European nations have joined with us.

European public opinion, it is widely known, has opposed Anglo-American efforts in Iraq today. This seems to be a source of great embarrassment to many of those Americans who also oppose our initiative in Iraq. But this should surprise no one. Most American intellectual, artistic and educational elites have been in the thrall of continental European culture for almost two centuries.

Of course, Chinese civilization and Islamic civilization had previously invented most of the phenomena which became the basis of European ascendancy (including movable type and literature, engineering, science, mathematics and medicine). Europe was not ever really an original culture, it was a extraordinary derivative culture. What Europe did contribute to the world in the centuries of its hegemony, however, was modern colonialism. This colonialism, including the settlement of French, Belgians, Spaniards, Dutch, Portuguese and Italians in much of Africa, North and South America and Asia, proved to be violent and oppressive, Their former colonies today still bear many scars, including economic, social and governmental instability. Often with large populations and incredible natural resources, many of these former European colonies remain unfulfilled and unsuccessful. British colonialism was in many ways equally violent and oppressive. and even perhaps on a larger scale, but its former colonies today are for the most part quite distinctly not Third World. Ranging from New Zealand, Australia, India and Canada, to the United States, they are all successful democracies, and represent more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Does this mean anything?

Apparently not to American intellectuals and cultural critics who continue to deify everything European and to demonize everything American. Europeans, however, continue to adopt and adapt American culture to their own as quickly as they can. (And in their rush to centralize themselves into some kind of economic union, they are carelessly discarding many of their most treasured and original national traditions and customs.)

The point is that, in spite of its own large population and industrial base, Europe is today a political has-been. Its significant industrialism is being replaced by new sectors in the world, and its once dazzling arts and culture have become abstract and repetitive.

And what of France? This is the European state which believes it invented democratic revolution (in 1789), but which, after imitating the American revolution of 1776, proceeded to transform its revolt into a bloody terror followed by the imperialist and vain Napoleon. Then it returned to unstable royal rule, followed by a weak democracy — which culminated in the abject surrender of Vichy France to Hitler during World War II. After reinstating democracy, France resisted freeing its Algerian colony, and then exploded hydrogen bombs into the atmosphere of its Pacific island colonies in the 1960s — although the rest of that world had abandoned and denounced this kind of testing as too poisonous to those who lived even a thousand miles away.

The Europhiles who still fill American cultural and academic life allege that we do not now have the admiration and respect of Europe and most of the rest of the world. Of course, they felt this way before September 11 and before Iraq. Their stated desire is to be loved by the whole world, even as we protect it and ourselves from lethal totalitarianism and violence. This is the fundamental and perpetual error they make. To stand up to terror, and to assert our power in doing so, is antithetical to global popularity ratings.

Some wish to substitute the United Nations as the controlling force to protect the world. But the United Nations has long become a second League of Nations — born in idealistic optimism, yet matured into a petulant and passive organization that tries to justify the irresponsible behaviors of many of its members instead of resisting them. Like Europe, the United Nations has become a has-been.

This is a difficult moment in a difficult era. We have our own shortcomings. We have made mistakes, and the struggle is problematic. We have been here before — in 1778, in 1814, in 1864, in 1917, in 1942, and now in 2004. We can repair our mistakes and learn from them. We did then. We will now.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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