"The Germans haven't been very nice to us," said a friend of mine when I mentioned that I was going to Germany for a week-long vacation. Sensing a note of disapproval, I felt compelled to point out that at least I wasn't going to France.
The war in Iraq has escalated tensions between the United States and some of our traditional allies in Europe—tensions that show no signs of abating after the war's end. There have been anti-American protests in Europe and boycotts of French goods in the United States. European opinion tends to think of us as arrogant, aggressive bullies filled with missionary zeal to remake the world in our image. American opinion tends to regard Europe as exhausted and spineless.
The debate about whether this war was justified is likely to continue for some time. However, the quarrel between America and Europe is not just about the war. The latest events simply served as a lightning rod for strong emotions in a complicated love-hate relationships—emotions that were previously channeled, less intensely, into such issues as globalization.
To many Europeans, intellectuals in particular, America is an embodiment of unbridled capitalism and greed, of a frenetic culture in which money-making takes precedence over living and everyone looks out for number one. To many Americans, Europe is a bastion of the welfare state in which people are tied down in bureaucratic regulations that rob them of initiative and independence, turning them into pampered children.
Culture is another area of conflict. Many educated Europeans bristle at the dominance of American movies, television shows, video games, and fast-food outlets, which they view as a rising tide of mindless vulgarity and bad taste threatening to engulf sophisticated Old World cultures. Many Americans bristle at what they regard as elitist European snobbery.
All these mutual resentments are exacerbated by the fact that the two sides may resemble each other more than they like to admit. Thus, big government has become a permanent feature of American life, the conservative "revolution" notwithstanding. (Its growth has remained steady under the Bush presidency.) Many Americans fear that we are losing our freedoms to creeping socialism. Meanwhile, in European countries such as France and Germany, governments and the public are confronting the necessity to freeze or even roll back some of their most cherished welfare-state services. The labor unions' attempt to further shorten the work week are meeting with widespread public opposition. There is also growing support for measures that would reform the pension system, cutting back retirement benefits.
As often happens, the hostilities can make both sides look bad. While I believe we have a legitimate beef with the French government's conduct in the war with Iraq, renaming French fries "freedom fries" is a silly and petulant gesture. But those who mock American jingoism should consider the French government's campaign (which was underway long before the current conflict) to purge the French language of English words such as "computer" and, most recently, "e-mail," replacing them with clumsy French equivalents.
There are, on both sides, misconceptions and stereotypes. The United States has been accused of waging war for oil, profit, and greed—but in fact, one could far more plausibly argue that the European states that opposed the war profited from their cozy relationship with Saddam Hussein (they certainly supplied him with the lion's share of his arsenal). The Europeans, and the French in particular, have been caricatured as perpetually battle-shy cowards—but over the past two centuries they have lost millions of lives to war.
Traveling through Germany's picturesque landscapes, fairy-tale villages, and medieval towns with a small group of other American tourists, I sometimes think with sadness of the current rift between the United States and Europe. I am troubled by Europe's slide into often vicious anti-Americanism and by the concurrent rise of anti-Semitism, ostensibly driven by opposition to Israeli policies. I am also disturbed by some American conservatives' "who needs Europe?" attitude, which meshes with a growing parochial strand in American culture.
America and Europe have had something of a love-hate relationship ever since the founding of the United States, and perhaps even before. Europeans have admired America's dynamic, forward-looking spirit but have also scorned and feared what they saw as America's crass practicality. Americans have been torn between yearning for European civilization and wanting to cast off the shackles of the Old World past. Right now, we are in a "hate" phase of the relationship. But we do have common cultural roots, and we are likely to need each other for some time to come.