European exceptionalism

European exceptionalism

: As I was out running this morning, I was listening to NPR (during a Howard Stern commercial break) and heard a lopsided interview with an Economist journalist about the magazine’s special report on American exceptionalism. The interviewer kept emphasizing how different America is from Europe. And I stopped in my tracks.

There is no one Europe, damnit. In fact, on this day of all days — on Veterans/Remembrance/Armistice Day — let us be sure to recall how different Europeans are from each other. Let us recall in fact, how much Europeans hate each other — so much that they have spent centuries warring with each other and drawing the rest of the world into their nationalistic, ethnic, and colonial battles and ambitions. The present EUification of Europe allegedly unifying the continent in governance, policy, politics, economy, and outlook is a new, tenuous, and quite unproven experiment that utterly defies the grain of history there. There is no one Europe and we are not the exception to it.

No, Europe is the exception today.

The Economist’s survey — from what I’ve read so far this morning [can’t finish reading it because the Economist site is down] — is far more nuanced and intelligent than that heat-seeking NPR interview [which isn’t online as I write this] would indicate, for it says that America is, indeed, a force for good:

The day after he had defined America’s enemies in his “axis of evil” speech, in January 2002, Mr Bush told an audience in Daytona Beach, Florida, about his country’s “mission” in the world. “We’re fighting for freedom, and civilisation and universal values.” That is one strand of American exceptionalism. America is the purest example of a nation founded upon universal values, such as democracy and human rights. It is a standard bearer, an exemplar.

That makes us an “exception,” to stand for democracy and human rights? Then I’d worry about the rest of the world. But no, I don’t really believe that. America is an exemplar of a worldview and a world hope to which I thought Europe subscribed but to which it is now, sadly, becoming distant if it believes that we are the great exception. After World War I and World War II and during the Cold War, it seemed that America and Europe were united in at least support of democracy and opposition to tyranny, dictatorship, genocide, and military conquest as a means of national expansion. It seemed we were united in friendship as well, though now we must wonder whether that was just sucking up to us because Europe needed us to face down the Soviet threat. Was Europe being a friend or a phoney? I prefer to go with the Economist’s analysis, Europe on the couch, which puts some of this continental snarking down to jealousy: “…incoherence is one of the luxuries of impotence,” says the Economist. “Those who cannot, or will not, take responsbility themselves feel free to snipe at those who do.”

It’s not America that changed. It’s Europe that changed. After September 11th, America is only perhaps more of what is already was: more devoted to democracy, more devoted to freedom (yes, freedom from the likes of Saddam and freedom from the threat of terrorism), more devoted to our responsibilities to uphold those values and the rights of people even in other lands against tyranny and genocide, and more determined to defend ourselves. Try as Europe might to paint black our motives in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s fairly obvious that this is no picnic for us in the world. Argue with our methods and our success, fine. But motives? We used force in the defense of our own land and people and in defense of human rights against tyrannies. We are fighting for democracy or, yes, in Bush’s words, “for freedom, and civilization and universal values.” Sorry to have to point this out but on this day, it is appropriate to remember that Europe’s wars and international moves have historically been motivated instead by greed for land, money, and power and not for ideals.

What is Europe fighting for now? Europe is fighting against. Europe by this definition of us, is fighting against America for the sake of it, to be contrarian, to paint us as the exception when, in fact, it is Europe that is making itself the exception. And let’s not forget that Europe is, quite characteristically, fighting with itself: the Continent vs. Britain.

I’m tired of the new accepted wisdom that America is different. Europe — desperate for a new definition of itself — is the one standing apart. Europe is increasingly the exception.

: Update: The Economist survey is back up here. And here’s an NPR link.