The Obama campaign had yet to see any crowd quite like it. Two hundred thousand people gathered in Berlin on July 23rd to hear the prospective Democratic candidate for President proclaim his implacable support for Euro-American rapprochement. That speech, which had no resounding moments like Kennedy’s (whose Bostonian accent actually mangled his historic 1961 declaration “ Ich bin ein Berliner,” making many Germans in the crowd think he had just described himself as a jelly donut) – or Reagan’s ( whose challenge to Mikhael Gorbachev in 1987 to dismantle the Berlin Wall was viewed in many European circles, lest we forget, as unnecessarily confrontational), still served its purpose. It galvanized European support for an Obama presidency.
Throughout Europe, the cognoscenti have gawked in astonishment as the eloquent black American has called for the institution of a new level of trust between the United States and its recalcitrant European allies. Indeed, the collapse of that relationship has been a central theme of the Obama campaign and resounding cry of the American left for the past eight years. One of the great travesties of the Bush Administration, according to this creed, is the unilateralism which has led to severe strains between the United States and the countries of the developed world. The invasion of Iraq is the first of many on the list, but equally the abrogation of the Kyoto Treaty, the resistance to the creation of the International Criminal Court and numerous other travesties of a unilateral flavor, have cast George Bush and his neo-conservative claque as a gang of international mobsters.
But the historical facts of Euro- American relations betray these positions. Forgotten by nearly all the Bush bashers is how every American president since Harry Truman has suffered the same level of distrust and opprobrium. George Bush was certainly not the first American president to be lampooned as a jingoistic cowboy. Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were all corralled with that particular lasso. Even Bill Clinton, whose smarminess and womanizing actually won him European admirers, attracted a great deal of animus for his intervention in Bosnia and his bombing of Afghan terrorist bases in the late 1990s.
In fact, anti- Americanism pre-dates Bush by more than 350 years. In the 17th Century, the young settlement in the Americas was the subject of intense revulsion and distrust among European intellectuals. The fact of the Pilgrims’ desire to escape inherent European inequalities, injustice and persecution was cause enough for Europeans to view the upstart colonies as a threat to the prevailing hierarchical order. In the early 19th Century, the success of the American continent in forging a new variety of liberal democracy, wherein ordinary citizens could rise to positions of prominence and power, challenged the aristocratic prerogative of governance. The successful integration of millions of poor immigrants – the true cast offs of Europe – from the 1880s through to the early 1920s, heightened a sense of America’s parvenu status and its supposed willingness to employ the energies of these same disenfranchised masses in a new challenge to European global dominance. American intervention in both World Wars during the first half of the 20th Century and the collapse of the international financial system in 1929 (which was regarded as a consequence of the collapse of Wall Street), made it startlingly clear to the Europeans how much they were dependent on American goodwill, largesse and stability. Resentment and antipathy were natural corollaries of the realization that European nations, particularly after the end of the Second World War, had lost their position of world dominance.
American post-war ascendancy has attracted is own level of resistance, particularly among the French, whose major post-war political figure Charles de Gaulle, viewed American interference in European affairs with the utmost contempt. So too did the architects of the European Common Market ( and later the European Union) who saw in American financial growth a threat to European unity and cohesion.
European anti-Americanism truly crystallized after the epochal attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 and this is where we have learned the true extent of its animus and resentment. A Party of Democratic Socialism leaflet, widely distributed in Hamburg in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, proclaimed that
“ What goes around comes around ” , implying that that Americans got what they deserved. And while public expressions of horror and regret filled the European airwaves, in the drawing rooms and dinner parties of the elite, there was a smug acceptance that American hubris had been dealt a satisfying blow.
Coupled with this, is the vestiges of the pre-democratic European notion that the life of a democracy is too banal, ordinary and lacking in dignity to be accorded permanent ascendance over all other ideologies or political systems. To the refined European mind, the over reaching imperatives of free enterprise, free trade and free exchange of ideas, are gauche and lacking in character. This is perhaps the reason that socialism and socialist policies still offer an enormous attraction to European leaders and intellectuals – and that democratic capitalism, of which the United States is the most visible international symbol, is demonized as a retrograde and even destructive system within many European circles.
We should also not ignore the fact that modern anti- Americanism dovetails most noticeably with anti-Semitism. Since the Jews, in the simplistic anti-Semite’s world view, are seen as operating the levers of capitalism, the United States, as the locus of world capitalism, must, qua, be a country run by Jews. This abhorrent ( although time-honored) syllogism is a convenient way to identify the causes of the world’s most serious problems. It should not, therefore, seem unusual to hear European leaders, opinion makers and ordinary citizens regularly excoriating Israel and the United States as the twin ( and only) threats to world peace.
The prevailing notion, then, that eight years of the Bush Administration were the catalyst for the corrosion of the Euro-American alliance is simply untrue. The rot in the relationship had begun centuries before and has had new manifestations in the modern day. As Stanford University professor, Russell Berman, capably demonstrates in his book Anti- Americanism in Europe ( Hoover Press, 2003), contemporary anti- Americanism most strikingly revolves around current complaints that the United States refuses to surrender elements of its sovereignty to international bodies. Advocates of forms of international governance see American reluctance on this score as an unreasonable resistance to the world’s natural progression towards the institution of a world government.
Which brings us back to Barak Obama and his promise of a new relationship with America’s stalwart European allies. Robin Oakley, CNN’s European political editor, reported following the Obama speech, that the Illinois Senator enjoyed widespread popularity in Europe and that “ after the unpopularity of George W. Bush, the world is waiting to love America again.” That comment is patent nonsense. Europe has rarely ever loved America. Obama’s reception in Germany and the rousing reception he received elsewhere, was not a promise of a revitalized relationship, but more like the first flush of an adolescent crush that could one day turn very sour. Obama, to many of these same sibilants, is revered precisely because he is not the face of America . He is not white; he is not part of the American establishment; he is not a hard nosed capitalist and nor is he pro-war.
But does all this mean that a President Obama would be more European in his thinking – less focused on American sovereignty and more open to accepting a role of equality with other nations?; Less prone to unilateralist policy making and more driven by a universalist ideology ? Almost certainly not. For whatever Barack Obama’s leftist leanings, he will be forced by the exigencies of modern political life to accept that the United States cannot afford to surrender its role as the leader of the free world for an abstract and dangerous notion of equality among peers. Congress, for all its own capriciousness, would be extremely hesitant to allow President Obama to steer the ship of state into the dangerous ideological waters of universalism. And a President Obama would risk his political life to deny American exceptionalism or the historic destiny of his country, as implied by the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and the statements of every one of his predecessors, as a force for the advancement of human liberty and freedom.
In the end, no one should be fooled into thinking that centuries of European animus to the United States will disappear overnight , merely because the ship of state has passed into the hands of a new helmsman. Prevailing European resentments, jealousies and mistrust will be with us for many decades, if not centuries. The new president, whoever he might be, should fortify himself with the notion that even between faithful lovers, a perceived betrayal can quickly transform beauty into ugliness and love into hate. The Europeans are well schooled in that kind of thinking. Lets hope that the new President learns it too, before his own determination to be well loved abroad, generate policies of rapprochement that do little to inspire permanent love, but a great deal to weaken U.S. strength and credibility.