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Euro Cheek

George w. Bush's trip to Europe last week offered America's highbrow press something delicious: a big, new foreign policy idea. Europe and the United States, we were told over and over, are drifting apart because of a conflict over values. During the cold war, Europe resented America for what it did; today, Europe resents America for what it believes. Global warming, missile defense, the death penalty, economic policy--each dispute further illustrated this transatlantic cultural gulf.

A clash of civilizations! What fun. Too bad it probably isn't true. For starters, Europe's increasingly integrated elite may feel alienated from American values, but the Continent's McDonald's-eating unwashed seem considerably less hostile. As The New Republic's Notebook explained last week, the death penalty--which Europeans supposedly see as a sign of American barbarism--polls between 40 percent and 60 percent popular support in Britain, Italy, France, and Sweden. As Philippe Mechet, director general of the French polling firm Sofres, recently told Time magazine, "The elites, as reflected in the media, make a big issue of this, but public opinion does not feel as strongly about it." Europeans are also supposedly outraged by Bush's opposition to the Kyoto global-warming treaty--but, with the exception of Romania, no European parliament has ratified it either.

Europeans, we were further informed, are furious about the Americanization of their cultures and economies. But the evidence for that is a little thin as well. After all, if American culture weren't so popular with the European public, European elites wouldn't be so worried about it. And on economic policy, it's not as if European elections over the last decade have witnessed great rejections of American-style deregulation. To the contrary, European social democratic parties have slowly followed the path forged by Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labourites--toward less state intervention in the economy. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has proposed free-market reforms that would have made his SPD predecessors gasp. It's not the anti-globalization (read: anti-Americanization) movement that has dominated European politics in recent years; it's the relatively pro-American "Third Way."

What many are interpreting as a transatlantic cultural divide may simply be a dysfunctional relationship between the American and European presses. The European press has long been to the left of the European public. During the cold war, when socialism was still politically viable, European journalists could express that leftism ideologically. But today, with socialism gone, European journalists have turned to the language of cultural nationalism. Instead of framing global warming, missile defense, and capital punishment as pitting left versus right, they depict them as pitting France (or Germany or Italy) versus the United States. And since Europe's intellectual elite increasingly conceives of its identity as not simply French, German, or Italian, but European, it frames political conflicts as pitting compassionate European values against Darwinian American ones.

Why does the American press buy this dichotomy? Because the European press is where American correspondents in Europe get a lot of their information. And because, ever since George W. became president, American journalists--who generally lean left--have been feeling pretty alienated from American culture as well. The result is a self-righteous European media and a self-flagellating American one speaking to each other in a kind of echo chamber.
All this isn't to suggest there are no "values" differences between the United States and Europe. It is to suggest that the current framework for thinking about those differences--compassionate Europe versus heartless America--is wrong. Why, for instance, has capital punishment become such a prominent issue for European elites in the last few years? After all, the United States has been executing people for 25 years now. My suspicion is that European elites focus on the death penalty because it incarnates the values they associate with the American economy. For highbrow Europeans, America's primary offense in the era of globalization is unregulated capitalism, which they consider brutal, inhumane, and unjust to the poor and to minorities. But the economic debate is complicated, and, besides, Europe's alternative economic model hasn't been faring so well. So focusing on the death penalty offers a much more graphic way of making the same point.

On the death penalty itself, European moralists are right. But making the death penalty a metaphor for America is wrong. Economically America may have deep inequities, but wages for the poor have been rising over the past several years, something that can't be said for the many European countries where large chunks of the working class remain chronically unemployed.

And even on social policy, the stereotype of America as dynamic but heartless and Europe as inefficient but compassionate doesn't hold up. Consider immigration. The United States takes in about twice as many immigrants as do all the European nations combined. That's largely because, after a brief scare with Pat Buchanan and Pete Wilson in the mid-'90s, nativism has collapsed as a political force in America. But in Europe, with its supposedly "softer" values, it is sharply on the rise. In fact, hostility to immigrants increasingly defines the European right. In Italy, recently elected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged in his campaign to essentially seal Italy's borders, even calling on the Italian police to shoot at boats of illegal immigrants trying to reach Italian shores. In Britain, Tory candidate William Hague repeatedly blasted "bogus asylum-seekers" and warned that if Labour won reelection, Britain would become a "foreign land." Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, part of Austria's conservative governing coalition, warns of Uberfremdung--"over-foreignerization." By contrast, Bush has all but banished immigrant-bashing from the Republican Party. Last week he angered the military by promising to halt bombing in Vieques--a blatant pander to Puerto Rican voters. Can anyone imagine a conservative German politician taking a similar stand to win the votes of Turks? The truth is that, on immigration, America is much less brutal than Europe.

Is this greater humanity connected to America's history as a country of immigrants? Of course. Is America's greater brutality on questions of crime and punishment connected to its history of anti-black racism? Of course. But these historical contingencies are exactly the point. To suggest that European values are, in some overarching way, more compassionate than American ones constitutes a species of European self-delusion. It's not surprising that the Continent's elites might wish to indulge in it. What's stranger is that the American establishment so willingly plays along.