Volume 16 Number 1
What Europe Should Understand About the Us
01 February 2003
Bryan Hamlin, a British-born American citizen, challenges Europe's prejudice towards the United States.
Born and educated in Britain, I have moved from being in love with an American - my wife - to also being in love with her country, while still loving the land of my birth.
It pains me therefore to see not only misunderstanding but, from my new perspective, animosity in Western Europe towards the United States. This animosity seems to go beyond understandable opposition to certain US government policies to something more pervasive, and I wonder why.
I am writing this in early December and we do not know what will happen as regards a possible war with Iraq. I hope and pray that it will not come to war, for everyone's sake. This is the view of the majority of people in my state of Massachusetts - surprisingly similar in fact to poll results in Britain. On the other hand, Texas, a state with a very different history and much further away from Massachusetts than Greece is from Britain, may well have a different view. This is one aspect of the United States - that they're not always united in their thinking - that needs to be understood.
I would like to explore some other ingredients of this sad state of understanding between Europe and America. One, I believe, is concern - or might it be a little envy? - over the US being seen as the world's sole superpower. The US economy is equal to the second, third and fourth national economies combined. Its defence budget is equal to those of the next eight to ten countries combined.
GOOD CHUNK OF A CONTINENT
This can all sound impressive or irritating, according to your point of view, but the key word here is 'national'. For the United States to be understood better it should be seen in equivalence to the European Union - a good chunk of a continent. However, the histories of these two entities are very different.
After two millennia of troubled history, fuelled by nationalism and religious difference, the European Union is a miracle of human achievement. Yet it will not, perhaps should not, evolve into a 'United States of Europe' any time soon.
The United States of America, on the other hand, did not evolve but was designed, almost from scratch, 215 years ago. The 13 colonies that came together to form a nation had their differences - the chief amongst them being slavery, which led to a devastating civil war (1861-65) in which more Americans were killed than in all the wars Americans have fought in since, combined. But since then the federal nation, now made up of 50 states, has been able to develop over 138 uninterrupted years, whereas the original six nations of the European Union came together only 43 years ago. The United States has therefore had the double advantage of both a shorter 'history' and a much longer period of united democratic development.
The European Union is now almost equal to the US in economic terms, but does not have the united foreign policy needed to direct any common military force, even if it wished to. Europe has relatively recent experience of war on its own soil and is understandably nervous about military power. The US looks at a dangerous and chaotic world and discerns that it cannot afford that luxury yet.
It was not until World War II that the USA became a significant military power, and it has now become the world's policeman. Many may ask whether the world needs one. Sadly, I believe the answer is 'Yes'.
US might was necessary to win World War II for the anti-fascist forces and to contain communist expansionism during the Cold War. It is needed now to combat international terrorism. Everyone in the world, not just the US, should realize that we live in very dangerous times that may continue for some decades. Of course we wish it were otherwise. But the reality is with us.
We should try to understand the historical sins and mistakes that got us into this mess. But we should also be aware that that study will only ever be an approximation; and, after all is said and done, the task is still before us. I am grateful that at this point in history there is a nation that is both able and willing to be the global policeman.
Yes, some of the threats from international terrorists are intensified by America's own policies. But we make a serious error of judgement if we think that the challenge faced by America and the world is caused by this alone. America is a target partly because of arrogance and misdeeds and partly because it is the superpower. But it is also a target because the US, for all its faults, represents a world of freedom and pluralism which terrorists and despots recognize as the ultimate enemy to their plans and dreams.
The revolution that established the American republic in the late 18th century was far more radical than many realize. Washington, Jefferson and Adams might have looked like country gentlemen, but looks can be deceiving. George Washington not only led the sometimes barefoot army of volunteers that beat the British army. He then - unlike Napoleon - refused any talk of being made a monarch. He reluctantly served as the first president for two four-year terms and then retired, setting a precedent that only became law in 1951 and launching the first sizeable republic in history.
There are a lot of wealthy Americans, and many more poor ones. But the vast majority, including the rich, are descended from working people. This leaves a certain proletarian legacy - and a delight in breaking through barriers and opening up pursuits to many more people. It's what Tiger Woods has done for golf, the Williams sisters for tennis and the movies with theatre.
During Washington's presidency, in 1791, the US Congress ratified ten amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. The first of these enshrined what is often referred to as 'the separation of church and state'. In my twenties, I used to see this as a mistake, a handicap to those who hoped for a revitalization of Christianity in the West.
After 30 years here, I have come to the conclusion that disestablishing religion - while guaranteeing the free exercise of any religion - was arguably the single most important legacy of the Founding Fathers.
Many in Europe at the time thought that the First Amendment would lead to a non-believing society. The reality, over 200 years on, is very different. Only three per cent of Americans call themselves atheists and church attendance is five to six times that in some European countries. The US is both the most religious of major Western nations and the most religiously diverse country in the world. Projections show that the US will be the only Western country with a large and increased Christian population by 2050. Meanwhile, despite some increased prejudice against Muslims, Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the country.
All this points to a religious vitality which is out of step with the rest of the West - and which is a fruit of the country's freedom of religion. Recently some church and political leaders in Europe have been bemoaning Christianity's decline and calling for Christianity to be acknowledged as the historic religion of Europe. On the latter point there is no denying the historical facts. However, it is one thing to work for a revitalization of the churches in Europe; it is quite another to think that giving Christianity a special status in the EU, or keeping Muslim Turkey out of EU membership, will achieve that goal. Quite the contrary; the American experience is that respecting all religions and giving them freedom can actually lead to Christianity and other religions flourishing.
If Turkey is kept out of the EU with the aim of protecting 'Christendom' against 'Muslim encroachment', what sort of message does this send to the sizeable Muslim minorities in EU member countries, some of whom are third generation Europeans and still don't feel fully accepted? And will enshrining Christianity as the continent's religion really lead to an increase in church attendance? I doubt it.
Another cause of misunderstanding is cultural. Bernard Shaw said that Britain and America were divided by a common language. Our shared use of English tricks us into assuming that our cultures are the same, and they are not.
People and their cultures are moulded by their historic experience, and Europe's and America's has been quite different over the past 200 years. The main experiences which distinguish America from Europe are the pioneer experience; slavery; a horrendous civil war; and constant immigration on an unprecedented scale.
America now has almost 300 million people, over 33 million of whom are newcomers like me. Three million of them have arrived in just the last two years. Our population represents just about every nation and ethnicity on the planet.
Those of European origin are rapidly becoming a minority. This is not the place to live if you mind whether your son or daughter marries someone of another race or religion.
The population is also getting younger compared to Europe. This probably means it will become more 'outrageous', but also more energetic, inventive, and attractive to other young people around the world. Eighty percent of high tech companies in Silicon Valley, California, were started by Asians.
Several points of current American foreign policy concern me, as they do many overseas. These include unilateralism, low development assistance, partiality in the Middle East and blind selfishness on environmental issues. My friends and I are free to lobby against these policies, and we do. And, while this may not offer immediate consolation, the demographics indicate that in a few years we will begin to see a shift in some of these policies, as more and more of our population comes from, keeps in touch with and maintains their concern for the developing world.
Many years ago I captured a photo of my little daughter standing in front of a poster that said: 'Be patient, God hasn't finished with me yet.' This same daughter, who is now doing doctoral research on the needs of immigrants and refugees, assures me that I should be patient about this country of hers and mine.