Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 34, March 2003

America, Europe, and the rest of the world


How deep is the current divide between Europe and the United States in terms of how to conduct international affairs? Alarming notes have been sounded on both sides of the Pond to the effect that the rift risks breaking up NATO and rendering the United Nations “irrelevant” (to use the rhetoric of the Bush administration. Usually, the French are being singled out for leading the rebellion against the US hegemony, even though an overwhelming majority of European citizens have been voicing their opposition to the current US policy on Iraq, even in “pro-American” countries such as Britain and Italy.
"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." --Winston Churchill

As it is often the case in complex matters, one cannot form a reasonable opinion just by listening to alternative ways of spinning the same stories in the media (assuming that one bothers to check directly what the French or British press say, since American media are becoming more and more homogeneous thanks to their ownership by an increasingly smaller number of multinationals). It was therefore refreshing to see actual data from a large survey of American and European attitudes conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR). The picture emerging from the study is more complex and nuanced than what we tend to hear trumpeted by talking heads and media pundits.

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, by Barry Glassner.
It comes down to the following: Europeans are inclined to agree with Americans on more issues than either of them agrees with the rest of the world (this is good news for people who are worried about the collapse of the West). However, there are major areas of disagreement that might make for a very interesting upcoming decade in geopolitics (and this is the good news for those who are interested in a more open discussion of international issues). Let’s take a look at some of the details.

First off, Americans and Europeans really like each other, and this goes even for the French. On a scale of 0 to 100, Americans rate European countries between 61 (Germany) and 76 (Great Britain), which is much higher than they rate any other country except Canada. Conversely, the Brits rate the US at 68, and the rest of Europe doesn’t go any lower than the Dutch’s 59. Furthermore, Europeans and Americans see the same threats in the world, with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism ranking the highest. And, both sides agree that war on Iraq would be justified, if backed by the United Nations (complete opposition to the war run at only 13% in the US and 26% in Europe at the time the survey was conducted).

However, worldviews start to diverge when one digs a bit deeper. Generally speaking, Americans find the world a much more threatening place than Europeans do. Most importantly, the two also differ on their analysis of why some threats are there to begin with. For example, 55% of Europeans think that US foreign policies have directly contributed to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (and I would add that a good case can be made that they are not far off the mark).

Americans and Europeans also sharply disagree on how to fix the problems they face. Only 19% of Europeans would like to increase their country’s military spending, as opposed to 44% of Americans (and one need to notice that the US already allocates significantly more money to the military than European countries do). On the other hand, Europeans are much more willing to spend their resources on foreign aid, since a large majority of them sees that as a much more effective key to long-term planetary peace and prosperity. This divergence has major consequences for the whole concept of “superpower”: Americans think that the key to superpower status is a strong military, while many Europeans want a united Europe to become a superpower in the sense of cultural and economic interaction with the rest of the world, opposing more military spending by either their own countries or the European Community as a whole.

If one broadens the horizon beyond the immediate concerns of war and terrorism, other interesting similarities and differences emerge: Americans are only slightly more supportive of globalization than Europeans, and about half of both Americans and Europeans think that global warming is a high-priority threat. However, 66% of Europeans are opposed to some degree to biotechnology, against only 45% of Americans. Perhaps the largest divergence of opinions manifests itself on immigration: 66% of Americans consider it a threat of the highest level, while only 38% of Europeans agree with that assessment (of course, there are differences among European nations themselves, with Italy being on the most worried about immigration).

What are we to make of all this? On the one hand, declarations of an insurmountable divide between the US and Europe are obviously blown out of proportion: we are not witnessing the big schism of Western culture just yet. On the other hand, it would be foolish for anybody (and especially for rather single-minded American politicians) to underestimate the areas of divergence between the two major blocks of world democracies. And please, stop telling the Europeans that they should get in line because America saved them during World War II: gratitude is an important value, but wishing to translate it into perennial and unquestioning allegiance is a bit insulting. And one thing nobody needs is to add any additional insult to the dialogue between the two major democratic blocks of the world.


Next month: Animal rights?

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003