March 13, 2004
ESSAY

Across a Great Divide

By PETER SCHNEIDER

On its March 4 cover, Der Spiegel posed the question "Will America Become Democratic Again?," stating that it is "5 minutes to 12 for George W. Bush."

BERLIN, March 12 The war in Iraq has made the Atlantic seem wider. But really it has had the effect of a magnifying glass, bringing older and more fundamental differences between Europe and the United States into focus.

These growing divisions over war, peace, religion, sex, life and death amount to a philosophical dispute about the common origins of European and American civilization. Both children of the Enlightenment, the United States and Europe clearly differ about the nature of this inheritance and about who is its better custodian.

Start with religion. The United States is experiencing a revival of the Christian faith in many areas of civic and political life, while in Europe the process of secularization continues unabated. Today the United States is the most religious-minded society of the Western democracies. In a 2003 Harris poll 79 percent of Americans said they believed in God, and more than a third said they attended a religious service once a month or more. Numerous polls have shown that these figures are much lower in Western Europe. In the United States a majority of respondents in recent years told pollsters that they believed in angels, while in Europe the issue was apparently considered so preposterous that no one even asked the question.

When American commentators warn about a new fundamentalism, they generally mention only the Islamic one. European intellectuals include two other kinds: the Jewish and Christian variants.

Terms that President Bush has used, like "crusade" and "axis of evil," and Manichaean exclusions like his observation that anyone who is not on our side is on the side of the terrorists, reveal the assumption of a religious mantle by a secular power, which in Europe has become unthinkable. Was it not, perhaps, this same sense of religious infallibility that seduced senior members of the Bush administration into leading their country into a war with Iraq on the basis of information that has turned out to be false?

Another reason for Europe's alienation from the United States is harder to define, but for want of a better term, I call it American narcissism.

When American troops in Iraq mistakenly shoot an Arab journalist or reduce half of a village to rubble in response to the explosion of a roadside bomb, there will inevitably be a backlash. Only a fool would maintain that an occupying power could afford many such mistakes, even if it is under constant threat of suicide attacks. The success of an occupation policy however temporary it is meant to be depends on the occupier's ability to convince the population, by means of symbolic and material gestures, that it is prepared to admit to mistakes.

In its use of the language of power the Bush administration has created the opposite impression, and not just in Iraq. The United States apparently cannot be wrong about anything, nor does it have to apologize to anybody. In many parts of the world people have come to believe, fairly or not, that Americans regard the life of their countrymen as infinitely more valuable than the lives of any other of the earth's inhabitants.

Of course, even in Europe only a pacifist minority denies the existence of necessary, unavoidable, justified wars. The interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan were supported by many European nations, even if some took a long time to make up their minds. European soldiers took part in those wars and continue to play a part in the peacekeeping aftermath.

What arouses European suspicion, though, is the doctrine of just, preemptive wars President Bush has outlined. Anyone who claims to be waging a preventive war in the cause of justice is confusing either a particular or a partisan interest with the interests of humanity. A president who makes such a claim would be arrogating the right to be the ultimate arbiter of war and peace and to stand in judgment over the world. From there it is but a short step to dismissing a basic insight of the Enlightenment, namely that human judgment and decisions are fallible by their very nature. This fallibility cannot be annulled or ameliorated by any political, legal or religious authority. The same argument goes for the death penalty.

Animosity isn't the only feature of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Europe is rightly envious of America's multicultural society. There can be no doubt that the United States has produced the world's most varied and integrative culture, and it is no accident that it is the only one to have a worldwide appeal.

But the American multicultural model also generates an illusion. Since Americans really have come from all over the world, in the United States it is easy to believe that you can know and understand the world without ever leaving the country. Those who were born and brought up in America forget that these people "from all over the world" first had to become Americans a condition that new immigrants generally accept with enthusiasm before they could celebrate their cultural otherness.

This is why it is always an American version of otherness that is encountered in the United States. You will not necessarily learn anything about the culture and history of Vietnam by working alongside a Vietnamese doctor in the teaching hospital at Stanford. You can sit next to an Indian in the same dot.com company in Los Angeles for years without learning much about the manners and customs of India. And going to a French restaurant in Atlanta is no guarantee that you will be served French cuisine.

Foreign films account for less than 1 percent of the American film market, and the figures are similarly low for books and news from abroad.

The impressive integrative power of American society seems to generate a kind of obliviousness to the world, a multicultural unilateralism. The result is a paradox: a fantastically tolerant and flexible society that has absorbed the whole world, yet has difficulty comprehending the world beyond its borders.

These differences and irritations add up to a substantial disagreement on the joint origins of American and European civilization. Europeans think that Americans are on their way to betraying some of the elementary tenets of the Enlightenment, establishing a new principle in which they are "first among unequals."

And Washington accuses Europe of shirking its international responsibilities, and thus its own human rights inheritance.

After all, what is the point of international law if it prevents intervening in the affairs of a brutal regime to stay the hand of a tyrant? Who is the true advocate of human rights: the one who cites international law to justify standing by while genocide is being committed or the one who puts an end to the genocide, even if it means violating international law?

Unfortunately, we cannot expect the news media in the United States or Europe to present a nuanced view of this dispute. In 20 years of traveling back and forth between Germany and America I have become convinced that news broadcasts usually confirm their audiences' views: in Europe, about America, the "cowboy nation," and in the United States, about Europe, the "axis of weasels."

These disagreements will be influenced but cannot be resolved by the the American presidential election in November. The divisions are too deep, and Europe cannot meet the United States halfway on too many issues the separation between church and state, the separation of powers, respect for international law, the abolition of the death penalty without surrendering its version of its Enlightenment inheritance.

On other contentious issues the United States feels as strongly: the universality of human rights and the need to intervene if the United Nations is unable to act when there is genocide or ethnic cleansing, or when states are failing.

So are we standing on the threshold of a new understanding or a new historic divide, comparable to the evolutionary split that occurred when a group of pioneer hominids thousands of years ago turned their backs forever on their African homeland?

So far it has usually been the Americans who have had to remind the Europeans of these common origins, which the Europeans, in turn, have so often betrayed. Maybe this time it is up to the Europeans to remind the Americans of the promises of the Enlightenment that the United States seems to have forgotten.

Peter Schneider is a German novelist and essayist. This article was translated from the German by Victor Homola of The New York Times.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top