Eurobaloney on the Campaign Trail

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Mitt Romney, one of the leading Republican U.S. Presidential candidates, has informed his countrymen over the past few weeks that U.S. President Barack Obama is working to turn the United States into Europe. This, one might think, is good news. Presumably it suggests that a unified "West" is closer to becoming a reality. The president, someone in Washington D.C., is working for ever greater convergence in the world's greatest alliance. After decades of unabashed Americanization of Europe, it seems, the tables are turning. In due time, the need for transatlantic learning and knowledge transfer between friends and partners will be obsolete. We will all be one happy family.

Indeed, from the perspective of a Republican presidential candidate there is much to like about Europe these days. After all, Europe is largely run by fellow conservatives. They preach and (increasingly) practice fiscal responsibility and structural reform to fix the ills of the continent - a strategy candidate Romney calls on President Obama to embrace.

Let's pause right here and stop fantasizing. The reality is quite different. Yes, Mitt Romney sees the United States as being transformed into another version of Europe. But in Romney's eyes that's no compliment, rather it's an insult.

Romney contends that under Obama, a "European-style welfare state" is America's destiny. Or, in another version of this horrific vision that permeates most of the candidate's campaign speeches, "a European-style entitlement society." Obama, according to Romney, "takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America." Learning from Europe seems to "poison the very spirit of America." Fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum agrees, claiming that Obama is "trying to impose some sort of European socialism on the United States." Not to be outdone, candidate Newt Gingrich, in his South Carolina victory speech on Saturday night, detected the emergence of a "brand new, secular European-style bureaucratic socialism" in America.

So, why are the Republican presidential candidates running against Europe rather than against each other? Why is Europe a dirty word in this campaign? First of all, the vilification of Europe is not a new phenomenon in U.S. politics. Remember the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? That epithet, common during the debate about the intervention in Iraq in 2003, referred to the French, for whom the worst abuse is traditionally reserved. The French, often linked with the Germans to form an alliance of "Euroweenies," chose to sit out the war against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and were thus scolded for having lost their "moral compass." That incident happened barely ten years ago, but one might go back hundreds of years and still detect the same type of argument about Europe. As Princeton historian Linda Colley has pointed out, Americans have traditionally understood their history, culture, and identity in contrast to Europe's. The United States was founded as the antidote to Europe. The old continent was "the other," against which to define oneself. The history of immigration helped to entrench the view that one side of the Atlantic was intrinsically better and more blessed than the other. European decadence was replaced by "authentic Americanism." Europe, as described by the novels of Henry James, was both corrupt and corrupting. "America was a country of innocence, virtue, happiness, and liberty as against a Europe of vice, ignorance, misery, and tyranny," writes historian C. Vann Woodward. Thus, it was anti-Europeanism that reinforced the new idea of U.S. exceptionalism.

Initially, Anti-Europeanism has risen in combination with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the supposedly culturally superior Europeans. Certainly, World War II and Europe's inability to solve its own problems at that time cured Americans of any sense of humility. Since the Cold War, anti-Europeanism has by no means been a U.S. obsession. It has come and gone in waves and has only established itself as a staple of the intellectual life of one wing of U.S. conservatism, just as its sibling, European anti-Americanism, found its home mostly on the political left. The Eurobashers on the U.S. right use a few standard leitmotifs to make their case against the "EU-nuchs" whose "values and spines have dissolved in a lukewarm bath of multilateral, transnational, secular, and postmodern fudge," to quote the ironic characterization of writer Timothy Garton Ash. At times, anti-Europeanism can be quite funny, especially when skillfully expressed by George W. Bush who famously said: "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur."

The question is how seriously to take all of this Eurobaloney? In this Republican presidential primary campaign, Europe has been nothing but a foil. Anti-Europeanism has been a code word for anti-liberalism. At the same time, Americans have long appealed to European politicians not to pander to the anti-American segments of the European public, fearing that fleeting prejudice could turn into lasting chauvinism. Gerhard Schroeder, then-German Chancellor, earned condemnation in the United States when he played to the pacifist anti-Americanism of his electorate to gain re-election in 2002. Should Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and the rest of the Republican candidates really be held to a different standard?

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