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A galaxy far, far away (long article)(1 post)
|A galaxy far, far away (long article)||MJ|
Feb 26, 2002 1:29 AM
A galaxy far, far away
As US-European relations sink to a new low, Matthew Engel goes to deepest Alabama to discover what the average American really thinks about the people across the pond
Tuesday February 26, 2002
The Olive Garden Italian restaurant looks a little more promising than the dozens of other eating places along the strip mall just off Interstate 20 in Birmingham, Alabama. The discreet hint of Tuscan decor and the passable wine list disguise the fact that there are 476 other Olive Gardens across North America, all with precisely the same menu. This means, presumably, that everyone ordering scaloppine marsala anywhere in this vast continent will receive the same perfectly decent cut of veal served in a subtle mixture of malt vinegar and sump oil.
The diner on the next table turns out to be friendlier, and indeed more cosmopolitan, than the food. His name is Steve Mitchell and he's in the satellite TV business. "You're from England?" he says. "My mother's father came from over there. Well, Denmark, actually. My grandmother's from the Finland side. And my half-sister lives in France." "Have you been over to see her?" I ask. "Hell, no," he replies. "I don't like flying." "What do you think of Europeans?" "Well," he says, "they were good to us after September 11." He pauses. "You know, it's a long way away."
And from the Olive Garden it does seem very distant. Indeed, the whole messy and diverse concept of Europe seems very distant. Around Birmingham, there is nothing but miles and miles of Alabama. Beyond that, there is only Georgia, Tennessee or Mississippi, where the speed limit, the price of petrol or the sales tax might vary by a percentage point or two but in essence everything would be entirely familiar to an Alabamian, even down to the (huge) size of the portions in the local Olive Garden.
"Where do most people round here come from?" I ask Steve. "Round here, I guess." And he's right. Mass European immigration to the US ceased almost two generations ago. In Birmingham, there is as little to remind the white population of its European roots as the black population has to remind it of Africa: European Hair and Nails, the Parisian department store and La Paree Steaks and Seafood, where each table has a miniature stars and stripes nestling between the ketchup and
the mustard. That's about it.
Of course, Birmingham has an elite who travel all over Europe. But only one-sixth of all Americans possess a passport, and in Alabama the proportion is much lower. One suspects the European geography of many people here goes no further than the playground rhyme:
"I see London, I see France I see ------- in her underpants."
That morning, the Birmingham News has one paragraph from Europe. Indeed, major disasters aside, foreign news generally consists solely of the US's interactions with other countries. And Birmingham is a chunky-sized city, far more worldly than the other towns along Interstate 20, such as Leeds, Lincoln and Oxford. In all of them, a European visitor can expect a warm welcome, because Alabama is like that. But the locals might be just as charming to a visitor from outer space, who would be only a fraction more exotic.
Is this just how it is in the hinterland, far removed from the more sophisticated dinner tables of Washington DC? Not necessarily, when Washington is run by George Bush of Texas, Dick Cheney of Wyoming, Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois, not to mention Condoleezza Rice, from Alabama herself, and Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, who is sometimes suspected of coming from outer space. You may not feel comfortable with the fact that the future of the planet should be decided by the representatives of voters who know so little about it. A good many senior European politicians share that concern.
At times over the past few weeks, Washington has seemed almost like an enemy capital, certainly less comfortable for a European than Birmingham, where people do not follow the nuances of international diplomacy. Last month, the president coined the phrase "axis of evil" for his unholy trinity of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The Birmingham papers may not have fully reported the reaction of Europe's foreign ministers. Hubert Vedrine of France said it was "simplism"; Joschka Fischer of Germany said alliance partners would not be reduced to obedient satellites; Britain's own Jack Straw said the speech had more to do with the mid-term elections than international politics; Chris Patten, the European external affairs commissioner, called it "absolutist" as well as simplistic.
The response was brisk. The New York Times reported that the president was fuming about "weak-kneed European elites". Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, accused Europeans of "hyperventilating". Colin Powell, the secretary of state, said Vedrine had had "a fit of the vapours". The president baffled Chinese interpreters last week by using the word "apoplectic" in a private meeting in Beijing, though it was not entirely clear who had the apoplexy.
The kennel of rightwingers who snarl daily in the Washington Times has frothed more rabidly: "It is usual for adolescents to rebel against their parents. But in the instance of global geopolitics, the situation has been totally reversed. Our aged - if somewhat cowardly - child is rebelling against papa America again," wrote Martin Gross, tortuously. Austin Bay accused the French, in particular, of "arrogance and anger" born of an inferiority complex. Patten's attack, said Wesley Pruden, "might have been taken as a declaration of war except that the Europeans, concerned with selling cheese and sausages, have neither the will nor the stamina to make war on anyone more fearsome than the United Republic of Upper Bunga Banga". Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, summed up the differences more elegantly: "Well, the Europeans do believe that there is an axis of evil in the world. It's just that they believe the axis of evil is Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz."
European embassies have been playing all this down, which is their job. With a world-weary air, they say that transatlantic relations have often been touchy, most recently in the 1980s over the Soviet gas pipeline and over the Balkans in the early days of the Clinton administration. And it is true that as late as 1998, which nostalgists now regard as a sunlit era of Euro-American amity, an article in Foreign Affairs moaned: "Eurobashing is back in fashion in the United States."
"Iraq policy is in process at the moment," said one continental diplomat. "And during the process there are always arguments. What matters is that we agree on the end product. And there is every sign that we will." One experienced administration source described this view as "horse shit", adding, "Relations now are worse than anyone can ever remember. It has become very fashionable in the middle reaches of government to beat up on the Europeans as being useless whiners. That's especially true in the Pentagon, but it's true in most of the state department too."
"We're on the edge of the abyss," said Dr Ron Asmus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Whether we step into it remains to be seen. I think a lot of Europeans have underestimated the paradigm shift that has taken place in this country since September 11. I think even most Democrats now see the internal debate as solely one about method and tactics."
There is a fundamental dichotomy between the two sides that in some ways dates back to the very founding of the republic, when Europe in general, with the sullied exception of revolutionary France, was effete and dictatorial. Washington politicians are especially conscious that their armies had to come across the Atlantic twice in the 20th century to settle Europe's quarrels. Europeans are inclined to think that the Americans, having been late for the last two world wars, are determined to be early for the next one.
In Alabama, Europe might seem like a distant fairyland. Europeans in Washington, even the Brits, are inclined to see the notion of European unity more positively than they might at home; exile, however benign, breeds a sense of solidarity. And perhaps no single group of people outside Brussels has been as enthusiastic about the idea of European unity as the traditional liberal-minded Washington elite clustered round the state department and restaurants a great deal fancier than the Olive Garden.
Yet in reality the EU seems to harden American attitudes. When Powell initially responded to the massed ranks of foreign ministers, he was genuinely sorrowful that his friends Joschka and Hubert should have misunderstood things so. His tone of voice when referring to Patten implied that the European commission was not a significant enough player to be worth considering.
For the past half-century, European unity has been the American elite's favoured solution to ensure that their boys did not have to cross the Atlantic in anger a third time. After all, it works on this continent, doesn't it? Now that Europe has attained a sort of political and economic reality, the Americans are having even more trouble taking it seriously than the British. ABC News recently described Strasbourg as "a picturesque college town near the German border". So much for the European parliament.
The cadet version of the state department is at Georgetown University, Washington's most famous, where the school for foreign service offers degrees that are a traditional route into the US diplomatic corps. The undergraduates there are clever, worldly, well travelled, and not uncritical of the thrust of American policy. I talked to some the other day and asked them to play word association.
They responded very readily to Britain and the British: "Tea...proper... trousers... Monty Python... Jane Eyre... Austin Powers... soccer hooligans... Prince William... dry and witty... educated... not huggy..." They were just as quick shouting out about France and the French: "Wine... good food... smokers... nationalism... cultural snobs... closed society... proud... hairy". But they seemed almost Alabama-vague when asked about Europe and Europeans as a whole: "Culture... old... small... snobby... castles". Someone added, "They enjoy life more," then the answers petered out.
In Alabama, people might imagine that Britain and Denmark are much the same thing. But in Washington, the continent's pretensions to unity seem to be treated with some contempt. Long before the Bushies came to town, it was commonplace here to say that Europe does not matter to the Americans any more.
It is, in part, a problem of success. Americans have turned away from Europe because the end of the cold war has enabled them to do so. "We're drifting apart because the relationship has achieved its fundamental purpose," says Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution. "For the past 50 years, Europe has been the focus of American attention. We now have a peaceful and undivided Europe. From that perspective, Europe is 'done'." But there is a second part to this. "September 11 confirmed the world-view of this administration," says Daalder. "They believed it was a dangerous world and that proved it. Europe thinks the threats are more diffuse and complicated. Furthermore, Europe emphasises norms, treaties and institutions, partly because they don't have an alternative. The US emphasises power."
It is, however, easier to claim that Europe does not matter than to claim that Britain or France or Germany don't matter. America may not care about Europe. But the parts of Europe are still greater than the whole. When it comes to it, would they really launch a full-blooded assault without Powell holding hands with Hubert, Joschka and Jack? The Europeans insist that the need for consultation and consensus is fully accepted not only in the state department, but also in the national security council, the most direct link to the president.
Militarily, the US can now take on whomever it chooses. But the psychology is different. One influential senator (not from Alabama) was musing the other day: "Sure, we can invade Iraq without at least British support. But people still think of Winston Churchill. I think it would be politically difficult and perhaps impossible." It might, in short, go down badly at all 477 branches of the Olive Garden.