Friday, December 10, 2004

Beyond Mars and Venus

Ian Buruma is one of my favorite writers, and this article on what divides Europe from America illustrates why. As a writer, he has a delightfully light touch, erudite yet personal, with a keen eye for personal anecdote and telling detail.

The main point of this article is to describe the much commented-upon differences between the United States and Europe. Like Timothy Garton Ash, Buruma believes that Robert Kagan's oversimplifed EuroVenus/AmericoMars diptych overplays the distinction. Here's how Francis Fukuyama summarizes Ash's argument:

It simplifies and falsifies reality by suggesting that a uniform point of view holds sway on each side of the Atlantic. In actuality, he writes, Europeans are themselves divided into Euro-Atlanticists and Euro-Gaullists; the former want political ties with the U.S. and worry about the statist tendencies of the European Union, while the latter see the EU as a competitive counterweight to the U.S. and champion the Brussels version of the welfare state. ("Janus Britain" is schizophrenically suspended somewhere between the two.)

Americans, for their part, are divided between what have come to be called red and blue voters. The Left (or blue) side of the American political spectrum corresponds to the Right, or Atlanticist, side in Europe, while such quintessentially American characteristics as anti-statism, gun ownership, and pugnacious hostility to international institutions are typically to be found only on the red side, the side that tends to vote Republican.

The resulting political Venn diagram thus half-overlaps. Although Europe is largely devoid of anyone resembling a Republican, and America has no socialists, both Europe and America have the equivalent of American Democrats. It is in that intersecting space that Ash sees the “surprising future” he proclaims in the subtitle of this book—the space where John Kerry’s America makes common cause with Euro-Atlanticists. These two forces can, he believes, nudge the U.S. toward greater multilateralism and Europe toward closer trans-Atlantic cooperation. (Italics added.)

A small precaution to my readers: the intersection of the Venn diagram is certainly the place where I feel most at home myself -- as do Buruma and Garton Ash.

Buruma glosses the point a bit differently, however, explaining that the reason for the trans-Atlantic rift is that in America, populists have taken over and have made "European" into a codeword for anything that smacks of elitism or liberalism:

The main difference between Europe and the US is political: the former is still governed by elites, especially on the level of the EU, while populism has swept the US. Senators often used to be courtly figures with old-world contacts and tastes. Now many have the manners and opinions of backwoodsmen, and have difficulty telling one European country from another. And even when heartland Republicans are not really yokels, they often pretend to be, for they know which side their bread is buttered. This shift is illustrated by the differences between Bush father and son.

The elder Bush was still of the courtly school, an old-fashioned Atlanticist who travelled widely and liked to manage the world in the manner of a gentleman’s club - discreetly, politely, cautiously. I believe he spoke French and his religion was a private matter. Bush the younger, private boarding school and Yale notwithstanding, swaggers like a Texan loudmouth, has barely travelled and wears God on his sleeve. He regards internationalism and consensus-building as something strictly for sissies. And he picked up a little Spanish from his youthful high jinks across the Mexican border.

Buruma then goes on to explain that it would be a mistake to believe that this American neo-Know-Nothingism is merely a matter of personal style. Indeed, contemporary American populism's loathing of "Europe" bespeaks a radical hostility to the political and cognitive world occupied by those in the middle of Fukuyama's Venn diagram.
Many Bush supporters are as contemptuous of "the Europeans," whom they regard as a bunch of effete, godless, homo snobs, as the newly assertive Europeans are of Bush’s people, whom they dismiss as ignorant, philistine cowboys. But "Europeans," as Garton Ash has pointed out, is often code in Washington for something else: for the old liberal, Atlanticist elite, represented by Democrats such as Kerry, but also country club Republicans such as Bush the elder. To be "European" means to be on the side of secular liberalism at home, and cautious diplomacy and alliance-building abroad. To be "European" is to be sceptical about revolutionary schemes, about global missions to free mankind from evil, about ideological wars. And to be "European" is to speak French, hence Kerry has to hide this facility.
Understanding how a certain brand of right-wing populism has hijacked the United States's culture and politics is thus a crucial matter for international politics. As German historians used to argue to explain their own history of aggressive militarism, understanding American foreign policy requires understanding the Primat der Innenpolitik, i.e. the primacy of domestic politics.

This is what I think Tony Blair fundamentally didn't appreciate when he chose to support Bush. By supporting Bush, he was supporting not just Bush's international agenda -- an agenda which Blair for better or worse seems to have truly believed was the right thing to do, even as he must have secretly grimaced over Bush's lack of diplomatic skill in promoting the agenda. Rather, by supporting Bush internationally, Blair also backed a particular brand of American populism and nationalism which is anathema to every European, including Blair himself.

To this point in his argument, I am with Buruma. I part company, however, with his concluding point. Buruma tries to double back, arguing that "the Bushist project," as represented by the likes of apparent secularists like Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle, in fact is not simply a form of reactionary populism, but in fact presents an opening to the Enlightenment, in that these are men of reason who believe in, to paraphrase Rousseau, forcing men to be free.

I agree that the neocons are Jacobins of a sort, and as such represent a wing of the Enlightenment project -- the least savory part of the Enlightenment, to be sure, but enlightened nonetheless. However enlightened these men may be, however, they are not the representative, majoritarian element of the right-wing movement in the United States today.

The numerically significant part of the Republican party is the populist wing (the neocons, mostly, distrust populism), which hates the main values of the Enlightenment: scientism, secularism, social tolerance, cosmopolitanism, freedom from narrow prejudice, promotion of universal education, universal provision of health services, state guarantees for the poor, and so on.

That neocons believe in many of the things which the neopopulist voting masses find anathema -- reason, science, and secularism -- merely indicates their Faustian willingness to make any political deal to gain power.

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