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Tony Judt on Europe v. America

Tony Judt is director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. His new book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, will be published later this year. (February 2005)

These excerpts are from
The New York Review of Books: Europe vs. America.
February 10, 2005
A review of three recent books

 

In past decades it was conventionally assumed—whether with satisfaction or regret—that Eu-rope and America were converging upon a single "Western" model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way... But something has gone wrong with this story. .. They are actually quite distinct places, very possibly moving in divergent directions. There are even those—including the authors of two of the books under review—for whom it is not Europe but rather the United States that is trapped in the past.

America's cultural peculiarities (as seen from Europe) are well documented: the nation's marked religiosity, its selective prurience,[1] its affection for guns and prisons (the EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685), and its embrace of the death penalty. As T.R. Reid puts it in The United States of Europe, "Yes, Americans put up huge billboards reading 'Love Thy Neighbor,' but they murder and rape their neighbors at rates that would shock any European nation." But it is the curiosities of America's economy, and its social costs, that are now attracting attention.

Americans work much more than Europeans: according to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart... The US is an excellent place to be rich. Back in 1980 the average American chief executive earned forty times the average manufacturing employee. For the top tier of American CEOs, the ratio is now 475:1 and would be vastly greater if assets, not income, were taken into account. By way of comparison, the ratio in Britain is 24:1, in France 15:1, in Sweden 13:1.

A privileged minority has access to the best medical treatment in the world. But 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all (of the world's developed countries only the US and South Africa offer no universal medical coverage). According to the World Health Organization the United States is number one in health spending per capita—and thirty-seventh in the quality of its service. As a consequence, Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans ..

The picture in education is very similar. In the aggregate the United States spends much more on education than the nations of Western Europe; and it has by far the best research universities in the world. Yet a recent study suggests that for every dollar the US spends on education it gets worse results than any other industrial nation. American children consistently underperform their European peers in both literacy and numeracy. ..

In 1970 GDP per hour in the EU was 35 percent below that of the US; today the gap is less than 7 percent and closing fast. Productivity per hour of work in Italy, Austria, and Denmark is similar to that of the United States; but the US is now distinctly outperformed in this key measure by Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France..

The modern American economy is not just in hock to international bankers with a foreign debt of $3.3 trillion (28 percent of GDP); it is also increasingly foreign-owned. In the year 2000, European direct investment in the US exceeded American investment in Europe by nearly two fifths... America's present indebtedness is at least as much a lien on the future as Europe's welfare commitments. And Americans who point fingers at the European pension gap should recall that were United Airlines, General Motors, or any other semisolvent company to abandon its unfundable pension commitments, it is US taxpayers who would be left with the tab. ..

There are more small businesses in the EU than in the United States, and they create more employment (65 percent of European jobs in 2002 were in small and medium-sized firms, compared with just 46 percent in the US). And they look after their employees much better. [Parental leave and benefits are much better.] In the words of Valgard Haugland, Norway's Christian Democratic minister for children and family: "Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values." ..

In the US today the richest 1 percent holds 38 percent of the wealth and they are redistributing it ever more to their advantage. Meanwhile one American adult in five is in poverty—compared with one in fifteen in Italy. The benefits don't even trickle down anymore. To many foreigners today this is a distinctly unappetizing vision: the "American way of life" is at a steep discount. As an economic model the US is not replicable. As a social model it offers few redeeming qualities. ..

[US companies are] caught up in a brave new world of European regulations they can neither understand nor ignore... the European Union, with its regulatory powers, its wealth, and its institutional example, is a place Americans will need to take extremely seriously in coming decades. ..

To the Bush administration "Islam" is an abstraction, the politically serviceable object of what Washington insiders now call the GWOT: the Global War on Terror. For the US, the Middle East is a faraway land, a convenient place to export America's troubles so that they won't have to be addressed in the "homeland." But the Middle East is Europe's "near abroad. .. America's strategy of global confrontation with Islam is not an option for Europe. .. And that, not some sort of atavistic anti-Americanism or rocket-envy, is why many reasonable Europeans and their leaders are utterly enraged by President George W. Bush. ..

The EU gave away $36.5 billion in development aid in 2003. The US managed just one third that amount—and much of that foreign aid either went to Israel or else came with strings attached ..On Iraq alone the US spent eight times the amount it gave in overseas aid to everyone else. .. [On the other hand, the EU] Common Agricultural Fund—noting that while in the year 2000 the EU donated $8 per head to sub-Saharan Africa, it managed to set aside, in the form of subsidies, $913 for every cow in Europe. ..

Each year our atmosphere has to absorb twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide for every American man, woman, and child; but just nine tons for every European. And the American share continues to grow, even as the Bush administra-tion blocks any international action on pollution or global warming. The real weapons of mass destruction, in Garton Ash's view, are global poverty and incipient environmental catastrophe. On these genuine threats to our common civilization, the European Union has a strikingly superior record...

[Ash] sees as urgent necessity: the West had better stop squabbling and find a way to work together for the common good, because it only has about twenty years left before China (and then India) becomes a great power and the narcissistic minor differences between Europe and America will be lost to view: "In a longer historical perspective, this may be our last chance to set the agenda of world politics." .. Yes: in its own interest "America should want Europe to be a benign check and balance on its own solitary hyperpower." That is good advice. But no one in power is listening...

In its widespread religiosity and the place of God in its public affairs, its suspicion of dissent, its fear of foreign influence, its unfamiliarity with alien lands, and its reliance upon military strength when dealing with them, the US does indeed have much in common with other countries: but none of them is in Europe. When the international treaty to ban land mines was passed by the UN in 1997 by a vote of 142–0, the US abstained; in company with Russia and a handful of other countries we have still not ratified it. The US is one of only two states (the other is Somalia) that have failed to ratify the 1989 Convention on Children's Rights. Our opposition to the international Biological Weapons Convention is shared by China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Cuba, and Iran.

Abolition of the death penalty is a condition for EU membership, whereas the US currently executes prisoners on a scale matched only in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo. American opposition to an International Criminal Court has been supported in the UN and elsewhere by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Israel, and Egypt. The American doctrine of "preventive war" now finds its fraternal counterpart in Muscovite talk of "preventive counterrevolution."..

Europe experienced the twentieth century—invasion, occupation, civil war, anarchy, massacres, genocide, and the descent into barbarism —to a degree unmatched anywhere else. The risks inherent in a "war of choice" (Iraq), or the abandonment of international agencies in favor of unilateral initiative, or an excessive reliance on military power, are thus clearer to Europeans than to most other peoples: "Europeans want to be sure that there is no adventure in the future. They have had too much of that." The United States, by contrast, had no direct experience of the worst of the twentieth century—and is thus regrettably immune to its lessons.

American-style belligerent patriotism, as Garton Ash notes, is rare in contemporary Europe. This dislike of bellicosity goes well beyond traditional pacifism: Europeans no longer even think about interstate relations in martial terms. .. The US is still rather good at the old-fashioned art of making war. But war-making is the exception in modern international affairs. The real challenge is preventing war, making peace—and keeping it. And this is something at which Europe is going to be increasingly adept. The countries of the EU already provide the largest share of the world's peacekeepers and international policemen. ..

The best European troops—for example, the British army—have been trained for decades to work with occupied and warring civil populations, a skill with which the US Army is shockingly unfamiliar. It will be a long time before the EU develops and implements a common foreign policy—though the new constitution would facilitate that, if only by creating a European foreign minister authorized to speak for the whole union. But when it does at last speak with a single voice in international affairs, the EU will wield a lot of power. ..

Globalization is about the disappearance of boundaries—cultural and economic boundaries, physical boundaries, linguistic boundaries—and the challenge of organizing our world in their absence. .. As things now stand, boundary-breaking and community-making is something that Europeans are doing better than anyone else. The United States, trapped once again in what Tocqueville called its "perpetual utterance of self-applause," isn't even trying.

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Last update: 11/25/2005; 12:18:20 AM.
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