Today's date:
Fall 2006

A Clash Within the West?

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ. This essay will also appear in the United Nations’ World Culture Yearbook (2007).

Los Angeles — In December 2004, just after the United States presidential election, a group of editors, scholars and political leaders gathered under the auspices of Aspen Institute Italia in Rome to discuss the impact on American-European relations. Gianni Riotta from the Italian daily Corriere della Sera best captured the concern around the table. While there had been much talk in recent years about the clash between moderates and fundamentalists within Islam, he said, now perhaps it was time to talk about the clash within the West.

Riotta was referring to the growing rift between American and European worldviews revealed by the emergence of the “faith gap” in which the religious majority mobilized to re-elect George Bush as president even as the European Union was pointedly rejecting its Christian heritage in the preamble to its constitution. While the churches are empty and the mosques are full in Europe—something ever truer even in Catholic Italy—the megachurches of what Ayatollah Khomeini called the Great Satan are overflowing every Sunday.

Though contrasting cultures of belief and disbelief might mark the most dramatic difference between America and Europe today, there are other dimensions of departure as well. Essentially, this clash within the West arises from how two different cultural systems are coming to grips with geopolitical shifts, globalization and technological revolution in divergent ways. A largely aging, post-nationalist, secular, social and satisfied Europe proposes to cope with the future far differently than a youthful, largely nationalist, religious, individualist and aspirational America.

To be sure, within this distinction there are still further internal cleavages. Which America? The red or blue states? Which Europe? Old or new?

Even so, in general terms one can identify four core areas that are the likely terrain of transAtlantic tension in the times to come.

These areas are: the hard vs. soft approach to security; the European vs. the American social model; the related issues of immigration, integration and hybrid culture, and, finally, attitudes toward religion and technology, particularly biotechnology and the environment.

These zones of divergence are by no means the whole story. Deep economic links remain the bedrock under emerging differences. As Chris Patten, the former External Affairs Commissioner of the EU, has pointed out, Europe has accounted over the past decade for half the total global earnings of US companies. And, of course, Europe and America are both mature market democracies with widely shared norms and practices.

Hard vs. Soft Security | One need only look at the career path of the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to trace the dramatic arc of transformation of the European security situation in the past three decades. He started his career in the 1970s leading the Jugos (young socialists) in their opposition to the American-based euromissiles against Moscow and has ended up in political retirement on the board of the europipeline bringing energy supplies from Russia to Germany.

This surely signifies that, historically speaking, the Atlantic Alliance is past its prime. NATO is obviously no longer needed either to contain Russia or constrain Germany, which has been absorbed within the European Union. Whatever the democratic shortcomings in today’s Russia, they are not for export. Indeed, as a kind of institutional atonement for the past century when two great criminal ideologies—fascism and communism—foisted hot and cold war on the world, Europe has begun the revolutionary postmodern process of integrating sovereignties. In terms of the history of governance, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had it exactly backward: American nationalism is what’s old; Europe’s postnationalism is what’s new.

Consequently, the central threat to world peace—and to American interests— no longer comes from within Europe, but elsewhere: from terrorists seeking Hiroshima-scale weapons to global pandemics like the avian flu to climate change to the rise of China and India. Simply put, transAtlantic ties are no longer the central relationship of the world order.

American-European relations in the security dimension have gone through three distinct phases since the collapse of the Soviet Union. First were the immediate post-Cold War years, including the Balkan wars as the former Yugoslavia broke up; then came the period from 9/11 through the US invasion and occupation of Iraq; and now the period marked by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the accelerated rise of China as a major world power followed by India.

In the immediate years following the end of the Cold War, geopolitical habits and addictions died hard. Jean Francois Revel was right to say that in those times American unilateralism was primarily the result of the power failure of Europeans to act, particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo, no less in the Middle East.

This American unilateralism by default, however, became the Bush administration’s unilateralism by choice as it sidestepped the United Nations and multilateral institutions of every kind when it invaded Iraq in the name of the new post-9/11 policy of preemption.

Paradoxically, the manifest failure of the go-it-alone hard power approach in Iraq boosted the legitimacy of the European claim that the multilateral soft approach to resolving conflicts through international rule of law, diplomacy and political negotiation was the better course in coping with the new challenges of the 21st century.

Rightly believing its peace and prosperity were no longer a function of the American security umbrella, as it was in the Cold War, Europe found a new self-confidence in the US debacle in Iraq it had warned against. As illustrated in its economic-benefits “carrot” approach to keeping Iran from going nuclear, Europe asserted itself, taking the lead on a key global security issue.

Yet, if Iraq has shown the limits of hard power, the apparent failure of negotiations by the Europeans with Iran has shown the limits of soft power absent the real threat of force. The Iranian hardliners who seek nuclear weapons and openly call for wiping Israel off the map know hollow power when they see it. The problem now is that by squandering its hard power on Iraq, the US has, in effect, disarmed itself militarily in the face of a real threat from Iran. At the same time, the collapse of a negotiated settlement over the Iranian nuclear program has just as effectively disarmed Europe diplomatically absent any credible force structure of its own. Interestingly, the diplomatic front on Iran has shifted from the US-British lead on the Security Council to Russia and China.

While the Europeans are right that most conflicts in this globalized, information age are best dealt with politically and economically, including the roots of extremism, some are not: Al-Qaida, Iran, North Korea and possibly China vis-a-vis Taiwan are cases in point.

Iran will thus be the test. The outcome in the years ahead will show whether soft power can work in preventing a hard threat or whether Europe must retreat again behind the American shield. Or, will Europe at last develop credible military capacity of its own to back up its carrots with sticks? There is plenty of grist for tension as the new balance between hard and soft power becomes established, no less because China, which adheres to its own Realpolitik, is the new player at the global table.

European Social Model vs. American-led globalization | One of the greatest divergences between Europe and America today involves the differing responses to globalization. Clearly, the same forces that hastened the collapse of communism—technological change and the free movement of capital, skills and information across borders—are swinging their wrecking ball at the welfare state.

What the late Christopher Lasch pointed out about America is doubly true of Europe: The middle class was created by the nation-state. With the nation-state on the wane the idea of relatively egalitarian societies dominated at their core by a secure middle class is at risk. With the nation-state no longer in control of the primary levers of economic life, such as Keynesian fiscal policies in which demand creates national employment, it is difficult to capture the wealth required to sustain expensive systems of social protection.

America has responded to the opportunities of globalization by simply accepting growing inequality coupled with social mobility. As the economist Milton Friedman argued in a recent conversation, “the issue is not how much inequality there is, but how much opportunity there is for the individual to get out of the bottom classes and into the top. If there is enough movement upward people will accept the efficiency of the markets. If you have opportunity, there is a great deal of tolerance for inequality.” It is significant that China has also embraced this raw aspirational market model, though lately its Communist leaders are becoming more and more concerned with social “harmony.”

By contrast, if there is one fundamental pillar of all the variations across nations of the European Social Model it is an aversion to inequality in the name of “social solidarity” (at least among non-immigrants).

This contrast between the American individual and the social European even extends to environmental sensibilities. I recall a discussion some years ago with the Green foreign minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, about how America’s individualistic culture can lead to retail sanity, but wholesale madness. This molecular self-interest is most evident in California, the greenest state in America, where smoking has long been banned for health reasons, but global-warming SUVs abound. In Germany, Fischer noted, Green Party members smoke like chimneys, but wouldn’t be caught dead driving a large vehicle.

Deregulated markets, flexible labor rules and immigration all undermine the idea of solidarity. The European model is not so much anti-aspirational as non-aspirational, characterized by complacency and a sense of entitlement. And that seems to be the problem as the continent’s political leaders try to push Europeans into joining their demographically diminishing fortunes together against the American and Asian onslaught on their way of life.

That Europe feels besieged by the forces of globalization pushing its member states closer together was evident in the rejection of the EU constitution last year. Facing the commitments of a constitution many believed would wed their fates to Polish plumbers and Turkish honor killings, the French and Dutch ran away from the future their paternal elites had charted out for them. Instead of saying “I do,” they said “No.”

Perhaps this embarrassing rejection announced proper anxiety over a step too far more than it meant a step backward. After all, Europeans will still be friends, not enemies. They aren’t about to go to war, least of all the French and pacifistic Germans. They will share the same currency, cross-border cell phones and budget airlines as before. As a common public opinion, they will continue to oppose US unilateralism and worry about Asians taking their jobs.

Certainly the no voters were right to doubt whether greater centralization in Brussels was the best way to go in an era of networked and distributed power. What value would another layer of bureaucracy have added when the trend of history is, in any case, toward devolution?

Like people everywhere, ordinary Europeans are incremental creatures with human-scale horizons. They want to get used to each step forward before moving on, pushing the inexorable shock into the future as far as possible.

At the time of the vote, there had been just too much change too quickly for one generation what with all the fallen walls, reunifications, expansions, extinguished currencies, ethnic cleansings and murdered filmmakers. Where once there was Cold War, understandably now there are cold feet.

The larger issue looming over it all, however, was the sense of systemic blackmail globalization brings.

In a New York Times column last June, Tom Friedman scolded the Parisians from his perch among the sacred cows and software engineers in Bangalore: If you don’t shed your long lunches and welfare state you are finito, he told them. You should give up your 35-hour week to work 35 hours a day like the Indians, he preached.

Whoa! To be sure, Europe needs remodeling. Productivity and the slow food movement need to be reconciled. If you want the good life, you have to pay for it. But demolition is a reckless idea. Is it really necessary to discard the fruits of over a century of labor struggles in order to out-sweat the wretched of the earth, albeit now aspiring, or stand up to the sole superpower?

It seems all the French and Dutch voters wanted to do was retain some grasp over their destiny—relative sovereignty—and instill a more incremental pace of change. Is it such a crime to not want to surrender a good way of life entirely to anonymous forces, invisible hands or distant bureaucracies?

If Europe learned anything from the disasters of the 20th century, it is that the middle way is the best course. This is the message of Anthony Giddens and the Third Wave crowd around British Prime Minister Tony Blair who talk about “flexisecurity”—the need for both flexible labor markets AND social protection. Indeed, the Nordic countries have put this idea into practice. As Goran Persson, the Swedish premier, has said, “It is precisely social protection that enables the personal security to take economic risks in a freer labor market.”

Just as Europeans chose social democracy over communism or cowboy capitalism the approach of the Swedes and others suggests a way in our time of globalization to both savor the local goat cheese AND pay for retirement without reverting to the primitive accumulation of a Wal-Mart world order. What’s so wrong with that?

Immigration and Hybrid Culture | In the 1940s, the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal anticipated the American civil rights movement in his seminal book, An American Dilemma, which decried racial segregation as contrary to America’s democratic aspirations. In those days, leading black American artists and writers, like James Baldwin, moved to France to escape discrimination. Though a black underclass excluded from social mobility persists in America’s urban centers, integration has been largely successful over the past several decades in creating a large black middle class.

By 2005, it was the banelieues ringing Paris instead of the American inner city that burned with rebellion over the racism and exclusion Europeans so righteously condemned at the height of America’s post-war influence. Only the situation is worse because it involves immigrants and their children with roots in another civliization—Islam.

America’s underclass problem concerns integrating the descendants from the broken culture of its only involuntary immigrants—slaves. But America has been largely successful in creating a hybrid culture out of voluntary immigrants not only from Europe, but from Arabia to Asia. This has led European observers to marvel at how America is a kind of geocultural therapy for history’s wounded masses. When they come to America immigrants leave their troubles behind. The soil, so to speak, is taken out of the soul and becomes real estate.

Ryszard Kapuscinski sees America as the cultural realization of La Raza Cosmica—the universal mixed race—envisioned by José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s education minister at the time of the revolution. For Kapuscinski, America is a “collage of cultures.” Bernard-Henri Lévy is also quite right to note how well assimilated the Arab-American community around Dearborn, Michigan, is compared to St. Denis in France, where Arab-French youth rioted. “What is good about America,” he says, “is that in order to be a citizen you are not asked to resign from your former identity. You don’t have to erase from your mind the ancestors you had.” “America,” he concludes admiringly, is a “factory” of citizens.

As with so many other aspects of American life, the integration of everyone as a citoyen that France only theoretically imagines has been more or less realized in practice in the US. As Jean Baudrillard often chides his fellow French intellectuals who look down upon America, “What did you expect the practical implementation of French ideas to look like?”

To be sure, the presence of scores of millions of Mexicans in the US today represents a new order of immigration not so easily absorbed. Mexican immigration is different from all past immigration to the US because Mexicans come from a contiguous culture and they are mostly illegal. Far from having left their homeland behind, Saturday soccer matches in Los Angeles pit teams of immigrants from different Mexican states against each other; on holidays the border is jammed with people going home to visit. Mexicans haven’t left their identity behind at all; they still live with it, but within the US economy.

While immigration to Europe has led to a widespread sense of “identity crisis,” Mexican immigration to the US has meant an identity crisis for Mexico. Is Mexico’s destiny linked more to North America than Latin America? Mexican political elites and intellectuals, especially of the left, look south; its impoverished majority looks north. “Los Angeles,” the Mexican social critic Carlos Monsivais says,“is the heart of the Mexican dream.”

Because of their Catholic, if Counter-Reformation, roots, there are no essential civilizational issues between the loose hybridity of the American mainstream and Mexicans. The main problem is class. Since the immigrants are predominantly peasants, successful integration depends on the social mobility of successive generations through education and opportunity. Everything depends on this, and here there is cause for worry about our consumer democracy’s capacity to keep up the requisite social infrastructure.

The European situation could not be more different. Growing immigration to fill the labor demands of an aging, depopulating continent could well lead to a set of localized clashes of civilizations within Europe. In 2000, for example, net migration to the EU was 816,000, more than twice the population growth of 343,000—what India adds to its population in a week. Though policies to end early retirement can help, that trend will certainly grow.

The problem is the incapacity of the European immigration models so far to absorb its mainly Muslim immigrant groups from Turkey and North Africa whose traditional culture clashes with Europe’s secular and liberal lifestyle. This has given rise to the “postmodern populism” of people like the late journalist Oriana Fallaci or the late Pim Fortuyn who, unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jorg Haider, oppose immigrant influence not on racist grounds, but on the ground that “liberal norms” like women’s rights or homosexuality are not respected by the new arrivals. Indeed, it is the most culturally liberal states in all of Europe—the Netherlands and Denmark—that are the key points of conflict with Islamic immigrants. Holland is where the film-maker Theo Van Gogh had his throat slit on an Amsterdam street; Denmark is where the popular daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten first published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused an uproar among Muslims globally and boycotts of Danish products in the Arab world.

Both the most liberal multicultural model—of the Netherlands and the most integrationist model (at least theoretically) of France have failed to cope with this issue.

Salman Rushdie unfavorably compares the European situation not only to the US, but also to India. “In Europe,” he says, “integration has been held up as a bad word by multiculturalists, but I don’t see any conflict. We don’t want to create countries of little apartheids. No enlightenment will come from multicultural appeasement.” Similarly, the Somali-born Dutch legislator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, argues for assimilation as the necessary path—for Muslim immigrants and Europeans. “What Africans, Asians and Muslims must go through in Europe, the Europeans have experienced in their past, during many transitions from underdevelopment to development, from religion to secularization, from a rural environment to a city culture. Multiculturalism freezes the status quo instead of allowing further development.”

This is Europe’s deepest dilemma, not least because it is tied up with how demographic demise undercuts Europe’s ability to maintain the social model at the root of its identity.

Religion and Technology | Despite the pharmaceutical triumphs of the Swiss companies like Novartis or the Nordic success of Nokia, Alvin Toffler, the American futurist, has long regarded Europe as hopelessly “technophobic.” My personal experience year in and year out at the Davos World Economic Forum confirms Toffler’s suspicion: American technologists like Bill Gates of Microsoft, John Chambers of Cisco Systems or Eric Schmidt of Google inevitably dominate the conclave.

Undeniably, there remains a robust romantic strain among Europeans that runs from Heidegger in his mountain hut railing against American technology and consumerism in the 1950s to Jose Bové trashing McDonald’s and free trade as terminal threats to Europe’s way of life.

Whether one has sympathy with this romantic strain or not is beside the point. America’s utilitarian pragmatism, coupled with the open embrace of technological advance, has created a growing productivity gap with Europe. GDP per head—the broadest measure of productivity—in the 15 longest-established members of the EU was only 73 percent of US levels in 2005. The R & D budget of Europe is nearly half that of the US as a percentage of GDP.

The integration of technology into the daily life of Americans has been enabled not only by work rule flexibility but by consumer enthusiasm. This is even truer of key Asian countries. Broadband penetration into Korean homes is approaching near totality. As Mayor Myung Bak Lee told me as he handed me his digital business card recently, Seoul has 100 percent broadband penetration. One almost never sees a Japanese teen separated from his or her DoCoMo. The Shanghai middle class is notoriously gadget crazy. Bill Gates predicts China will become a “broadband power” sooner rather than later.

There is also a gap between Europe on the one hand and Asia and America on the other when it comes to biotechnology. In China, genetically modified crops are readily accepted as a necessary means of making arid farmlands more productive, far less of a threat than poultry with the flu. The fear of contamination which has made so many Europeans fond of the ecological principle of “precaution” has even less resonance in most of Asia than in America.

Surely, the world is dividing between those willingly “committed to our mutuation,” as Teillhard de Chardin once put it, and those more resistant. The rapid clip of change means the tentative space between willing and resistant will grow into a chasm overnight. “Relative decline” is the term historians use to describe the fate of those in the slow lane.

Particularly with biotechnology, this gap illuminates yet another paradoxical difference between America and Europe. Europe is secular, but suspicious of technology overrunning human dignity. America is a kind of religio-secular hybrid, as the theologian Martin Marty has put it, with the religious aspect ever more pronounced in areas having to do with the blurring boundaries of the person, or what President Bush likes to call “the culture of life”—abortion, assisted suicide, stem-cell research—albeit not capital punishment.

Increasingly, pragmatic Americans speeding toward the future are looking to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance as they commit to their mutation in the new age of biology. This is not surprising: New advances in science seem to have resurrected the religious imagination by raising anew all the questions of origins and destiny.

Leon Kass, the chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, for example, has returned to a study of the Biblical book of Genesis for answers about bioethics in the 21st century. In his book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, he sees genetic engineering as our contemporary equivalent to the limitless hubris of the Tower of Babel, which God struck down.

What is paradoxical is that the great European voice of secular reason, Jürgen Habermas, has arrived at a similar conclusion. In a conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger before he became the Pope, Habermas asked whether “modern democracies of necessity must draw from moral—especially religious—sources that they cannot themselves produce.” He concludes that liberal democracies must leave a wide open space for religious expression and religious forms of life, particularly when confronting issues at the frontiers of science. “A liberal political culture can even expect that secularized citizens will participate in the efforts required to translate relevant contributions from religious into popular language.”

In a new book, A Time of Transitions, Habermas is even clearer, saying that “the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy—the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Habermas goes on to contest “unbridled subjectivity” which he sees as clashing with “what is really absolute; that is...the unconditional right of every creature to be respected in its bodiliness and recognized in its otherness as an ‘image of God.’”

All this suggests that not only might Europeans be losing out with their romantic hesitations over technological advance, but that they must also keep an open ear to that most religious of democracies, America, to answer their doubts and concerns about where secular society is headed.

Chris Patten recently published a memoir-reflection entitled Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain and Europe in a New Century. My sense is that we are becoming more strangers and less cousins. When I worked for the California governor 30 years ago, we prematurely touted the Pacific Century. In 2006, that idea is no longer premature. The center of gravity of population, technology and trade shifting back to the East after centuries of European domination. America, with its heavy-hitter economy but weightless culture, as Jean Baudrillard has put it, will go with the flow. Europe, for better and worse, will remain behind, perhaps mired in a crisis of “civilizational morale” as the Catholic writer George Wiegel has put it. Hopefully, it will be an elegant retirement.