Lessons Across the Pond

If the Bush administration's denunciations of the old Europe often are overdrawn and even a source of future embarrassment, liberals and the left are not immune from periodic overdoses of Europhilia. Like adolescents everywhere, many Americans of both left and right can hardly figure out what to make of their parents. Perhaps part of growing up is moving from extremes of rage or adulation to a more nuanced exchange of views. This should include the willingness to acknowledge that important deficiencies exist in ample measure on both sides of the pond.

For the Bush administration, Europe was the thorn in its side before the war. The administration subtly accused Western European nations of a flabby appeasement of aggression reminiscent of the days leading up to the Second World War. Yet more recently, the Bush administration finds itself going hat-in-hand to European governments seeking financial and military support in the management of its recalcitrant colony.

Liberals and the left applauded the massive European demonstrations against the war in the days before the invasion. Yet what is one to make of these demonstrations? However unpopular the war may have been in Europe, many of those same nations now seem more eager to get a piece of the new Iraqi business and oil supplies than really to curb the new imperialism. And however unpopular the war may be among the general population, the British government now welcomes President Bush as a guest. Both Italy and Spain, despite widespread opposition to the war, are governed by staunch Bush allies. The new US and the old Europe seem to have one important trait in common. The US has a minority president, and popular sentiments on an issue as important as war hardly seem to matter to several major European heads of state.

For Bush and his business allies, the old Europe is a whipping boy along other lines. European determination to provide a safety net for unemployed workers and broad union protection occasions inflexible, unproductive, and uncompetitive labor markets. Liberals and the left can provide several rejoinders to this conventional view. I will discuss these more fully in a future commentary. But however one-sided this perspective may be, liberals do need to acknowledge that many of these protections are under siege in Europe itself. The social democratic parties that have achieved these gains are in ideological retreat. To some degree the traditional social democratic combination of social democracy at home and free trade within the world economy has put immense pressure on the social democracies.

The social democracies still stand up well against United States in a couple regards. The tendency to marginalize and denigrate the poor is much less prevalent throughout most of Western Europe. In addition, the obsessive focus on the use of recreational drugs and sexual mores of US political leaders is a subject of amusement and scorn in much of Western Europe.

But one should not infer from this that scapegoating or demonization of some sectors of the population does not play a major role in Europe. Put aside the anti-Semitic atrocities of the 20th century and one still encounters a harsh and growing nationalism and Eurocentrism throughout Western Europe. For much of Western Europe, the so-called Arab has become almost as much the feared other as in United States. Even in such paragons of social democracy as the Netherlands, rhetoric abounds to suggest that Holland is full. European welfare states were built around the robust commitments to the nation and national identity.

Yet the levels of immigration, both legal and illegal, remain relatively small and hostility to immigration flies in the face of labor market shortages and demographic trends suggesting a need for new younger workers. Rather than bash immigrants, Europeans need to be working toward internationalizing not only labor standards but immigration and naturalization procedures as well. And each task is important to the other. Building common labor standards requires collaboration among labor organizations that must come to see each other as fellow human beings even as they practice distinctive ethnic and religious heritages. And without adequate standards preventing a race to the bottom, demonization of immigrants and minorities is as likely to proceed apace in Europe as in the United States.

Nor should Europeans take too much comfort in their prescient opposition to the war. They were clearly right to oppose unilateral US intervention. But those who counterposed the question: what is the alternative also had a point. Joseph Stalin once famously asked how many divisions has the pope? European nations seeking to play a peacekeeping role in the world currently do not have the institutional or military mechanisms to fulfill that task. They find themselves paradoxically relying on the goodwill and might of US.

A new system of world governments is not in the offing anytime soon, but labor, peace, and grassroots activists can work across borders to pressure their governments to address these failures. They will be most successful if they acknowledge that no one has a monopoly on models for equitable political economies.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

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