When George W. Bush appears in a press conferences at his ranch in Texas wearing a cowboy hat and driving a pickup truck, I'm not sure if he's really serious. Although I've lived here for some time, I still feel there might be something that I, as a German and European, don't get. And I fear I'm not the only one.
The President of the United States is observed by a global audience, and nowhere closer than in Western Europe. However, confronted with this kind of cowboy-president, I think most Europeans feel like me--uneasy, not knowing what all this is supposed to mean. Like me, they're reminded of old Wild West movies, wondering why the president of the most technologically advanced country in the world still tries to evoke those long-gone times. Questioning their own stereotypes of the United States, Europeans can't really make sense of this obvious form of "Americanism." All in all and simply spoken: We Europeans just don't get it.
Actually, there are several things that Europeans don't (or don't want to) understand. Why is the United States pushing so hard for a war on Iraq without addressing the consequences? Why does it so openly oppose the International Criminal Court? Why did it pull out of the Kyoto Protocol although it's the number one CO2-producer in the world? Why does it have to go on its own on everything, starting from the Biological Weapons Convention up to the seemingly uncontroversial UN Convention of the Rights of the Child?
Of course there is a political explanation for this, and it's one that Europeans don't like to acknowledge. It's the simple fact that the U.S. is the only superpower left, whereas European nations appear weak and are struggling to preserve their great project, the European Union. I agree with Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when he says that one reason for the trans-Atlantic problems lies in the misbalance of power. In his paper, "Power and Weakness," he argues that throughout history, great powers always wanted to go their own way, shying away from international commitment. Weak powers however, usually try to "tame" the bigger power by engaging it in all kinds of multilateral institutions and treaties, just as the Lilliputians tied up the giant Gulliver with a thousand little strings.
I must admit, this sense of inferiority oftentimes results in a certain arrogance about less obvious facts. Every European who visits the U.S. (me included) can tell some story about total American ignorance of the world. One person seriously asked me if we Germans would still live under a totalitarian regime. Europeans love to make fun of the American justice system, where people can sue companies for millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on themselves. They suspect American politics is largely run by business interests, and are irritated by its showbiz appearance. Generally, Europeans tend to claim some kind of cultural superiority over their allies across the ocean, like a mature parent treats his naive and rowdy teenage child.
Of course, this perspective is flawed. Without question, we all would be better off without some of the excesses of American culture, such as the ubiquitous suburban fast-food restaurant strip, the WWF Smackdown or 24/7 TV shopping channels (all of which are becoming increasingly popular in Europe, too, I'm afraid). To me, the real difference is the contrasting mentalities. My impression of America and American life is that it lives much more in the moment than Europeans do. Americans do what they feel like and they do it right away, whereas I might start thinking whether something's really worth the effort. A good example is the way people get along. It always strikes me how easily (most) Americans make contact with people they've never met before or haven't talked to in a while. The reason is, I believe, that both sides agree on one fundamental thing--what matters is now, so let's just have some fun and don't think about anything else. Europeans tend to think differently, and very often--rightly or not-- come to the conclusion that Americans are dishonest and superficial. The standard complaint of exchange students coming back from the United States is, "People are really nice, but you can never get closer."
From my point of view, this is a fundamental difference, but it has nothing to do with the current trans-Atlantic misunderstanding. Something else must be behind these hard-line, unilateral tendencies causing the United States to withdraw from major international agreements and pushing a war most of Europe doesn't want. The differences represent two different political opinions, but I think there is something else Europeans don't get. It's the notion that the United States actually is a highly fragmented society, and that cowboy Bush appeals to and represents a part of this society whose values and beliefs Europeans don't share.
As a foreigner who stayed here for some time, it always struck me how divided American society really is. This was especially surprising because I, and probably a lot of Europeans, thought of the United States (apart from its eternal struggles involving African and Native Americans) as a homogenous society, cheerfully embracing progress, proudly rallying under the star-spangled banner and celebrating its patriotism to an extent that makes especially a German instantly feel slightly uncomfortable. Add to that the usual European condescending attitude and you get this stereotype picture: Americans are like us, just a little bit more naive and, well, a little bit more extreme (that's not anti-American, by the way).
True, there are a lot of people who share the same ideas as Europeans or are more open-minded and progressive (hey, I'm writing for The Independent) than most people in the "Old World." But they're only one part of the equation. I think the truth is that America is split among itself. I don't mean the traditional split in ethnic groups. I mean the large gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, conservative and progressive. Ideological battles seem to me much more passionate here than in Europe, where everything concentrates on the middle ground. Religion--mainly Christianity--is a dominating factor in public life, whereas in Europe it has largely retreated into private. In addition, there is a kind of Christian fundamentalism that to me sometimes seems weirdly anachronistic, as if the spirit of the Middle Ages somehow survived the centuries and came to life again in modern form. Combined with a fierce insistence on the freedom of the individual, this creates an archaic form of conservatism that, with all its narrow-mindedness and violence, scares me. Actually, if I hadn't lived here, I wouldn't believe that it actually exists. And it's likely that most Europeans don't believe it, either.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid, the politics and the person of George W. Bush represent just the part of America that I find so hard to understand. It echoes in the "axis of evil," his black-and-white world view, and his go-it-alone approach, always leaving behind the unpleasant feeling that he and the people who voted for him actually believe the myth of America as "God's own country," chosen to be a shining example for freedom and democracy in the world.
To me, the current trans-Atlantic rift over a new war in Iraq, is a reflection of this misunderstanding. Virtually all Europeans, at least the ones I know, hate Saddam Hussein and would love to see him replaced by a new democratic regime. They're not opposed to taking out Saddam, but they also ask what happens after a war and how risky it is. And with a less confrontational and more outreaching U.S. administration, I think Europe might even have gone along, especially after Sept. 11. But with a president and an administration openly committed to values that I and a lot of other Europeans don't share and probably don't even understand, fierce opposition seems normal. After all: I wouldn't want to follow somebody into war whose ideals and goals are a mystery to me.