America’s image suffering abroad

“How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”

The Daily Mirror in London raised the question after America declared Bush the victor of the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Those sentiments were echoed on inner pages of The Mirror with headlines including “U.S. Election Disaster.”

Other European news outlets revealed similar emotions. A German paper, Tagezeitung, printed the headline, “Oops-they did it again.”

However, according to one American Foreign Policy expert, “A great deal of the bafflement…in response to these American presidential elections is a reflection of Europeans’ tendency to try to push an American square peg into a European societal and political round hole. Their frustration just doesn’t fit.”

E. Wayne Merry from the Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Nova Scotia discussed origins of disconnect between America and Europe with an audience comprised mostly of students at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Friday.

Merry said the Bush administration is not the real underlying problem surrounding sour relations between the United States and Europe, rather it is a psychological issue dividing the East and West.

“Many Europeans think the problem in the transatlantic relationship is George W. Bush, his administration and the Iraq War,” Merry said. “That’s not true.”

In fact, he said the problems that currently exist have been bubbling toward the surface in the past.

“This is a problem that’s been developing for about 15 years, at least,” Merry said.

He added that the Bush administration often receives blame simply because it provides “superior caricatures for anti-American prejudices” and not because of the Iraq War, which Merry called “a crisis waiting to happen.”

The conflict in Iraq carries a very different meaning for Europeans than Americans.

“It was really not about Iraq, it was not about Saddam Hussein,” Merry said. “For European governments, European media, European publics, the issue was not Iraq, the issue was America.”

Europeans were more concerned about the status of American power, whether it could be constrained and whether European governments would have any ability to influence that power.

“Where that power was being applied in that particular case was clearly a secondary issue,” Merry said.

Origins of differences

Europe’s role on the international stage has declined sharply in the course of the past hundred years, particularly in the last decade.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the planet was ruled from about a dozen European empires. By 1991-with the collapse of the Soviet Union- all of them were gone. The locus of power had shifted from Europe to North America and East Asia.

Merry said the shift of international power from the shoulders of Europeans to America and East Asia accounts for “a good deal of what the transatlantic relationship is about today. Europe is now a prosperous, comfortable place to live, but no longer a center of international power.”

The changing balance of power is manifested in worldwide economics and demographics.

Merry said 30 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product comes from the European continent while the single nation of the United States contributes 32 percent. In Europe, populations are becoming both older and smaller and its economies are getting smaller in the international system.

As a result, “[Europe’s] role in the world as a whole will become increasingly smaller,” Merry said.

He emphasized that a great deal of distaste for the United States will be generated by Europe’s ever-shrinking role.

“We are experiencing a lot of societal resentment by people for whom empirical greatness is something that exists in the memory of people still alive,” Merry said. “They look back on a time when their continent was the center of the global system in a way it strikingly is not now and which they are well aware of never will be again.”

The Cold War effect

“A large part of the political problem between the United States and European countries is that the current generation of political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are people who were nurtured by and grew up in and spent their entire professional lives in the Cold War,” Merry said. “These people cannot let the Cold War go.”

He added that certain international institutions, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were established by world leaders following the end of the Cold War Era in 1991 and have become futile.

“Those institutions and particularly those thought processes really no longer have any relevance,” Merry said. “They, in particular, try to preserve a power relationship between the United States and Europe.”

He said the fundamental flaw in the current international system is that the United States is the primary provider of military security and power to Europe through NATO, an organization that was never intended to be permanent or long-lasting.

“As long as American power is responsible for European security and defense, why should Europe take power itself?” Merry asked.

Europe actually has a larger military than the United States with more than 2 million servicemen and servicewomen and 13,000 tanks compared to about 1.3 million servicemen and servicewomen and 9,000 tanks in the U.S., but Europe’s defense effort is fragmented and therefore cannot accomplish the same feats.

“No aspect of public policy in Europe is so little unified as the defense,” Merry said.

He added that, because there is no longer an external threat, Europe needs to move away from security issues and focus on other problems, such as AIDS, HIV, illegal migration, organized crime and all kinds of cross-border issues within the continent.

However, he said, policymakers have been reluctant to do so because they are disillusioned and believe the Cold War represented a long-term, permanent norm of the transatlantic relationship rather than an exceptional period reflecting unusual circumstances created by the Soviet Union.

“Those circumstances are gone and the institutions, and particularly the thought processes, need to change,” Merry said.

In addition, Merry said the future of the United Nations is very much in doubt because it was created without the notion that Europe would fall apart, and it addresses east/west relations while leaving out north/south issues, which have become the real issue on the world-stage.

“The General Assembly has lost the role it once had,” Merry said. “Today, almost all the activity lies within the five members of the Security Council. Your role is marginal if you’re not in the big five.”

He concluded that the world is unipolar as the United States controls a third of the global economy.

“Europe will never be a superpower,” Merry said. “They don’t want to be. They don’t want to put forth the effort. They figure, ‘Better you than me.'”

As long as there is a relationship that puts the United States in the role of boss, he said relations with Europe will only worsen.

Solutions

The Cold War is over and, as such, NATO should be dissolved, Merry said. The real underlying problem beneath transatlantic relations is a psychological issue.

Merry compared the current relationship between Europe and the United States to that of a person on crutches-an experience he endured for more than a year after he was among a crowd of victims hit by a New York driver who swerved onto a busy sidewalk.

“I got to be good at walking on crutches, but forgot they were intended for short-term physical recovery,” he said. “If you continue to use crutches over time, they will do more harm than good and you’ll become psychologically dependent upon them.”

He said the Marshall Plan (the European Economic Recovery Program following World War II that addressed hunger, unemployment and rebuilding) was Europe’s wheelchair and it paved the way for NATO, which is comparable to Europe’s crutches.

“The U.S. needs to recognize it is high time for Europe to walk on its own power,” Merry said. “A new relationship should be built on economics and mutual recognition.”

He said power redistribution will carry a natural course when Europe’s crutches are removed.

“Europeans will find they are more capable than they thought,” he said. “But they will never, never do it on their own until they have to.”

[email protected]