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30.9.02

U.S. vs. Them

But the final reason has to do with America's unique national experience and the sense of exceptionalism that has arisen from it. Americans believe in the special legitimacy of their democratic institutions and indeed believe that they are the embodiment of universal values that have a significance for all of mankind. This leads to an idealistic involvement in world affairs, but also to a tendency for Americans to confuse their national interests with universal ones. Europeans, by contrast, regard the violent history of the first half of the 20th century as the direct outcome of the unbridled exercise of national sovereignty. The house that they have been building for themselves since the 1950s called the European Union was deliberately intended to embed those sovereignties in multiple layers of rules, norms and regulations to prevent those sovereignties from ever spinning out of control again.


I ran across this old column by Francis Fukuyama today, and I think the point I quoted highlights something interesting about the way Americans and Europeans view World War II, and the impact that has on how they think about the current war with Iraq. The two continents drew very different moral lessons from the conflict.

Americans tend to see World War II as the archetype of the just war. It was a case of people willing to die in the name of freedom and justice, in the face of all-consuming tyranny. Hitler has become our new Satan, an enemy that cannot be reasoned with or appeased, but only fought and destroyed. In Europe, however, the war is seen as a clear example of the problems of nationalism. The very real sense that "it could happen here, again" drives Europeans toward union and peace.

There are a number of reasons that these differing narratives came about. First is how the nations got involved in the war. Europe saw the war spring out of its own self, generated by social conditions like poverty, anti-Semitism, and fierce nationalism. Americans, on the other hand, came into the war from outside. To Europeans, Hitler was fearsome because he was one of their own, a product of Western civilization. But to Americans he was fearsome because he was an alien Other, sweeping down on the civilized world like the Huns. The Nazis were already in Europe, but America (after an attempt at isolation) had to cross the Atlantic to fight (it's interesting to note how the Pacific theater is downplayed in the popular conception of the war, except when talking about the atomic bomb -- and that story is generally used for very different purposes than the evil-Hitler narrative). For Europe the war was a pragmatic necessity, whereas for Americans it was a moral necessity. The element of the failed appeasement of Hitler fits nicely into the American narrative -- when faced with Evil, all you can do is try to destroy it. Europeans, meanwhile, would see the story of the failure of the Treaty of Versailles as more significant, drawing from it lessons about how enemies are created by treating others as irredeemable sworn adversaries.

Second, America and Europe had very different postwar experiences. America emerged triumphant, the premier power and dominant economy in the world (largely because it got involved late and never had to fight on home turf). This, combined with the success of the Marshall Plan, fed Americans' messianic sense. The war confirmed that the United States was the bringer of freedom and justice to the world, a model for civilization. And we soon embarked on the road of "development" of third-world countries, casting ourselves as the savior of the oppressed. Europe, on the other hand, was devastated. The horror of the war crippled Europeans' confidence in the rightness of Western civilization. The post-war period saw the final dismantling of Europe's colonial empires, ending their long project of civilizing the world and remaking it in a European image.

So today we see America, buoyed by its victory over Hitler, taking a thoroughly modernist approach to foreign policy. Modernism assumes that there is a universal moral order that can be dictated from on high by a supreme power, a power trusted to act for the common good. Europe's policy, meanwhile, is colored by postmodernism -- the idea that all truths are partial because nobody has a God's eye view of the world, and that the world is better run through negotiation between parties than by fiat because no power can be trusted to determine what's right.

America was founded in a deep distrust for absolute power, as the colonists saw the negative consequences of allowing the King to make decisions on behalf of his people. The founders did such a good job of constructing a system that prevents tyranny (or at least tyranny widespread enough to impact the national consciousness, as plenty of groups have been oppressed over the years) that Americans have come to think of tyrants as alien, incomprehensible monsters that can only be destroyed. So we don't notice when we buy into the principle that one power can be trusted to enforce right and wrong.

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