During the Cold War the NATO agreement naturally kept Europe and the U.S. in a cooperative relationship.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an Atlantic divide appeared as U.S. and European Union interests frequently took different paths.
Germany, France, Italy, Spain and even Britain at times found themselves at odds with American policy around the world. Even Canada often sided with the Europeans against the U.S. on numerous attitudes from health care and international human rights to views on global institutions and world events.
While some conservative and liberal leaders openly believe in and promote American exceptionalism and the idea that the U.S. should retain its own brand of free society, a number of elite liberals, most notably the Clinton and Obama Administrations, seem to want the United States to fit more naturally into the Europeanized community of nations.
What would a more European-style America look like? Of course, nobody can really know for sure what such a change would entail. But we can use our imagination to consider a few possibilities simply by identifying major ways in which American life is the exception and doesn’t fit into typical European society. Here are few:
- More apartments and fewer houses. In most European nations, only the very wealthy afford houses instead of living in apartments. This impacts the size of families and also how many cars can be parked in urban settings. A narrative is growing that most Americans can’t really afford houses anymore (see the housing bubble which is still a problem) and a different style of housing is ahead.
- More public transit and fewer personal vehicles.
- Smaller families.
- Mandatory military service. Not every Western nation requires mandatory military service for all young citizens, but the U.S. has long been an exception to the norm with its all-volunteer military services.
- More people working for the government and a smaller percentage in the private sector. This would certainly end American exceptionalism, and in this arena the U.S. has—unfortunately—greatly progressed toward the European model in the past twenty years. Indeed, in 2010 U.S. public employees became more highly compensated, on average, than private business employees.
- International law and precedent above the Supreme Court. Many argue that we have been moving in this direction for a very long time. Add to this the changes effected in our legal structure by various treaties over the years and the trend is clear. A number of analysts consider this a genuine and ongoing reduction of national sovereignty.
- Government control of a guaranteed health care system, highly regulated banks and other financial institutions, and high levels of government intervention in nearly every sector of the economy. This has almost become a near-European-style reality in the current United States.
- Public education emphasis on career training from a very early age. Again, this has recently become the European-style actuality in the U.S.
- A sense of celebrity and superiority among some government officials, and a corresponding view among citizens that they are “below” many government officers.
- A deep reliance on, and unfounded faith in, experts. Coupled with the growing “celebrity and sense of superiority” of some government officers, this creates a new de facto class system–the major European legacy which the American founders rejected.
There could be a number of other changes in American lifestyle to make it more similar to Europe, but these are enough to see the overwhelming potential impact of trying to make the U.S. more like many of our allies across the North Atlantic.
But is this Actually Liberal?
Ironically, only a few of these are actually in line with traditional liberal values. Indeed, conservatives have historically been supporters of class divides, which liberals have considered deplorable. And liberals have long argued against job-training as the center of education, frequently preferring the liberal-arts education to make us better people.
Both liberals and conservatives have recruited celebrities to their cause, but neither have been friendly to politicians as celebs. Liberals have always been very skeptical of anyone using celebrity, charisma or fame in positions of power. Likewise, liberals have customarily been opponents of any reduction of judicial power and independence.
It makes sense that liberals, as believers in the progressive role of government, would support European levels of regulation over health care, financial institutions and business, and also reliance on credentials and expertise as the highest available levels of human ability and trust.
But even this doesn’t logically explain the popularity of American Europeanization among some liberal thinkers. For example, how many liberals actually support mandatory military service? This is an arena where many liberals may dislike the Europeanizing of America, and where many conservatives might support a change.
If liberals who want America to become more like Europe are simply promoting much higher levels of government involvement in the U.S. economy, that makes sense. As an independent, I don’t agree with this goal, but I can understand why those who believe in big government would want it.
Or, if those who support American Europeanization want to pick and choose from the European model—applying good ideas and rejecting bad ideas—this fits into the original American founding viewpoint. I have a hard time finding much on the list above that I think we should adopt, however. But I can understand the value of improving whatever we can—and learning from Europe.
For example, I think we should make real changes in response to Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of America for believing in legalism over morality, materialism over spirituality, and military might over the power of principles. Indeed, both Eastern and Western Europe, and other places, have much to teach us.
I believe the lessons learned by the people from so much war and devastation in the last century should be closely considered by us all.
No American should skip studying the works of Picasso, Anne Frank, C.S. Lewis, Frankel, Lusseyran and so many others. And Churchill’s counsel on how to analyze current events and prepare for the future is still sage advice.
More, I personally loved the tradition of siesta when I lived in Spain, and I think many Americans would benefit from a more relaxed attitude about life. We are, in general, far too driven most of the time. I am a fan of many things European, and many European ideals and traditions deserve consideration by Americans.
The Power of Fashion
I don’t think this is actually what is going on in the current longing to make America more like Europe, however. Instead, I think this view is simply fashionable in some circles. Wanting to be like Europe is hip. People see real and deep problems with American power, leaders and institutions, and they see them exhibited in both major political parties and by almost everyone in office.
For example, President Bush was seen by much of the younger generation as “King George” for his hardline stance in the world, and while President Obama came into office promising to take a very different approach, the reality has been an increase in the secretive apparatus of government.
Americans see this, then they visit other free nations and note many positive things. Or, in many cases, people who long to visit such places find it trendy to praise them.
Together these two groups watch the leaders of other nations being less extreme in international politics, seemingly more tolerant and diplomatic, and they wish their leaders would do the same. Of course, the reality is much more challenging. But few see all the warts without a long-term involvement in the other nation. As even most fair-minded American expatriates will admit, their new country has its full complement of problems too.
Still, I do want the United States to change—a lot. And I think it has things to learn from European and other nations. But more than anything, it needs to learn (both good and bad) from its own history.
The Needed Americanization of America
Sure, at times some people over-glamorize the greatness of the American founding. To hear some tell it, the founding was perfect, ideal and even idyllic. They seem to have forgotten about brutal slavery, violence in the big cities and on the frontier, religious and racial persecutions replete with murder and rape and pillage, gender abuse, mob attacks and crosses burning on lawns, and so much more.
Some of my own ancestors supported and participated in the Revolutionary War, and later they were driven out of their homes and forced to carry their children in the biting Midwestern snow for hundreds of miles seeking safety—all for their religious beliefs. When they appealed to Washington D.C., the conservatives turned them away in disdain.
Some liberals at least showed concern and care for their plight, but ultimately almost nobody in power helped and their ordeal of pain and suffering was repeated less than a decade later. Their religious leader was attacked and brutally beaten repeatedly. He was eventually murdered. This is my history.
Ask an African-American, a Native-American or a Japanese-American about his story, and tragedy and drama will likewise be retold.
In short, our nation has problems. It always has. This is not what sets us apart from other nations. What does set us apart is that the American founding accomplished one thing that has few parallels in all of history: They established a free government and a free-enterprise system without many class restraints and brimming with opportunity.
Under this system, my ancestors, and all Americans, were able to start over and flourish within a very short time period.
Not every wrong was made right, but freedom gave them opportunity and they used it. Their successes came mostly through their enterprise, but without freedom it would not have been possible. And as a result of those successes, over time our nation has had the luxury seldom seen in history to try to right its wrongs.
Such opportunity is hardly the legacy of Europe. It is more American than almost anything else, and we need to remember and resurrect such levels of opportunity. Fortunately, there has been much progress under this free system in race, religious, gender and class relations.
The U.S. Constitution set the pace for all such changes, and they naturally—albeit not easily—occurred under its structure. In our day, we need less of an example from Europe and more of a return to the principles of freedom which made America great.
Those who dislike some things about America—and, honestly, who doesn’t?—should remember that few nations in all of world history or today have made as many positive advances for freedom and prosperity—and for most of the people. I love Europe, and certainly Europe and other nations have a lot to teach us.
But nothing in human history is more likely to help us make the needed changes effectively and lastingly than life under the U.S. Constitution and applying the principles of freedom as championed by the American founders and great leaders since.
The stakes may be poised to rise on this, since world events seem likely to drive U.S. gasoline prices well above $5 a gallon. When I lived in Spain, I was always shocked that the gas prices were always three to five times higher than in the United States. Americans have since seen prices go up to around $3-$4, depending on the specific time or place, but we may see this double, or more, in the years ahead.
Prices of $6, $7, or even $9 a gallon would not be surprising. And make no mistake, cheap energy prices have greatly benefited America’s economic success.
America can alter this direction, or find ways to innovatively overcome it, if it is allowed to work in a free system with a free enterprise economy. But if it is forced to fight this battle without the benefit of true free enterprise, it will most likely move more and more toward European lifestyles.
Nothing in accepted history has accomplished more for widespread freedom and prosperity than the American constitutional model of free government and free enterprise. So, definitely, let’s learn all we can from the successes of Europe, Asia, conservatives, liberals, history and everyone else. We must make sure our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to apply the best lessons of the world in a society as free and prosperous as the ideal American system—which we have yet to create.
Let’s improve our nation, change old traditions that don’t work, and re-emphasize the principles of freedom that have proven true (even if we have forgotten to apply them in recent decades). America needs to be a lot more like the ideal America—and soon.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.