Tomorrow I am off to spend a week in America. I am one of those Europeans who regularly go there – I try to do so at least once a year – to “refuel.” I am convinced that deep down America is much more “European” than Europe is today. American culture is closer to that of mediaeval European society from which it organically evolved, while Europe was perverted by the spirit of the French Revolution.
The American pioneers left Europe because they wanted the freedom to live according to their own conscience instead of the conscience of the centralist absolutist rulers of the new age that was sweeping across Europe from the 16th century onwards. Their traditions were rooted in the decentralised traditions of the late Middle Ages and the Aristotelian philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas which was centered on the individual. God had called man to be free from sin, but in order to be free from sin man had to be virtuous, and in order for virtue to have any value it had to be voluntary, implying that the virtuous man had to be free in every aspect of his life including, as Aquinas’ followers later pointed out, his economic activities.
Hence the paradox came about that the civil society developing in the new continent was in a sense older than the new Modern Age of the absolutist monarchs governing Europe. When the Americans rebelled in 1776 they rebelled against absolutism in order to keep their old freedoms. Theirs was a conservative revolution.
As I will be in the States next week to meet up with old friends and visit new ones, I do not know whether I will have time to post on The Brussels Journal. However, I do not want to leave you without a posting for ten days, so I am reprinting one of my first articles. It was published almost 20 years ago in The Wall Street Journal Europe of 23 April 1986. It is a bit outdated, having been written during the Cold War, but the parallel between Europe’s attitude towards America and the behaviour of a tiny frog in a fable by the French poet La Fontaine still holds.
A Parable of Impotence
There was a frog not much bigger than a hen's egg, who became envious of the majestic size of her neighbor, Lord Ox. So she puffed and puffed and swelled up, until she was twice as big as her sister. "Is that enough?" she asked. "Am I as big as Lord Ox, now?"
"Nothing like it!" cried her sister. "You're not even as big as his hoof yet. You'll have to swell up a hundred times more, at least!"
So the frog swelled up still more, and more, and just that little bit more until - like a balloon when you stick a pin into it - she burst. Which was sad, because her sister was just going to say to her: "You'll never do it - we frogs should know our place."
(Favorite Fables From La Fontaine)
Contemporary Western European politics towards the U.S. bears a striking resemblance to the tale of the 17th-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine. Wanting to be as big as the ox in the meadow beside the frog pool, she began to inflate herself: “Yurrop, yurrop, yurrop,” she went at every breath, until she finally exploded.
The frog’s problem was completely irrational. Oxen are peaceful vegetarians, not aggressive carnivores. But that did not matter to the frog. The frog was frustrated because of the size of her neighbor, not because of his nature. Had the ox been an aggressive bear, the frog would also have been frustrated, because bears are big too. Had the neighbor been a stork, the frog would have been less frustrated because storks are not as big as bears and oxen. The fact that storks are natural enemies of frogs would not have changed this. Frog psychology is strange.
West European psychology bears a striking resemblance to frog psychology. Many West Europeans today dislike the U.S. It would be wrong to conclude, however, as Americans sometimes do, that they like the Russian bear. They do not. The problem with Western Europe today is that it dislikes America as much as the Soviet Union. The problem is one of equation, known as moral equivalence in the U.S. intellectual circles. They are equated because of their proportions. The difference in their nature is merely circumstantial. They are both bad because for the frustrated frog everyone who is too big to cope with is by definition bad.
This obsession with the proportions of superpowers to the neglect of their political systems explains a lot:
• It explains the sympathy West Europeans have for little Nicaragua in America's backyard, which in West European opinion is in the same position as poor Poland in Russia's yard.
• It explains West European disapproval of America's intervention in Grenada, which in West European eyes paralleled the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan.
• It explains why West European pacifists deem their fight against “American domination” as important as the East Europeans’ fight against Soviet domination.
• It also explains why, in spite of fundamental differences between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact, many West Europeans see these only as instruments used by the two superpowers to maintain the domination of “their” part of Europe.
• It even explains why some West Europeans see a greater danger in the American ox that in the Libyan stork.
Still, the frog's frustration does not explain exactly why she remains blind to the fundamentally different nature between oxen and bears. Even a Pekingese knows that a St. Bernard is another dog while a calf is not, even though the St. Bernard and the calf are roughly the same size. Why then do West Europeans fail to recognize America as one of their kind – i.e., a pluralist democracy – and the Soviet Union as not – i.e., a communist totalitarian regime?
Like the U.S., Western Europe stands for parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression. Democracy and pluralism, however, represent only systems of the political and moral-cultural fields of life. There is a third important field of social life, economics, where some nations have adopted a system that allows citizens the greatest possible economic freedom and severely restricts the power of the government. This is called capitalism.
The strength of America's political system lies in the fact that ordinary Americans have never underestimated the supra-economic function of their economic liberty. One way or another, consciously or unconsciously, ordinary Americans have always felt economic liberty an indispensable guarantee of their democracy and pluralism. Most ordinary West Europeans do not.
In “welfare state” Europe, capitalism is a dirty word, as despicable as communism. Its euphemistic equivalent is “free-market liberalism.” But many West Europeans aren’t even in favor of that. Economic freedom in Western Europe is severely restricted by a multitude of regulations and laws. Although these are designed to protect the citizen against risks, they discourage him from taking risks altogether and prevent his prosperity.
So Western Europe's economy stagnates while America's keeps growing. This causes jealousy, which reinforces the political frustration Western Europe already has toward its Atlantic partner. True, Western Europe feels political frustration toward both superpowers. But toward the U.S. it also feels economic frustration. This double frustration toward the U.S. partly explains why fundamental differences between Western Europe and the Soviet Union tend to be equated with the minor inter-Atlantic differences. A second explanation is that, although Western Europe shares democracy and pluralism with the U.S. many West Europeans share anti-capitalist feelings with the Soviets. This anti-capitalist affinity obfuscates the far greater differences between pluralist democracies and communist totalitarianism.
There is also a third reason for West European frustration. The idea that there are no real differences between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could not be as widely held if Western Europe knew America better. The idea of Soviet-American moral equivalence is shared by many American liberals. But there it arises primarily from lack of knowledge of the true nature of the Soviet Union. Western Europe not only lacks knowledge of the true nature of the Soviet Union – but also of the true nature of the U.S. That is why the notion of bad superpowers is more rooted in Western Europe than in the U.S. Western Europe not only needs to restore a realistic view of the Soviet Union but also of the U.S.
Large parts of the West European population consider Americans naive, simple, unsophisticated – a nation without any real culture or important history. Everything America has, has been borrowed from Europe. All it has added are things like jeans, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s: i.e., America the purely materialist, extremely superficial society.
Such views are held not only by the ordinary West European (who knows America only from Westerns, “Dallas,” etc.), but also by many intellectuals, who should know better. But West European intellectuals know little about America's history. They know nothing about some of the greatest political philosophers of all time – Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson - whose visions shaped American democracy and greatly influenced European democracies. They know nothing about America's spiritual foundation, its deeply embedded trust in God.
Nor does political orientation in Western Europe appear to affect “elitism” toward America. Says one, “We Europeans have been reduced to the role of the civilizing Greeks in the Roman Europe: teaching the Americans the proper temperature at which to drink their red wine.” And another: “Europeans have a better understanding of the complexity of the present world difficulties than the United States.”
The first quotation is from a conservative Italian author, the second from a former British Socialist prime minister. The list could be expanded endlessly. “Europe, Europe, Europe,” the frog bellows louder and louder, as West European politicians and intellectuals try to prove that they are good Europeans by distancing themselves from America.
“It remains a remarkable fact about life that a Conservative prime minister has to struggle so hard to defend an ally’s use of its own aircraft and its own pilots to attack a common enemy of Western civilization,” wrote the London Times shortly after the U.S. raid on Libya. It could be argued that defending Western civilization is no longer relevant to Western Europe. For having to defend something – even oneself – side by side with Lord Ox has become an unbearable thought for a self-complacent frog, who, unless she outgrows her frustration, will never grow larger than a hen’s egg.