BRUSSELS - Since coming back from vacation in early September, U.S. President George W. Bush has been polishing his swords. He appears nearly every day before one or another patriotic audience, wearing one or another ready-for-battle jacket, explaining to all how eager he is to go into battle. How little patience he has. How itchy-fingered he is to obliterate Saddam Hussein from the face of the earth. How itchy-fingered he is to replace the Old Middle East of dictators and despots with a New Middle East of marines and McDonald's.
If Saddam's willing to leave nicely, then fine. But if he isn't willing to leave nicely, then it will have to be by force. Lots of force. Occupation, coerced democracy, re-education. With the entire rich American menu of what General MacArthur did in Japan after Hiroshima. With the entire familiar American menu of what General McCoy did in Germany after Hitler's bunker. And maybe more.
Since returning from vacations in early September, Europe has had no rest. It looks at the gringo from across the sea and realizes that he is talking business and that all of its old problems are back. There is the familiar sound of the tom-tom drums, just as they beat before the Great War. There is the barefaced American patronization, as in the days before World War II. And there is the same contrast that characterized the entire 20th century, between the pugnacious hormones of Texas and the helpless refined tastes of Paris. Once again we find the broad disparity in the personality of the two great North Atlantic blocs that are supposed to be allies: in this corner the Anglo-American bloc, in the opposite corner the Euro-Continental bloc.
What is emerging this autumn on either side of the Atlantic Ocean is much more than a seasonal strain in the complex intimate relationship between Washington and Brussels. Nor is it a personal face-off between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or between Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. What is now coming to the fore is the deep disharmony between the political culture of the Anglo-Saxon world and its sense of moral mission, and the political culture of the Euro world that sanctifies the good life. What is growing apparent on the eve of the great new war is the deep chasm that separates Anglo-Americans, who are motivated by an ethos of action-in-history, from Continental-Europeans motivated by an ethos of hedonism, cultural sophistication and paralysis. While the Americans are tracing the lines from September 11 to Pearl Harbor and the espousal of a Churchillian pattern of behavior, the Europeans are reconverging along the same patterns that characterized France in the late 1930s.
Europe 2002 is an enviable place. Its economic troubles (unemployment, budget deficits, market inflexibility) are rich people's troubles. The political dilemmas on its mind are the dilemmas of a luxuriant lifestyle (migration, war on crime, agreement on a shared constitution). Throughout the continent, Europeans are able to look up from their morning coffee and morning newspaper and feel content: the euro is strong, EU expansion is progressing, integration processes are gaining strength. The grand European project of Jean Monnet (the French economist whose activities led to the establishment of the European Common Market) that began in the mid-1950s has succeeded. It provides 320 million people with a prosperous and enlightened civil and financial expanse unlike anything else in the history of humankind.
Nevertheless, the history of humankind is now knocking at the door. The history of humankind has a question to ask European contentment. And that question is: How did this chasm form between the High Culture of Europe and its success in reconstructing itself, and its utter failure to fill any real international role? Can Europe continue to cloister itself within the sealed walls of the bubble of wealth it has created? In spite of all the derision for Americans and criticism of the Americans' simplemindedness, isn't there nevertheless something right about their moral clarity and their determination and willingness to go to bat for the West?
The impending war poses great risks. There are some strong doubts about the wisdom of leaving the war to the exclusive management of an American president who tends to see the world in black and white. It is doubtful if it would be proper to leave the outlining of its objectives to a conservative Washington gang that is insufficiently cognizant of the limitations of power and the inherent risks of forging a new form of Western imperialism. But in order for Europe to contribute to the war and complement and balance the American effort, it has to prove it has a moral backbone.
Europe cannot continue to immerse itself in sanctimoniousness, hedonism and attempts to appease dictators. As of now, the most disturbing fact is that when all is said and done, 60 years on, when it comes to lining up against evil, the free world is discovering that Europe is once again sterile. Europe isn't even there.
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