TCS Daily

The European Descent

By Ilya Shapiro - September 27, 2005 12:00 AM

ATHENS, GREECE -- As I got on the ferry to return to this dirty, dusty, concrete-slathered megalopolis, I couldn't help but think that the cult of ancient provenance I'd witnessed over ten days' travels was but a microcosm of the general psychoses afflicting (post-)modern Europe. Every museum, every tour, every billboard sponsored by the Greek Tourism Ministry urged visitors to pay tribute to the land of Homer and Plato, of great marble temples and artistic achievement, the source of democracy and of so many words in so many languages.

Similarly, Europeans insist that Europe is the font of civilization, the home of the Enlightenment, and the ultimate expression of the Marxist dialectic human progress.

Like the bedraggled patriarch in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who can't make sense of why his daughter would ever want to leave the fold, Europeans cannot for the love of Zeus understand why the world does not pay constant homage to their clear superiority.

And Greeks, while geographically and temperamentally removed from their French, German, and Belgian brethren -- though risen in wealth and status in the wake of the 2004 Olympics -- share such Eutopian delusions. (Athenian protests against the liberation of Iraq, for example, dwarfed those in Paris and Berlin -- and New York and San Francisco for that matter.)

Well. Sorry to be so blunt, but what have you done for us lately? Since long before the Second World War -- which marked Britain's decline in the same way that the Great War washed away continental pretensions at moral superiority -- Europeans have rested on their laurels. With the end of the Cold War and the onset of new global economic realities, those laurels have become wreaths -- beautiful elegant verdant crescents like those that adorned the caesars' magnificent craniums, but symbols of glory days long past nonetheless.

This European descent has very little to do with growing anti-Americanism -- that is but a symptom -- and everything to do with the inability (and unwillingness) to grapple with the internal contradictions of the European economic and social models. Look at Europe's two latest political debacles, the EU constitution and last week's German election. French voters rejected the former because they feared it would force them to change their anachronous ways, while their German counterparts punished both a socialist chancellor who deigned propose modest reforms and a would-be successor who wanted the country's economic policies to make economic sense.

Shamefully, the European Union's constitution did not fail because citizens blanched at a retrenchment of sclerotic Eurocracy (quite the opposite). Appallingly, Gerhard Schröder's biggest losses were to the unreconstructed communists and other disaffected leftists -- for whom even the existing labor and tax laws are too "Anglo-American."

To repeat what has become an unfortunate cliché, Europe is dying -- literally (in terms of population) and figuratively (in terms of living standards, social cohesion, and economic growth). The United States meanwhile, while not without its own problems and pathologies, is prospering.

Robert Kagan identified the trans-Atlantic divergence in his prescient Of Paradise and Power, a sort of "America is from Mars, Europe is from Venus" approach to geopolitics. The United States sees itself as idealistic, man's last best hope for freedom -- a freedom worth fighting and dying for. Europe, pacifistic and cynical, wants nothing more than to conduct business as usual (under America's protective umbrella) -- and send diplomats to bargain with terrorists and tyrants.

The latest issue of American Enterprise magazine goes further, by detailing this rift at the socio-economic level in a series of stories on "Red America, Blue Europe." As Karl Zinsmeister shrewdly writes:

"The irony is that for all their insistence on portraying the U.S. as a land of fired workers, poverty, and economic insecurity, it is now Europe where unemployment is twice as high and four times as deep, where immigrants and the young have far fewer openings, where the ladder of upward mobility has fallen to pieces."

Instead of the implosion of the New World's imperial hyper-puissance, it is the European Union that drowns in its own impotent decadence. How infuriating! Worse still, it may be the emerging mega-nations of China and India who are the true winners in the instant information and capitalist revolution -- at least if Thomas Friedman is even 1% right.

(Lest this space degenerate into "Dispatches from Purple Earth," however, recall that most ambitious Chinese and Indians -- and Canadians -- still prefer to move to the United States over riding the globalization wave in their own countries.)

As for the Greeks, we should be disappointed that they, like Europeans generally, are so ungrateful for the Marshall Plan and for protection against the Soviet Union (quite literally in Greece's case, as Stalin-backed troops would almost certainly have won the 1945-49 civil war were it not for U.S. assistance).

But even more, we should feel pity. For no amount of anti-Americanism (or Windex) will counter Europe's malaise.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer who writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last piece was a mini-memoir of his year on the Gulf Coast.


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