Europe: The UN-America

What does it mean to be European? The answer seems simple until you try to formulate it. The sad truth is that the current most important component of European identity is NOT being American. Like 7-UP was advertised as the un-cola, Europe is the un-America and this irritates U.S.-European relations.

I just returned from a week in the heart of old Europe and I can allay American fears. Most Europeans don't hate us. They don't think about us that much at all. Why should they? It would be vanity to think they do. And I encountered no real hostility. Of course maybe they could not easily identify my nationality. I can order alcohol in most Euro languages without a noticeable accent. Being a drunkard makes you a citizen of the world. But seriously, I tried to find out what it meant to be a European - without real success except to find that it was not being an American.

Look for a historic Europe and all you find are dozens of nations routinely at war with each other. Europeans most often got to know each other intimately only on battlefields. The bayonet was a weapon with a European on both ends.

The first and longest European unification - the Roman Empire - was a Mediterranean affair that spilled over into Asia and Africa, but hardly touched what is now the heart of Europe north of the Rhine and Danube. Until the advent of the EU only two leaders envisioned a united Europe more of less along the current lines. Both Napoleon and Hitler provoked fierce hostility and their plans crashed in ignominious defeat.

But Europe is a cultural area, right? European civilization was once a cultural area more or less coterminous with Christendom, but it later expanded to cover most of North and South America, Australian and Oceania and made inroads everywhere else so that now many key aspects of Euro civilization are more enthusiastically practiced outside the old continent. Think of the hallmark of Euro civilization, Christianity.

Europe is also not an ethnic or linguistic untiy. Major Euro language like English, Spanish, French and Portuguese have many more speakers on continents other than Europe. Ethnic? A Scandinavian is more likely to have family in the U.S. or Canada than in Greece or Spain and most Italians would find the cultures, traditions and architecture in Argentina or Uruguay more familiar than in Poland or Lithuania.

A nation is more than a state. Many states don't encompass nations and some nations (like the Kurds) don't have a state. Europe is well on the way to creating a state, but is still far from having the identity of a nation and must still define the nation by what it is not. For now, the European nation is the un-America. (It is also the un-Argentina or the un-Brazil etc. but those things don't come up often.) Un-America does not have to mean anti-American. As the Euro nation develops other markers, the need to be the un-American will diminish. I hope this happens soon.

European integration is in American interest and the European unity enterprise is truly exciting. But for now, the usually unacknowledged hurt feelings on both sides of the Atlantic add too much emotion, almost like sibling rivalry, to what should be normal disagreements between grownup countries.

Europeans and American have so much in common. Even a short visit to Europe reminds you of that. We don't want to lose sight of this no matter what the current tensions.

It is possible to be not America and still value the differences.

Posted by Jack at March 17, 2005 8:32 PM