November 2, 2012 6:47 pm

Falling out of love with America

The French media have catalogued the US election as if documenting the mating habits of an Amazonian tribe
An illustration by Luis Grañena©Luis Grañena

When I went to study in the US in 1993, I did what we members of the “transatlantic generation” were supposed to do: I fell in love with America. I liked how you could talk to someone at a bus stop without their thinking you were a serial killer. I liked living in a rich, optimistic country. I liked brunch. Yet the US also seemed reassuringly familiar. I felt I’d known it for ever, and not just thanks to Archie comics. In politics, both candidates in the 1992 election, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, could have slotted seamlessly into the European political scene. Indeed, in Britain the right instinctively backed Bush and the left Clinton.

After I left the US, it took me a year to get over it. But now, viewing the elections from Europe, the US feels like an alien land. “The Atlantic seems to have got a bit wider,” says Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs at the European think-tank Fride. It’s become hard to say “our shared western values” without smirking.

Before about 2000, the US as a polity didn’t look very unlike a European country writ large. Of course, Americans and Europeans each had their own peculiarities. However, for decades we were both oases of democracy in a mostly unfree world. We shared formative memories of the second world war. We worried together about the Soviets. We largely traded with each other. Many European politicians talked about God at least as often as Americans did. Nor were Americans much more conservative than us. In the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship, and probably Major-Clinton, the Briton was on the right. Our alliance really was built on shared values. In 1990, 2001 and 2003 the US assembled western coalitions to fight big wars.

Beyond the minor Libyan exercise, it’s hard to imagine that happening again, says Keohane. Since just 2000, we’ve grown far apart. Several factors coincided. The Soviet threat collapsed. Shared memories of beating Hitler waned. Less visibly, students’ migratory patterns changed: ever more Europeans study in other European countries rather than the US. Germany and Britain now send fewer students to America than do Nepal or Vietnam.

In politics and economics, we diverged spectacularly. George W. Bush introduced a peculiarly non-European evangelical Christianity into presidential politics. He landed Europeans in two wars that we ended up regretting. He shattered the belief that western countries stood together for human rights. Our mutual trade waned: in the decade to 2007, even before the economic crisis, the share of the European Union’s imports coming from the US halved to just 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, as money flooded American politics like never before, US elections came to provide Europeans with an alien spectacle of plutocrats fighting aristocrats. Here’s a typical line from The Economist, about Pennsylvania’s senate race: “Though Mr Casey is the son of a popular former governor, Mr Smith has vowed to spend millions of dollars of his own fortune on the campaign, lashing Mr Casey …”About $5.8bn will be spent nationwide in these elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, as David Cameron noted recently on the Late Show with David Letterman, British political parties cannot even advertise on TV.

. . .

In France, where I live, the media have been cataloguing the American election with fascination, as if documenting the outlandish mating habits of some newly discovered Amazonian tribe. Even the welcome fact that it pits a Mormon against a black man – two products of a non-European US – only makes the spectacle more alien to Europeans.

At least we’re still interested in Americans. The reverse decreasingly applies. In 2003, the British historian Tony Judt told me that the prevailing American intellectual view of Europe was “a cemetery with great art”, but things have worsened since. In the presidential debate on foreign policy, Israel got almost seven times more mentions than all western European nations combined, calculates foreignpolicy.com. Provided our rotten currency doesn’t blow up and disturb serious countries, Europe can safely be forgotten.

The Atlantic will probably widen further if Mitt Romney wins. Since 2000, Europeans have become fervent Democrats. In 2008, Barack Obama would have been elected leader of any European country where he’d run. Even now, according to polling by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 75 per cent of Europeans back him. Just 8 per cent support Romney. Though Obama ignores us, Europeans still consider him one of us.

By contrast, at a recent Parisian dinner I heard a senior European politician describe Romney – inaccurately – as “a foolish guy, a stupid man”. “Romney: L’Extraterrestre”, screamed a magazine cover here, encapsulating the view of Republicans as aliens.

I’m not saying Europeans are right about Republicans. Perhaps the Tea Party is correct, and Europeans are crazed, bankrupt, jihad-supporting socialists. My point is that a Republican-led US would share few values with Europeans. Sure, Republicans believe in democracy, but so now do Indonesians and Ghanaians. “We are all Americans”, Le Monde famously headlined on September 13 2001. That’s over.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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