Continental Drift: Why are the Ties that Bind Europe to the U.S. Unraveling?

The geopolitical map of the world is changing and, according to Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, the most dramatic developments may well occur in Europe. Like continents driven apart by shifting tectonic plates, the European Union and the United States are drifting away from each other, straining the NATO alliance and a cultural heritage dating back to the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries.


Rifkin is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. and also teaches in the Wharton Fellows executive education program. He believes that Europe’s shared values and deep-rooted culture will sustain its rise to global power in the 21st century. The ties that have bound Europe to the United States are unraveling to the latter’s disadvantage.  America’s “City on the Hill” ideology and sense of self-sufficiency are preventing the United States from continuing its bridge-building to the future which had figured so prominently in the Clinton administration’s agenda only a few short years ago.


Europe and the United States have long had much in common. The French Revolution of 1789, for example, was directly inspired by America’s successful bid for independence a decade before. Yet when the aspirations of these great political upheavals are studied, it is evident that major differences existed even then. Where the Declaration of Independence asserted the right of each human being to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the popular cry after the fall of the Bastille was for “liberty, equality and fraternity.” These differences of expression were far more fundamental than a matter of noble sentiments being lost in translation.


Rifkin’s The European Dream recalls the great 19th century tract, Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Like de Tocqueville, Rifkin examines a novel approach to political, social and economic organization. This time, however, it is Europe which is taking on the leadership role in creating a new populist definition of democracy. On the “other side of the pond,” America’s interpretation of freedom remains linked to a philosophy of property rights cherished by theorists from the Enlightenment.


Fraternity, the last of the French Revolution’s trio of ideals, is crucial to Europe’s continued emergence as a global superpower even as the lack of a comparable sense of cohesive social unity threatens the United States. If Rifkin’s thesis is correct, the cooperative orientation of Europe, which has been slowly evolving since the end of the Second World War, will triumph over America’s “rugged individualism” – a thought which troubles Rifkin in many ways. Asserting his devotion to the American Dream, the “spiritual and philosophical guide for all of my life,” he cites mounting evidence that American values are weakening, both in their appeal and their potency.


The growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor in the U.S., the spiraling rate of debt, both on personal and governmental levels, and the shocking decline in political participation since the 1960s haunt Rifkin’s reflections on contemporary America. He writes that “for those on the top and for those on the bottom, the American dream is losing its cachet, and in the process, casting the American people adrift.”


Europe has become the “New World.” The European Union, with its embrace of former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe, is now a continent-wide system. Even more revolutionary is its internal organization. The EU is on track to becoming a unified realm where national borders are little more than vestigial remains of the bad old days of nationalism. Economic fault lines and conflicting religious and social ideologies are disappearing too. A sense of unity and identity is rising, especially among the young, not seen since the spread of Christendom throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.


The ‘Miracle’ Years Not so Miraculous


The European Dream provides an information rich analysis of the demographic and economic forces propelling the EU’s quiet revolution. Rifkin notes that the nations comprising the EU have a combined population of 455 million, out-distancing the U.S. population of 293 million. The EU is the world’s largest trader of good and services. In 2003, its Gross Domestic Product of  $10.5 trillion edged out the $10.4 trillion GDP of the United States and is nearly 6.5 times larger than that of China.


The “American Miracle” of the 1990s is often compared favorably to the performance of Europe during recent times. Rifkin’s conclusions about American job growth, the keystone of the 1990’s “Miracle,” are not encouraging. The seemingly impressive reduction of the rate of U.S. unemployment from 7.5% in 1992 to 4% in 2000 needs to be adjusted to take other factors into consideration. Rifkin notes that nearly 2% of the male adult workforce in the U.S. languishes in prison. Many of the jobs added to the workforce during the “Miracle” years were temporary or part-time, while two million unemployed workers have dropped below the statistical radar for lack of jobs. The actual unemployment rate in the U.S. for 2003, according to Rifkin’s calculations, should be reckoned at 9%.


Rifkin’s evaluation of the European and American economies transcends a mere evaluation of statistics. Much of his book is a philosophical exploration of the European modes of thought which are now enabling the peoples of once-warring nations to achieve a pan-European consensus on social and environmental issues as well as economic cooperation.


The most curious, indeed ironic, feature of Rifkin’s perceptive reading of European culture is the way that many of the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment have lost their appeal in Europe. Yet they continue to exert a powerful influence on the American Dream. One could hardly conceive of a more European phenomenon that the conceptualizations of property rights, individual freedoms and notions of privacy propounded by John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Georg Hegel. To a surprising degree, their influence has waned, replaced by the theories of social theorists like Michel Foucault who stress the need for an interlocking system of “governability” in European society. In Foucault’s system, social interdependence is intertwined with personal independence, making for a radically different form of government.


The Enlightenment agenda, crucial to the ideals of the American Revolution, still holds sway in the United States. If anything, Rifkin notes, the fervor with which many American political writers assert these hallowed ideals in an age of growing  complexity is creating “an extreme caricature” of Enlightenment theories which have already been “tempered by countervailing forces” in Europe itself.


These countervailing forces include the ability of Europe’s peoples to live harmoniously in communal societies and to regulate their lives to a work ethic which stresses the bonds of mutual cooperation. Rifkin highlights a recent development in the Information Revolution to illustrate this cooperative mindset in action. He cites the example of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, which linked its 2,700 desktop PCs together using a computer grid to give the firm the capacity of a supercomputer without having to buy one. Grid technology is being embraced throughout Europe, which has seized a commanding lead over the United States in its implementation.


Novartis used software produced by an American firm to create its computer grid. It is another of the many ironies implicit in Europe’s surge past the U.S. But the nations of the EU are not just using American technology. The nations of Europe are slowly creating bonds of unity much as the framers of the U.S. Constitution did for America in 1787. The introduction of a unified currency, the Euro, in 1999 is only the most visible manifestation of the ongoing process of joint planning and regulation which is binding Europe’s peoples together. Just as the borders between America’s states ceased to be barriers after the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the U.S. Constitution, so the boundaries of Europe’s nations, once walled off by fortresses and policed by hostile armies, are fading away.


Rifkin, however, is a realist. The EU faces a host of problems to be solved before the vision of a completely integrated continental system can be realized. Rifkin lists the aging population of Europe and the need to create an independent military force under EU command as serious challenges. Problems and their solutions tend to create new difficulties. The EU must deal with the soaring number of immigrants within its borders if the population shortfall is to be corrected and security enhanced.


Solving the immigrant problems will likely be the acid test of the EU’s survival. Most of the newcomers to Europe are from Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Algeria and Turkey. While the vast number acquit themselves admirably in the difficult process of adjusting to living in new countries, certain flashpoints remain. Cultural differences, competition for jobs, memories of conflict between Islam and Christianity and the suspicions aroused by terrorist attacks, most recently by a Moroccan group in Madrid on March 11, 2004, are already straining Europe’s equanimity.


Rifkin also notes that the “deep pessimistic edge ingrained in the European persona” may be the biggest stumbling block to the realization of the European Dream. Many “best laid” plans for unifying Europe have withered on the vine. The security plans of the Congress of Vienna after the fall of Napoleon and the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War are memorable examples. Should serious economic or political reverses threaten the cohesion of the EU, the state of mind of Europe’s peoples in dealing with such crises will be crucial. Pessimism, born of the cruel disappointments of the past, could be fatal.

It would be a fitting irony, then, if the European dream was ultimately realized by the example of America’s unquenchable “can-do” spirit. And it would be even more encouraging if America’s vision of itself was revitalized by the cooperative example of Europe’s peoples and their dedication to the shared values of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”

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