By William Drozdiak
Sunday, May 13, 2007
France's newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has already stretched a warm hand of friendship across the Atlantic. He vowed to transform the venomous relations with Washington that prevailed under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, urged his compatriots to emulate the social mobility and work ethic commonly found in the United States, and expressed pride in his nickname, "Sarko l'americain."
Sarkozy's paean of affection for the United States echoed the sentiments of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who upon taking office in 2005 declared that she would strive to restore a close U.S.-German partnership. While President Bush is held in low esteem in many world capitals, the fact that the new leaders of "Old Europe" could win with pro-America platforms suggests that Yankee phobia may not be as toxic or universal as some pundits, mainly on the American left, claim.
Why has U.S. stature in the world eroded? Opinion polls cite widespread dismay with the Iraq war, our dog-eat-dog social model and the arrogance of an imperial superpower that places itself above international law. But behind the surveys about "why they hate us" lies a reservoir of goodwill waiting to be tapped among foreigners who would prefer to see the United States succeed rather than fail.
This love-hate melange has perpetuated four modern myths about transatlantic relations that deserve to be debunked.
1 The French hate us.
There is scant evidence to suggest that exploiting anti-American attitudes wins elections. During the French campaign, Sarkozy was often derided by his Socialist opponents as "an American neoconservative carrying a French passport." Some critics claimed he would dismantle France's welfare state and replace it with an American-style "law of the jungle." But most voters ignored such rhetoric. If anything, Sarkozy's public endorsement of the United States helped convince voters that he would shake France out of its torpor and put the country back to work.
In Germany, where anti-American views have hardened in recent years, Merkel has not suffered because of her support of the United States. Indeed, she has steadily increased her popularity with high-profile visits to Washington. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, sought to mobilize his Social Democratic Party and leftist base during earlier campaigns with harsh criticism of the United States, particularly of the war in Iraq. But his electoral ploy failed to convince voters that an anti-American platform was the answer to their problems.
In Britain, America's image has been badly tarnished by the Iraq war, which gave Prime Minister Tony Blair a reputation as Bush's "poodle." But as Blair prepares to cede power to Gordon Brown, there are no signs that this shift will affect the strong historic bonds between Washington and London. If anything, Brown is regarded as even more of an Americanophile than Blair: He vacations on Cape Cod, hobnobs with American pols and counts Democratic operative Bob Shrum as one of his main political gurus.
2 Europeans look down on the American way of life.
Young Europeans are more eager than ever to work and study in the United States. A brain drain from France and Germany has sent some of their best and brightest to the United States. A top destination is Silicon Valley; an estimated 80,000 young French people, known for their math skills, have migrated there in pursuit of jobs with high-tech firms.
When I spoke last year with about 50 Germans studying at MIT and Harvard, not one of them expressed a desire to return home. They all wanted to live and work in the United States, where, they said, opportunities are far more abundant. Many complained that the sclerotic welfare states in Europe punish those who work and reward those who don't. So they're fleeing the crushing tax burden at home for more lucrative challenges in the United States.
Europe's leaders are slowly waking up to the fact that, with shrinking birth rates and a diminished work force, the continent may no longer be able to afford lavish social benefits, such as universal health care, retirement on full pensions as early as age 50 and up to nine weeks of paid vacation per year. They are exploring best practices in the United States to see how to rekindle entrepreneurial spirit and push people off welfare rolls.
Similarly, European politicians are seeking to learn from the United States about diversity. Faced with growing difficulties in integrating Turkish and North African immigrants, European governments that once scorned affirmative action are now looking to America for ideas to improve racial integration and encourage class mobility.
American culture continues to enthrall Europeans. Besides American films and television shows such as "Desperate Housewives," which Europeans lap up, books written by Americans regularly top European bestseller lists. Among French authors, some of the most popular books feature dissections of life in the United States, whether by pro-American intellectuals such as Bernard-Henry Levy or anti-American writers such as Emmanuel Todd.
3 "Old Europe" no longer matters because China and India are the future.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Europe supposedly lost its relevance. Not true. In fact, Europe and the United States still act as the twin turbines of the global economy, accounting for 60 percent of all trade and investment flows.
Americans invested five times as much money in Germany last year as they did in China, and U.S. firms in total have poured four times as much money into tiny Belgium as they have into India. Europe provides three-quarters of all foreign investment in the United States, creating millions of American jobs.
When it comes to security, Americans have discovered that going to war without the full support of our main allies can cost much in blood and treasure. It's clear now that for a long time to come, the future of U.S. security interests will still depend on closer coordination with our European allies than we can ever expect with our Asian friends.
4 Europe loves only Democrats.
Most Europeans loathe George W. Bush, and his departure from the White House will be cheered in capitals around the world. But that doesn't mean that Europeans want a return to the kumbaya-ism and humility evinced by President Jimmy Carter and the early years of the Clinton administration, when the United States failed to lead in stopping genocide in the Balkans.
Indeed, the passage of time has healed much of Europe's negativity toward Republican presidents. During his time at the White House, Ronald Reagan was mocked in Europe as a mediocre actor ignorant of world politics; today, he is regarded as a visionary who foreshadowed the fall of communism with his 1986 speech in Berlin that urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." And George H.W. Bush, once branded as a Reagan lackey whose primary job was to attend B-list head-of-state funerals, is now lauded for his skillful management of the peaceful reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
The next occupant of the White House will be judged by our friends abroad on how well he or she can infuse a new sense of purpose and destiny into the Western alliance. There is plenty of work to be done to repair the damage inflicted on America's moral leadership by the debacle in Iraq and the sordid images from Abu Ghraib prison. But given the pro-American mindset among the new leaders in France, Germany and Britain, the next U.S. president, regardless of party, could command surprisingly strong support from our supposedly fickle allies.
William Drozdiak, a former foreign editor and chief European correspondent for The Washington Post, is president of the American Council on Germany.