The Impossible Dream

Over the past few decades Jeremy Rifkin has been outraging many people and winning over a devoted few. His latest book, The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (Tarcher/Penguin, $25.95), will prove no exception.

A longtime campaigner for animal rights and against genetically modified food, as well as a lifelong critic of the American imperium, Rifkin, the author of The End of Work (1996), now suggests that we Americans have it all wrong in thinking that the gospel of discipline and hard work constitutes the stuff of which great peoples and strong economies are made.

In these pages, we encounter a universe where the obvious, documented facts of life -- like the continent's consistently underperforming economy -- are generally underplayed to prove (voila!) that it's actually the Europeans who are creating "a vision for the future" that will lead the world in the coming decades. This European dream celebrates the quality of life and leisure, cherishes collective values, respects the environment and embraces diversity far more than the harder-edged, individualistic and religiously imbued American version.

Interestingly, many informed Europeans are far less sanguine about their continent's long-term prospects than this impassioned American admirer. Indeed, recent surveys by various European think tanks, as well as by the European Union itself, have shown that Europe is increasingly lagging behind the United States and rising Asian economies, both in economic and productivity growth, as well as technology. Europe is also losing its technological edge and much of its brainpower, largely to the United States, Canada and Australia. Worse, the many structural flaws in its economy -- the generous pensions, extra leisure time and early retirement praised by Rifkin -- are precisely what limits future Euro-growth to less than 2 percent annually, widening the gap with the United States and potentially placing Europe behind burgeoning Asian economies.

Toward the end of the book, Rifkin belatedly deals in detail with some continental failings, most notably the looming demographic decline of most European countries. With disastrously low birthrates (except for a largely alienated Muslim underclass), Europe, he admits, may "wither or die" rather than triumphing over the still relatively kid-friendly United States.

How can Rifkin argue both that Europe is destined to supplant America and that it may shrivel up? Perhaps because Rifkin and other Europhiles are not really in the business of making rational economic arguments; their mindset is less about demographics, jobs and other indicators and more about constructing an an alternative world vision. "The European dream is compelling," he admits, "but seems a bit utopian and out of reach."

French Kiss-off

Preferring such dreams to reality seems to grow directly from the postmodernist mentality that dominates Europe's intellectual life and, increasingly, our own universities. To many, this prevailing ideology -- politically correct views on the environment, the supremacy of "humanistic" values over supposedly archaically religious ones, the romantic embrace of developing-world radicalism -- makes Europe much more attractive than America or, for that matter, the hard-charging rising powers of Asia.

This perspective is central to Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age (Duke Univ., $29.95), by Herman Lebovics, a history professor at Stony Brook University. Lebovics sees France as a critical part of his quest for an "international project of liberation." Like Rifkin, Lebovics praises France for mounting a "cultural challenge to the United States in the globalized world."

This seems a bit at odds with real French statecraft. Whether under socialist or conservative tutelage, Talleyrand's successors have outdone the great early 19th-century practitioners of realpolitik in diplomatic duplicity. France, after all, has repeatedly been the best friend of vicious dictators (Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat), slow to oppose genocide (Rwanda and Bosnia) and capable of ruthlessly throttling any opposition to threats to its presumptions of greatness (the 1985 sinking of a Greenpeace ship in New Zealand by French agents).

But in the postmodernists' apologia for France, these acts receive a giant "never mind." Lebovics is enthralled instead by the gradual progress that the antiglobalist, regionalist and Third World-oriented movement has made within French cultural elites. The bad old Gaullist ideals may still be embraced by some in government, but in the universities, among the culturally hip -- that is, the people who matter -- France now swings to a multicultural beat.

In contrast, America, with its own nasty racist past and weakened "social solidarity," provides no model; France now serves as the ideal diversity university. "Pay attention to France," Lebovics pleads, which is "synthesizing the regional, the national, the European, the ethnic postcolonial and the global." This all amounts to what Lebovics calls "beautiful high drama."

Not quite. France's foremost symbol of multicultural excellence in recent years has been its multi-hued national soccer team. But in the real world, the state bans head coverings for devout female Muslim students, and both immigrant-bashing and anti-Semitism rage at levels rarely seen in the United States. France has its few celebrated footballers and artistes of color, but America has produced a vast array of highly accomplished African Americans, Latinos and Asians in almost every field -- and, more important, a large and growing middle class in all three communities.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

After reading these ephemeral accounts of Euro-greatness, you might think John Kay's more down-to-earth Culture and Prosperity: The Truth About Markets -- Why Some Nations Are Rich but Most Remain Poor (HarperBusiness, $25.95) might provide a nice corrective. Unfortunately, despite the promise of its title, this cobbled-together book lacks the intellectual rigor and narrative power of books on the subject written by Thomas Sowell, Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, not to mention Max Weber.

Indeed, Culture and Prosperity -- written by a prominent British economist and weekly contributor to the Financial Times -- reads like a pastiche of old columns, "enlivened" by charts and anecdotes. His discussion of some issues (like the dot-com boom and economic failures in much-hyped places like New Zealand) is sharp, but the threads he weaves never hold together in a compelling way.

The rise of China and, increasingly, India may be the fundamental economic facts of our time, but because they are not yet rich by Western standards, Kay deals with them in a somewhat cursory manner. Instead, he emphasizes Europe's competition with America, as well as the causes of the overall poverty of the developing world. Kay argues that Europe, powered by espresso, lags slightly behind America simply because Europeans work less and retire earlier. As for any pattern of Euro-decline, he "does not feel that from here" -- his part-time home in the south of France.

Mais bien sur. Countries, continents and peoples rarely collapse headlong -- barring the occasional genocide, earthquake or plague -- but they do so gradually, often without recognizing the trajectory. Obsessed with quality of life, elites like the rulers of late imperial Rome, the Ch'ing emperors or the British aristocrats in the late 19th century tend to glory in their cultural past and enjoy their material present at the expense of their future.

Such societies seem blissfully unprepared to meet the next historic challenge, as the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun noted in the 14th century, because they have lost their basic desire to struggle and their sense of tribal cohesion. The folks to worry about usually aren't one's wealthier rivals but hungrier, more driven and harder-working competitors, much like today's China, India and South Korea.

These three books imply that the preferred European response to such challengers is a shrug. The potentially unpleasant reality approaching over the horizon may never arrive; for now, it's far better, and certainly more pleasant, to focus on the dream, a buttery croissant and a good cup of coffee. *

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation. His next book, "The City: A Global History," will be published early next year.

President George W. Bush with French president Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace this past June.