Leo Baeck 2


Jan 2005 Journal

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Europe v USA: continental rift (editorial)

Our mid-2004 editorial 'The Fourth and Fourteenth of July' traced the connection between the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Today, after George Bush's election victory and President Chirac's call for a stronger Europe as a counterweight to America, we see the relations between the two more in terms of disconnection than connection.

To understand how this dysfunction came about, we have to appreciate that the United States, as befits a relatively young country, is still evolving. Viewed in the light of certain criteria, this evolution almost amounts to a revolution. Let us cast our minds back to the period between the wars. In those days the watchword in US foreign policy was isolationism, in trade policy it was protectionism, and in race relations it was segregation.

Today, America, far from being isolationist, is endeavouring to play the role of the world's policeman, and its formerly protectionist stance towards its neighbours has given way to 'common market' arrangements with Canada and Mexico. In race relations, finally, Afro-Americans have been helped by positive discrimination, while Hispanics, previously suffering discrimination, exert real influence in California, Florida and elsewhere.

These developments have to some extent eroded the natural constituency of the Democrats. In the past the party had been a coalition of liberal-minded patricians - like the Roosevelt and Kennedy clans - and the underprivileged urban masses, drawn from such ethnic minorities as Poles, Irish, Italians, Jews and Blacks.

In contrast, the Republicans used to be all-white WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) with a different sociological profile: new money, such as oil barons, farmers, small-town dwellers and suburbanites.

The reasons for the Republicans' majority in November were partly economic and partly cultural: rising prosperity has triggered a steady drift from the big cities into the suburbs, and - more importantly - religion has risen to the top of the agenda for millions of voters.

The Democrats, with their traditional base of Irish, Italian, Polish and Hispanic voters, might have been expected to garner the massive Catholic vote, but the exact opposite happened. Many natural Democrat constituents from the ethnic minorities viewed the party as secularist and voted Republican because they gave higher priority to banning same-sex marriages and abortion than to bread-and-butter issues like job creation. So the issue was no longer Catholic ethnics versus Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but both of them versus perceived secularists.

The fact that the so-called Religious Right is a key component of the Republican Party has a bearing on US policy in the Middle East. Fundamentalist Christians look upon Israelis admiringly as the People of the Book, and have a view of Jews as historical precursors of Christianity - even though they dropped by the wayside before their 'God-given' task had been accomplished.

This is, alas, in stark contrast to European attitudes to the Jewish state. Europe is, not to mince words, the traditional heartland of Christian antisemitism, deeply rooted in the identification of Jews with the killers of Christ. In the post-Holocaust era no responsible European opinion-former would do anything other than disavow such atavistic sentiments, but nonetheless a residue of millennial Judeophobia lingers on, and contributes to the EU perspective which views Sharon as a baddie and the late Arafat as a - lavishly subsidised - goodie.

The prime European exponent of this 'bifocal' take on the Palestinian imbroglio - and simultaneously the strongest anti-American voice in the West - is France.

To set this in a wider context, we have again to go back to the 1920s. After the First World War France saw itself as the lynch-pin of Europe from whose affairs America had largely - and Britain partly - withdrawn. The treaties of Versailles, St Germain, Trianon and Sèvres bore a French imprint and Paris had built up a system of alliances with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (the 'Little Entente') to uphold the peace settlement.

The humiliating collapse of 1940 and the subsequent four years of widespread accommodation with the Nazi occupiers shattered France's self-image as a great power. However, postwar conditions enabled her to bestride the international stage again. In order to block the Communists, who made a bid for power in post-liberation Paris, the Anglo-Americans boosted the reputation of de Gaulle and the Free French, while France became a permanent member of the Security Council and eventually a nuclear power. Her ascent to great-power status proceeded in stages. Firstly, she took guilt-laden Germany under her wing, secondly, she projected herself as prime mover of the European project, and thirdly, de Gaulle adroitly acted the maverick, constantly oscillating between Moscow and Washington in the Cold War.

The collapse of the Soviet empire left the US as the only global superpower and France redefined her role as the nucleus of a European counterweight to a preponderant America. Backed by Germany, Spain, Belgium and others, she censured the United States' bullying unilateralism and insisted that the West should act only through the UN.

In America, however, the prevailing view of the UN is that of an ineffectual talking shop. This defect, Washington currently believes, can be traced back to the fact that from its very inception the United Nations gave equal weight to countries under a brutal dictatorship and to those practising democracy.

France, for its part, advocates 'constructive engagement' with undemocratic regimes like Syria or Iran, and accuses the US of violently imposing democracy on countries like Iraq. Washington counters the charge with the argument that a world imperilled by terrorism can be kept safe only by the spread of democracy. It could argue, furthermore, that just as in 1792 the French army stood ready to bestow the Rights of Man on the subjects of feudal overlords beyond the Rhine, Alps and the Pyrenees, so now American (and Coalition) troops are in the process of bringing democratic elections to Afghanistan and Iraq. President Chirac could riposte that at the time neither the Germans nor the Spaniards were overly keen on the Declaration of the Rights of Man carried on the bayonets of soldiers of an occupying army.

All this leaves the British government in a most awkward position. While it is an unwritten law of history that Britain has a 'special relationship' with the USA, Downing Street must be mindful that the forthcoming general election will be followed by a referendum on Europe - hardly the time to emphasise differences with France! It will require most consummate statesmanship to reconcile these conflicting pressures.

Truly, 2005 promises a bumpy ride - or, as optimists would say, fresh challenges to be met and overcome.

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