NOW THAT THE WAR in Iraq is over (the first part, anyway), Americans are trying to repair relations with our erstwhile European allies. While some of my Weekly Standard colleagues are doing the really tough work--attending lavish, well-lubricated conferences on Italy's Lake Como to discuss transatlantic ties with our European counterparts--the rest of us must forgo the rigors of Alpine lakeside resorts and satisfy ourselves with . . . reading.
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to help us understand America's Europe problem. I'm already on record touting the merits of Weekly Standard contributing editor Robert Kagan's "Power and Weakness" essay in Policy Review (subsequently expanded last year into the book-length "Of Paradise and Power"). Kagan brilliantly limns how the "power gap" between America and Europe has led to a "Mars / Venus" divergence of worldviews.
Although Kagan's framework explains a great deal, we need to examine more closely the intellectual roots of the irrational anti-Americanism that has become such an easy pose, even for otherwise-sensible Europeans. There's no better place to start than the lead article in the current issue of the Public Interest, A Genealogy of Anti-Americanism, by University of Virginia professor of government James W. Ceaser.
Ceaser's essay is actually an updated synopsis of his splendid 1997 book, "Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought." The book was ahead of its time, to say the least, and it deserves a fresh look in light of our current dilemmas. In the book (and the essay), Ceaser traces the development of the symbolic "America"--as opposed to the real, flesh-and-blood nation and its political regime of representative self-government.
Since its earliest days, "America" has served as a symbol of various European obsessions: monstrosity; degeneracy; "rootlessness" and despair; polyglot racial inferiority; "gigantism" and technological dominance; and Martin Heidegger's soulless katestrophenhaft ("site of catastrophe"). Most recently, "America" has become a postmodern trope, subject to the ironic playfulness of the impish French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard--"much in the way," Ceaser notes, "that the modern literary critic plays with a text."
But no matter how the symbolic "America" has evolved, the common point is the purpose it serves: to avoid making sense of America on a rational level by avoiding political science in its classical sense, as Ceaser defines it: "the inquiry, guided by political philosophy, into the factors that preserve and destroy different regimes." Such an inquiry demands the reasonable mindset exemplified by America's founders. In contrast, the European thinkers Ceaser examines "looked for something deeper than political activity as the main factor controlling human destiny"--for instance, racial, national, or tribal identity, or the forces of abstract History:
The symbolic America was conceived as part of a project that is hostile to the Enlightenment, to liberal democracy, and to political science. . . . As a symbol America is identified with images that represent at best simple half-truths and at worst grotesque caricatures of the real character of American life. But for those who employ this discourse, accuracy is irrelevant: America is a prop for carrying on a different discussion. In order for the symbol to bear its theoretical weight and to perform its function, America must be a certain way, whether it truly is so or not.
This essentially unreasonable anti-Americanism makes rational discussion impossible, writes Ceaser, and "threatens the idea of a community of interests between Europe and America. Indeed, it threatens the idea of the West itself." Not only that, but this thought isn't confined to Europe--it spreads its malevolent influence all over the globe, including to the Arab world, with consequences for decades to come. (For more on this, see also Waller Newell's Postmodern Jihad.)
I simply can't say enough to recommend Ceaser's tremendously important book. Start with his Public Interest essay and you'll see what I mean. Not only has he put his finger on a central element of the American-European divide, he can write about complex philosophical and political concepts in accessible language, and with wit and humor to boot.