by Andrew O'Hehir

A specter is haunting America, and it isn't the specter of communism. Barely a decade after the definitive collapse of the Soviet bloc, the United States finds itself in a new cold war, one being fought simultaneously on economic, political and cultural fronts, and one it is by no means certain to win. The unipolar world of uncontested American hegemony that we were told to expect into the indefinite future has come to an end; it lasted just about long enough for us to scratch our heads and wonder what was happening next.

Yes, "Old Europe," to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's famous quip, is back, and it's looking pretty spry for its age. As Americans are finally beginning to notice, Europeans (or most of them, anyway) have reconstituted themselves into an enormous transnational superstate of 25 nations, 455 million people and an $11 trillion economy. This is, of course, the European Union, and its aims have become much broader and deeper than the stuff you've probably heard about, like allowing citizens to drive from Seville to Sicily without a passport, or to use the same anonymous-looking currency to buy a pint of Guinness in Cork and a glass of ouzo in Crete.

American heavyweights like Alan Greenspan and Henry Kissinger, by the way, publicly predicted that the euro, now the common currency of 12 European countries (with many more to follow), would never work. The euro has recently been trading at all-time highs against an ever weaker Bush-economy dollar. Other confident-sounding things that you hear Americans say about the EU -- that it's plagued by a sclerotic bureaucracy, that it squelches entrepreneurship and initiative with over-regulation, that its cradle-to-grave welfare states are dragging down its economy -- should be viewed with similar skepticism.

It might sound alarmist to use a freighted term like "cold war" to describe our relationship with an entity whose raison d' & ecirc;tre is to avoid all war and resolve all conflict. The political leaders of the European Union are certainly willing to be partners with the United States, and potentially to be friends as well. (Realpolitik dictates that both sides will continue to insist that the relationship is warm even when, as now, it is anything but.) But elites on both sides of the pond now know what the stakes are, and they are also willing to be competitors, even fierce rivals. If the original idea behind a united Europe was to redeem the old continent from poverty, devastation and centuries of self-destructive warfare, more recently the goal has been to build a "good superpower," one that stands as an economic and ideological counterweight to the American colossus.

Once you grasp that this transatlantic cold war is not only happening but rapidly intensifying -- as Jeremy Rifkin and T.R. Reid, the authors of two almost simultaneous books on the European conundrum, agree -- you see the major news events of the last year or two in a different light. Both the Iraq war and this year's presidential election, for instance, start to look like key symbolic episodes in the U.S.-Europe conflict.

Pommes Frites vs. Freedom Fries

What was the contest between Bush and John Kerry, after all, if not a proxy war between pommes frites and freedom fries, a referendum on Europe conducted among the American electorate? Kerry, we were told, spoke French and "looked French." These gibes might have played as humor on Fox News, but they were in deadly earnest.

The French, of course, sank Bush's hopes for a truly international coalition against Iraq and became the American right's chosen exemplar of global treachery and cowardice. (Frenchness, you might say, is the new communism.) The French are also the principal architects of the European Union -- suddenly, clearly, our greatest rival for economic and moral supremacy in the world -- and if Karl Rove and Karen Hughes weren't thinking about that consciously, the thought wasn't far below the surface.

Kerry was an internationalist and a secularist (at least by American standards) running against a man who wrapped himself in the flag and was guided by divine inspiration. Bush didn't just run as an American; he pretty much ran as America, which Rifkin calls a nation "living in two seemingly contradictory realms at the same time," those being the evangelical Protestant faith in salvation and the rationalist drive to accumulate wealth and build industry. That cast Kerry in the role of Europe -- intellectual and irreligious, faintly stained by the ghosts of socialism and Catholicism, with a belief in universal human rights and negotiated solutions, but not much in the way of a transformative spiritual vision.

That might be all anyone needs to know about how close the election was, or how it turned out. There is a large class of people in this country who are sympathetic to the "European dream" of a managed market economy in which cooperation is emphasized over competition, leisure is privileged over work and the social costs of capitalism are closely regulated. But to most Americans, "freedom" still means untrammeled private-property rights, open markets, workaholism and the belief that somehow we'll all die rich.

Going back 18 months, one of the strategic considerations driving the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq was surely the opportunity it presented to drive a wedge between pro- and anti-American politicians in Europe. By peeling away Britain's Tony Blair, Spain's Jos & eacute; Maria Aznar and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi from the antiwar EU consensus, the Bushies may have hoped to disrupt the idea of a Europe that spoke with one voice on foreign policy and military action (an expressed EU goal) for a generation to come.

As Reid, a longtime Washington Post correspondent, discusses in his book The United States of Europe, the strategy seemed to work, at least at first. Those three prime ministers agreed to go along with the American war, and various other European leaders hemmed and hawed, trying somehow to split the difference between the Bush-Blair position and the vehement antiwar stance of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schr & ouml;der.

But then surprising things started to happen. When it came time to twist arms on the U.N. Security Council over the vote to authorize military action, the Americans were outfoxed. Most of the poorer nations on the council received substantial foreign aid from Europe -- the EU gives almost three times as much aid to developing countries as the U.S. does -- and proved more amenable to lobbying from the French and Germans than from the British and Americans. Bush and Blair needed nine votes and could never get more than four; at least in that limited arena, Reid writes, "Europe's political clout proved stronger than American military might."

Furthermore, the Iraq war became a galvanizing and radicalizing event for an entire generation of younger Europeans and, in Reid's judgment, led them to see themselves as Europeans, above and beyond their national identities. While the European political elites dithered in the spring of 2003, the European people streamed into the streets by the millions, in a nearly unanimous rejection of the Iraq war in particular and the interventionist Bush foreign policy agenda in general. (And, for good measure, what most Europeans perceive as America's promiscuously wasteful culture of burgers, SUVs and obesity.) Opinion polls revealed an explosion of anti-American sentiment, even in nations like Britain, Italy and Poland that remained officially within the "coalition of the willing." In several European countries, the United States is viewed as more dangerous to world peace than Iran and North Korea, and George W. Bush may be even less popular in Scandinavia, for example, than he is in the Arab world.

These young Europeans, Reid believes, now have a sense of their own political and economic power, and they have built a pan-continental "Euroculture" that borrows what it likes from American pop culture but now stands independent of it. "For many Europeans today," he writes, "the familiar concept of 'the West,' the transatlantic alliance with shared values and common enemies, is a relic of the last century." In this century, their goal is to challenge the American claim to global supremacy, at least in moral and political terms.

Measuring Productivity

Indeed, what struck me on a recent visit to Germany is how un-American Europe still feels, despite all the stories we hear to the contrary. Sure, you can eat at Pizza Hut or shop at Wal-Mart in Hamburg, and teenagers affect last year's hip-hop fashions and wear Yankee caps. But those things, removed from their original context, have become, like Madonna or David Beckham, floating signifiers of a global culture that transcends nationality. The organic rhythms of the place feel nothing like the fevered consumption overdrive of American cities and suburbs: Bars and cafes remain busy long past midnight seven nights a week, but if there's any place in Hamburg where you can buy groceries or children's toys or paperback books after lunchtime on Saturday, I didn't find it.

"Europe's time is almost here," Reid quotes current EU President Romano Prodi as saying. "In fact, there are many areas of world affairs where the objective conclusion would have to be that Europe is already the superpower, and the United States must follow our lead."

It's stuff like that that has Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the rest of the neoconservative cohort gnawing on the executive branch's fine European furniture late at night. They're smart enough to know that Prodi has a point -- even if they'd scoff at him in public -- and there isn't much they can do about it.

After adding 10 new Eastern and Central European nations last May, the European Union now has a much larger population than the United States, and a slightly bigger economy. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his dense and contentious new research-driven tome The European Dream, the United States remains ahead in per capita GDP, but the difference is not as significant as it looks.

Much of American "productivity," Rifkin suggests, is accounted for by economic activity that might be better described as wasteful: military spending; the endlessly expanding police and prison bureaucracies; the spiraling cost of health care; suburban sprawl; the fast-food industry and its inevitable corollary, the weight-loss craze. Meaningful comparisons of living standards, he says, consistently favor the Europeans. In France, for instance, the work week is 35 hours and most employees take 10 to 12 weeks off every year, factors that clearly depress GDP. Yet it takes a John Locke heart of stone to say that France is worse off as a nation for all that time people spend in the countryside downing vin rouge and Camembert with friends and family.

The European Dream is the richer of the two books, as Rifkin -- the author of such previous big-idea volumes as The End of Work and The Biotech Century -- mines deep lodes of history and sociology in search of the origins of the cross-pond cold war. But if you just want a reader-friendly survey of how the European Union was born (out of a modest Franco-German coal and steel accord after World War II), how it grew into the titan we see today, and what it's really like, Reid's personable United States of Europe is the better choice.

To the question of what the European Union actually is, neither author offers more than a conditional answer, largely because Europeans aren't quite sure themselves. I called the EU a "superstate" earlier, but it isn't a nation-state in conventional terms. It doesn't physically control any territory, it has no authority to tax its citizens and it has only very limited police powers. It does, however, have an elected legislature and an executive branch, a court system and a central bank, all of which can override the laws of its 25 member nations. (It also now has its own military, the 60,000-strong European Rapid Reaction Force, or "EuroArmy," a development that led to much gnashing of teeth in Washington.)

At least some of this ambiguity is intentional; the EU looks different depending on who's looking. To the Euro-enthusiasts of France, Germany and the Low Countries, the EU is a grand federal state capable of transcending age-old problems of nationalism and sovereignty. To more standoffish nations like Britain and Sweden (neither of which has adopted the euro), it's a loose confederation of countries that remain largely autonomous. Rifkin calls it "the first really post-modern governing institution," amplifying that at another point to "the first post-territorial governing region in a network-linked global economy."

If the EU has no intention of confronting America's military supremacy, that, Rifkin and Reid would agree, is actually Europe's ace in the hole. Let the Americans pour endless billions in taxpayer dollars down the Pentagon's money sink, the Europeans reason. As they see it, the key to future peace and prosperity lies elsewhere, in constructing complex webs of social interaction and economic cooperation that will undermine nationalism and fundamentalism of all stripes. While the United States foots the bill for the intractable conflict in Iraq and piles up huge budget and trade deficits, Europe has spent money on other priorities.

Lagging Behind

Whatever your intellectual and emotional responses may be to this burgeoning transatlantic conflict, it's difficult for any American to read Rifkin's book and not feel ashamed. The United States has fallen significantly behind the EU's Western European nations in infant mortality and life expectancy, despite spending more on health care per capita than any of them. (While 40 million Americans are uninsured, no one in Europe -- I repeat, not a single person -- lacks some form of health care coverage.)

European children are consistently better educated; the United States would rank ninth in the EU in reading, ninth in scientific literacy and 13th in math. Twenty-two percent of American children grow up in poverty, which means that our country ranks 22nd out of the 23 industrialized nations, ahead of only Mexico and behind all 15 of the pre-2004 EU countries. What's more horrifying: the statistic itself or the fact that no American politician to the right of Dennis Kucinich would ever address it?

Perhaps more surprisingly, European business has not been strangled by the EU welfare state; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Europe has surpassed the United States in several high-tech and financial sectors, including wireless technology, grid computing and the insurance industry. The EU has a higher proportion of small businesses than the United States, and their success rate is higher. American capitalists have begun to pay attention to all this. In Reid's book, Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford explains that the company's Volvo subsidiary is more profitable than its U.S. manufacturing operation, even though wages and benefits are significantly higher in Sweden. Government-subsidized health care, child care, pensions and other social supports, Ford says, more than make up for the difference.

The new EU constitution, currently being considered by the member states, is an unwieldy, jargon-laden document that runs to 265 pages in English (and even more in Spanish and French). It should also serve as an inspiration to progressives around the world. It bars capital punishment in all 25 nations and defines such things as universal health care, child care, paid annual leave, parental leave, housing for the poor and equal treatment for gays and lesbians as fundamental human rights. Most of these are still hotly contested questions in the United States; as Rifkin says, this document all by itself makes the European Union the world leader in the human rights debate. It is the first governing document that aspires to universality, "with rights and responsibilities that encompass the totality of human existence on Earth."

While Rifkin and Reid are unabashed Euro-boosters, both would urge those who are rendered starry-eyed by the EU dream to ponder long and hard before pleading for asylum at the nearest consulate or scouring your family tree for relevant European ancestry. For all the grandeur of its new vision, Europe still has relatively high unemployment and relatively sluggish economic growth. The continent faces major structural problems, most notably a declining birth rate and a long-standing hostility to immigration, which has led to a population that is aging much faster than America's. While the European welfare state is certain to remain generous by American standards, significant renegotiation of rights and benefits will be necessary unless this demographic time bomb can somehow be defused.

Despite its deepening inequality, the United States remains to a large extent a more dynamic and less class-bound society, and it still offers individuals that opportunity for constant reinvention that lies at the heart of our national dream. Rifkin in particular believes that the new cold war with Europe will be good for America in the long run and may help rejuvenate the American left (even if the next four years are likely to get pretty ugly for progressives). Americans may need to be taught, by example, that unfettered corporate capitalism, regressive taxation and a bare-minimum social safety net are not the only way to guarantee prosperity -- and perhaps that our definition of what constitutes prosperity could stand some scrutiny.

From War to Peace

While America has been gnawing on its own innards for the last decade or so, feuding internally over sex with interns, flawed elections, the threat of terrorism, the ill-fated war in Iraq and an angrily polarized public discourse, Europe has quietly been cohering into an impressive whole, the world's newest superpower. For all its layers of bureaucracy and all the challenges it faces, the EU has forged a harmonious society on a continent that spent most of history at war with itself.

The rise of the European Union may in fact, as Rifkin says, represent a new phase of history, and we barely saw it coming. While the outcome of this new cold war between Europe and America is far from clear, we should feel humbled by the way it's gone so far. The EU has succeeded so dramatically in its ambitious goals that the utopian dreamers of the last century who dared to imagine a peaceful, prosperous, united Europe seem eerily prescient now. If nothing else, it's an object lesson in the power of vision.

"I am a democrat," James Joyce wrote in 1916, while an entire generation of Europe's young men were slaughtering each other in the fields of Flanders. "I'll work and act for the social liberty and equality among all classes and sexes in the United States of the Europe of the future."

People read that and laughed bitterly. Europe seemed poisoned by mustard gas and history; America was the land of liberty, democracy and the future. Nobody's laughing now.

This article first appeared on

Publication date: 12/02/04

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