Reply to Dalrymple

I long—I really do long—to contradict Dr. Dalyrymple. I write here as an American who lived in Europe for most of my adult life. I have a European husband, a European house. I have children with European passports. I too have a European passport, in addition to my American one. I speak three European languages besides English, have friends in several European capitals, and am moving back to Europe next year.

Yet on reading the “Is Old Europe Doomed” essay, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend, another American Europhile, now resident in East Asia. Sadly, we agreed that the Europeans who bash “wild” Anglo-Saxon capitalism, who believe America is an unregulated jungle, and who feel smug and safe within their secure welfare states are deeply, deeply deluded. They haven’t yet realized that the economic and social challenge presented by the successful societies of Asia is hundreds of times more dangerous to their way of life than the caricature they’ve created of the challenge presented by the United States, a country which is nearly as over-regulated as their own. If the rise of China continues apace, I’m afraid Dr. Dalyrymple’s final phrase—that Europe is “sleep-walking to further relative decline—might even be too mild. At some point, it’s also possible that Europe’s decline, for all the reasons he listed, might even cease to be relative.

But I also take his point about historic inevitability—namely, that there isn’t any. So since I can’t match Dr. Dalyrymple’s apocalyptic eloquence anyway, I’m going to reverse the question slightly, and list three factors which could, over the next decade, help reverse Europe’s course. I’m not attempting anything so uplifting as counter-intuitive optimism here, just trying to identify what, exactly, could help Europe escape its current economic and psychological slump.

The first, and probably most serious problem Europe faces is a dearth of political leaders who have not only identified the source of the economic problems—the regulation, the over-extended state, the absence of entrepreneurship—but also have ideas about how to fix them, and know how to sell those ideas to the public. To put it differently: Most of Europe is still waiting for its Margaret Thatcher. Most of Europe still doesn’t have serious, economically liberal, center-right political leaders who win elections, and who present economic opportunity, economic choice, and economic freedom as positive, not terrifying.

This is not to say that there could never be such leaders. Portugal—not a country known for its libertarianism—did recently produce a free-market government (or freer-market government; these things are relative). So did Denmark. Italy almost did—anyway Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi on the grounds that he sounded different from his corrupt predecessors, even if he turned out not to be quite so different as advertised. It is not impossible to imagine that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats could develop into such a party, but it seems, sadly, that Mrs. Merkel has not worked hard enough on the “sell those ideas to the public” part of the solution. It’s also not impossible that Nicholas Sarkozy could become a truly transformative leader too, but it’s not clear whether the rest of the French establishment would let him.

The second thing missing in “old” Europe is an acknowledgment of the possibilities presented by the new members of the European Union. One of the oddities of contemporary Western European psychology is the absence of any sense that “we won” the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall was, after all, as much a triumph for Western Europe as it was for the U.S., if not more so. In the final analysis, the Easterners walked across the wall because they liked what they saw on the other side. But—as with everything else—the expansion of Europe has led not to a sense of victory, or a perception that Western ideals were vindicated, but more fear: The Polish plumbers will take our jobs, the Lithuanian construction workers will put ours out of business.

Maybe, with time, the addition of central Europe to the EU will give Europeans a broader perspective on their own history, a larger definition of what it means to be “European.” Maybe some of the new members will produce leaders who can sell their ideas and experience in the West. After all, they have a very recent, and for the most part very succesful experience of turning their state-dominated, centrally-planned economies into relatively fast-growing markets. Maybe the rapid expansion of European markets for goods and labor will jump-start the flagging economies of the West. Or maybe—alas it’s possible—Western Europe will bribe the best easterners with EU jobs and scholarships, and convert them into negative, fearful Euro-statists before anyone has even had a chance to notice that it’s happening.

Finally, Europeans need to ditch their increasingly bizarre obsession with the evil United States. I realize that the current virulence of European anti-Americanism is in some senses an accident, the product of the election of George W. Bush (whom Europeans hated even before Iraq), the events of Sept. 11, the war, and truly terrible American diplomacy. But it’s becoming a problem for Europe now too. Relatively mild free-market reforms—privatization, lower taxes, de-centralization—can be skewered, in Europe, if opponents simply refer to them as “too American.” Without a sense of solidarity among Western countries—all of the Western countries—it’s impossible to construct a coherent response to Islamic radicalism either.

Again, I don’t think European hatred for the U.S. is inevitable. Elsewhere, I’ve written myself that surprisingly large numbers of Frenchmen and Germans—approximately a third—are actually pro-American. I don’t think it’s coincidental that those who most like the U.S. are often the same less educated, less wealthy, lower-middle classes who brought Thatcher and Berlusconi to power. These are the people who have the fewest opportunities in today’s Europe, and who imagine a more “American” society would offer them greater opportunities. My point is not that they are right or wrong about America, but that their aspirations are real. Someday a creative politician will find a way to appeal to them. Someday, an American president might find a way to do so too.

I realize, of course, that this is far from a complete list. Indeed, as I write this, tens of thousands of British Muslims are protesting against the publication of Danish cartoons. Clearly, there is a lot more to say about them—but I’ll leave that topic for later discussion.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Is “Old Europe” Doomed? by Theodore Dalrymple

    Old Europe may not be doomed, though it is “sleepwalking to further relative decline,” says Theodore Dalrymple. “The principle motor of Europe’s current decline is,” he argues, “its obsession with social security.” If Europe is to have a fighting chance, it must overcome a politics in which “personal and sectional interest has become all-powerful” and “the goal of everyone is to parasitize everyone else.”

Response Essays

  • Reply to Dalrymple by Timothy B. Smith

    According to historian Timothy Smith, author of France in Crisis, the main problem of Old Europe is that overregulated labor markets, alleged to “humanize” capitalism and promote “solidarity,” instead work to consolidate economic privileges for tenured labor unionists and state employees, and exclude broad swathes of the population, especially immigrants, from the work force. Smith is careful to distinguish the relative stagnation of France, Germany, and Italy from their more successful Scandanavian counterparts, and argues against Dalrymple that the U.K. is really in pretty good shape.

  • Reply to Dalrymple by Charles Kupchan

    Disagreeing sharply with Theodore Dalrymple’s grim diagnosis, Georgetown University international affairs professor and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Charles Kupchan maintains that “it is simply not the case that the continent is populated primarily by sclerotic, dysfunctional economies on their last gasp.” However, Kupchan argues that Dalrymple’s essay “considerably underestimates … the challenge of integrating Muslim immigrants into European society.” The Paris riots and the Danish cartoon imbroglio demonstrate that Europe has “embraced multiculturalism in fact, but not yet in spirit.”

The Conversation