Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Differences in American and European Values

Once in a while you run across a paper that gives a complete picture of a topic that impresses. This is one such paper from the Elcano Royal Institute.


The idea that a new cultural divide is emerging across the Atlantic is a gross misrepresentation of reality. The US and Europe share major values on democracy, human rights, the rule of law, market economy, family, abortion and homosexuality, even if lately Europe is moving faster along a liberal trend and the US much more slowly. The great difference on these and other important value issues (consider the role of women) is between rich and poor countries, not between Europe and the US.

Indeed, one could also argue that Europe is also moving in a more conservative direction. On questions such as immigration and xenophobia, national identities and multiculturalism, it is Europe that is lagging behind. And the emergence of powerful extreme-right parties in Europe is seldom considered but is a major fact that explains many events (for example, the Presidency of Jacques Chirac).

Moreover, there are many Americas and many Europes, and indeed many Americans are ahead of the Europeans and many Europeans are behind the Americans. There is a European America as well as an American Europe. Unfortunately we cannot compare data from the 50 American states with the 25 European nations but it is reasonable to suspect that the result would be a blending together of the two sets of data into a single continuum.

This similarity is evident in issues such as the perception of threats, mutual views and views of the world, and even on when and how to use force.

However, the greatest differences arise when one has to decide about the use of force. Here we have a difference that indeed makes a difference: Europeans are always much more reluctant than Americans to use military force under any circumstances. There are more doves and fewer hawks in Europe than in America, even recognising that many Americans share European views and vice versa. We can argue that Europeans are more reluctant to use force simply because they have very little of it, but this explanation confuses cause and effect. It has been a tough and long learning process for the Europeans to see war and terrorism in a wider context and establish measures and instruments that can be used as an alternative to force. It is our attitudes, a result of our respective experiences, that account for our military power, not the other way round.

And one final comment: isn’t this reasonable? After all, war is always a last resort and must be used with great caution. Hence, a debate on its limits and conditions should be welcomed in democratic societies. Next time let’s hope it is not polarised on either side of the Atlantic. We already have what could be considered a pacifist America[34], so what we probably need are European neo-cons willing to discard the free-rider culture inherited from the Cold War.