Europe's youth take complex view of US
Its 'Iraq generation' moderates harsh views of US policy with admiration of American creativity and 'coolness.'
Berlin and Paris — Negative attitudes in Europe about America hardened steadily during the Iraq war, particularly among Europeans under age 30.
Yet the harshest anti-US feelings may be peaking among Europe's young – giving way to more complex and ambiguous views of the US and its identity, interviews show.
Formative views among Europe's "next generation" have been shaped, if not seared, by a war lasting longer than World War II. Some call it an "Iraq generation," harking back to the "Vietnam generation" here in the 1960s. "The longer the war runs, the more intense the feelings of younger Germans," says Heinrich Kreft, a senior adviser for the Christian Democrats in Berlin. "I worry about future relations with the US."
Still, in dozens of interviews with Europeans under 30, a view of the United States marked by an often absolute disdain for the Iraq war and US foreign policy is evolving and broadening – with many acknowledging US creativity and "coolness" as well as negatives like arrogance.
Arno Borgers, a graduate student at Humboldt University in Berlin, says his friends think Iraq is a "huge mistake." Yet, "I grew up on America," he says. He discusses the Simpsons TV show like a screenwriter. He questions American military hard power, but is smitten by American soft power, with subcultures like hip-hop.
"We are starting to understand how complex America is, mainly from the media, TV, movies, and music," he says. "We separate America from the White House."
"We've started to rethink things," says Céline Féraudy, who works at a Paris office for historical monuments. "We don't see America only as the war, though we did for some time. We think it is creative. We love the Apple Mac, New York City, the counterculture, and the feeling that you can more easily make a career."
A June poll by the French-American Foundation shows that French ages 20-34 have never had more mixed feelings about the US. Some 60 percent do not characterize their views as strongly positive or negative, the highest level since the polls started in 1986.
According to a June Pew Global Attitudes poll, favorable views in Britain dropped from 83 to 51 percent between 2000 and 2007. In France, they fell from 62 to 39. Germany fell from 78 to 30 percent.
"We found strong negatives on US foreign policy based on a feeling the US acts unilaterally in the world," says Richard Wike, project director of the Pew Global Attitudes survey in Washington. "But Europeans rate the American people far higher than the country."
There is sheer exhaustion about war news, a certain passion among students not to hold absolute views on anything, and a cynicism about politics in Europe.
"Every day, 48 people die in Baghdad, it seems," says Charlotte Boulanger, who is trying to start an e-newsletter in Paris on human rights. "You get angry, but what can you do? I think everyone is now waiting. It is easy to blame America for everything, and a lot of us do. But sometimes it is a cover for our own failures."
Some of the new story lines from the US are registering. Low approval ratings of Bush and the war are noted, as is the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There's a sense that US foreign policy is shifting away from a "with us or against us" mentality. Younger Europeans say the US has been humbled, and that a democratic process is under way. New faces are appearing more regularly – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. They see GOP debates, are aware of moderate Republicans like Richard Lugar, and know that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a popular European, has distanced himself from Bush's policies on the environment.
"There has definitely been an imprint on us by the war," says Barbara Schumacher, a graduate intern at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "We lost the basic trust that our parents had in America. We are critical.... A lot of us want to say we aren't the US; many of us feel proud to be 'old Europe.' But many Germans like American culture. A lot of us bash Bush every day, but watch Hollywood movies every night."
In interviews, America is described not only for its "war on terror," but as the source of much cutting-edge science, literary theory, and arts. It is political Washington as well as New York and San Francisco. While the US gets low marks among under-30s for a perceived arrogance, if not malevolence, it is defining something extremely important to them – what is "cool."
"Really, it is the American style that has influenced us all our lives. We love Bill Murray and Quentin Tarantino," says Mr. Borgers. "Lost Highway, David Lynch. Ghetto is cool, gangsta rap is cool.... I know 50 to 60 people in America enough to tell you quite a bit about them. Not just actors, but skateboard culture. We love scenes in America – the black scene, the biker scene, the rap scene, the jazz and hip-hop scene. Basketball is huge. When we disagree, we feel we disagree partly knowing the US."
"America isn't Bush," says Ms. Boulanger, "and I tell this to my friends. We could have good relations ... again someday. We have a feeling a new American democracy could emerge, possibly. We like ... new faces like Nancy Pelosi."
Apart from Iraq, American negatives run from a perceived gun culture, lack of healthcare, the influence of evangelical Christians, a lack of balance in the Middle East, commercialism, income gaps, and a lawyer-based society.
Younger Europeans say America defines much of the way the world thinks. Many say they are swimming in an ocean of American media.
"[We] feel that countries like the US, which impose their culture on others, are more difficult to respect," says Bruno, a French graduate student listening to "extreme metallica" in the Luxembourg Gardens. "A lot of people are sick of Americanization … we want new technology from America, but it comes with American commercial attitudes." But, he adds, "Young Americans seem to have a desire for renewal ... and this diversity is something I like."
Matilda, a Swede studying in Paris, says US "bigness" bothers her. "Even Al Gore, who we think is good – his movie on the environment seems so dramatic ... a big spectacle. That seems so American. [Swedes] really care about the environment. But we don't talk about it like that.
"So much in America seems commercial ... so that even if you think you are making a choice, you may not be.... I don't eat at McDonald's. It is too American. It has become sort of a stupid joke, but still I don't," she adds.
Boulanger, whose mother is Finnish and father is French, thinks a stronger Europe is an alternative to a US global model. "We think about America as the No. 1 power.... We feel it around us every day. We all know what is happening in California, we hear about the Middle East, we know what [Secretary of State] Condi Rice is doing every day. But we have no idea what [EU foreign policy chief] Javier Solana is doing."