Cheer up, ugly Americans

Americans, surely among the most generous and outgoing of people, must be somewhat bemused by all that anti-American feeling so enthusiastically chronicled by the European press during President Bush's visit to Europe last week.

As a Briton-born, but longtime United States citizen, let me say that Americans should not be hurt. All is well.

Or at least, pretty well.

Feigned European disdain of a young upstart nation like the United States has long been endemic. Cultural arrogance has long been Europe's defense against American ingenuity, industry, and affluence.

So the French deride American cooking, even as they flock to McDonald's. The British - for whom 1215 and the Magna Carta were just around the last corner - think American politics are juvenile. The fun-loving Italians consider American workaholism barbaric.

Recalling their own prejudices, Americans shouldn't be thin-skinned about this: They often label the English stuffy, the French rude, the Italians too disorganized, and the Germans, well, Teutonic.

And if Americans get too hurt about European views of them, they should consider what Europeans sometimes say about each other (the British about the Germans, for example). Yet they still manage to live together in civil fashion on a crowded continent.

The truth is that despite this cultural diversity, there is more that binds us than divides us. Europeans flock to America as tourists and businessmen and students. Americans flock just as readily and admiringly to Europe. Europeans love American music and vivacity. Americans love European cars and urbanity.

Beyond the material things are significant common values.

What is new in this equation is a new American president, to be appraised and tested by the Europeans. That they did last week, and Mr. Bush appears to have survived quite well.

What the Europeans must come to understand, however, is that while Western Europe and its prosperity and security will always loom large in the concerns of any American presidency, this president confronts a changing world and has a different focus on it than some of his predecessors.

This is not the era of Churchill and Roosevelt, nor even the era of Thatcher and Reagan. While the Anglo-American alliance will continue to have important emotional content for both countries, Bush was clearly more intent on establishing rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin than chatting with British prime minister Tony Blair, who was much more ideologically attuned to President Clinton. Indeed, with the exception of Italy, the major European Union countries are at some distance from the conservative philosophy of President Bush.

So Europe is changing and the world has changed. Nixon and Reagan, and even Bush senior, were molded in their leadership roles by the cold war. It was stark and confrontational and dangerous, but in many ways it made the political structure of the world simpler. Two great superpowers were arrayed against each other, with a string of largely submissive client states behind them.

That is not the world George W. Bush has inherited. The cold war is over, and various of the respective client states are restless.

Regional tensions that might have been stifled during the cold war have exploded and proliferated. Russia has faded as a possible nuclear destroyer of the United States, but remains a source of concern, potential mischief, and menace. China is modernizing but not democratizing, and President Putin has recently been seeking to shore up Russia's weakness vis-a-vis the US by recruiting China in an alliance.

So Bush now presides over the sole remaining superpower of incredible military and economic might, which, if it is to maintain international stability, must work with an array of nations, ranging from cooperative to fractious to downright unfriendly.

Such power rarely engenders love on the part of those to be befriended or whose cooperation must be enforced. But international respect for American determination, and admiration for American integrity, is an achievable goal.

This powerful American influence at the outset of the 21st century will rile some nations, be perceived as threatening to some, and spur envy among others. But Europe has not become a fortress of anti-American hatred.

What Europe is wrestling with is the uncertainty of change within, and change in the world at large - and the unknown caliber of a new American presidency. Hopefully, Bush put some of those concerns to rest last week.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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