Just how much do the Euros like what Obama says? by mattsteinglass
July 27, 2008, 2:58 am
Filed under: Europe, President

I was sitting on my couch with my wife, who’s Dutch, watching Obama’s appearance with Sarkozy yesterday, when a French reporter asked why Obama was spending so much more time in Germany than in France. And Obama responded, very deftly at first, that he felt his trip was a trip about Europe and America, and the choice of Berlin was a choice intended to speak to all Europeans, because in recent years Americans and Europeans have become divided by stereotypes. Americans have a particular stereotype of Europeans, and Europeans have tended to see Americans as militaristic and unilateralist, and have forgotten some of the sacrifices made by American soldiers and American taxpayers in prior decades to keep Europe free.

My wife, at this point, an extremely strong supporter of the Democrats in the US, said, “Oh, f**** you. Just f*** you.”

I believe there were two sentiments underlying this response. The first is that to claim that Europeans have forgotten American sacrifices in World War 2 is somewhat absurd; European culture is plagued by WWII in a rather tedious and stupid fashion, with perennial bad French movies about the resistance and bad Dutch movies about the Holocaust, etc., and to ask them to spend more time thinking about that stuff is sort of like asking Brits to spend more time really grieving for Diana.

The second point is that Europeans do not actually feel that much of the money the US spent on defense in the 1980s was spent to “defend” them. Younger Europeans (under 50, really) think of American defense spending in the ’80s as an effort to exert hegemony, which Americans justified to Europeans by saying it was for their own good. Given the pathetic wreck the USSR turned out to be, that European view has not really been debunked. Anyway, that rhetoric — that American demands to station US missiles and tanks in Europe were an American “sacrifice” for Europeans’ freedom — is seen by a some Europeans much the way the Gauls in Asterix viewed Roman arguments that the legions stationed there were protecting them from the barbarians. (OK, but who’s protecting us from you?)

I think Obama’s response to the French reporter was intended to play simultaneously to an American center-right crowd and to a European center-left crowd, and it ran into the same tactical difficulty his speech on race did back in April: people on both sides have become conditioned to hair-trigger responses to certain kinds of language, and are unwilling to give their antipathies up, even as part of a bargain. I don’t think my wife’s response to Obama was fair. Much American defense spending in the ’80s was aimed at hegemony and at Republican domestic political goals, but the USSR really did have overwhelming conventional military superiority and was threatened by Western Europe’s greater wealth and political freedom, and the US military guarantee to Western Europe during the Cold War was not in fact chopped liver. And then, I was in Berlin in 1990 when Saddam seized Kuwait; the newspaper headlines read “Der Hitler am Gulf,” but it was obviously only American military power that made the clear political preference of Germans to say “no” to nationalist aggression in the post-Cold War world possible. Finally, there was the ineffectual European response to the Yugoslavian breakup, which wasn’t settled until it became politically unacceptable for an American government to tolerate genocide in Europe. So I don’t think it’s fair to have a dismissive attitude on this. But I also think the task Obama generally sets himself in these situations, of speaking to both sides in terms he hopes both can agree with, is remarkably difficult, even when he’s speaking to people predisposed to like him.


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