The New Old Europe

Column: It’s the United States.

Demonstrators being separated by Murrieta police officers / AP
July 11, 2014

Clemens Wergin is something of a contrarian. A German editor of the Die Welt newspaper group, he often found himself defending American foreign policy against European criticism. He would chide his countrymen for neglecting their dependence on the U.S. armed forces. He would lampoon the European belief that moral grandstanding makes for a foreign policy. He would praise American leaders for having the courage to make costly decisions.

Then something funny happened. As Wergin wrote in a New York Times op-ed on July 8, he found himself increasingly unable to distinguish the rhetoric of Washington, D.C., from the rhetoric of Brussels. Last year, when the United States threatened military action against Syria, only to reverse itself overnight and become partners with the Assad government in the destruction of the tyrant’s declared stocks of chemical weapons, Wergin was struck by an insight. "I suddenly understood the problem with this American president and his foreign policy," he wrote. "He sounded just like a German politician: all moral outrage, but little else to help end one of the most devastating civil wars of our age." The recognition left him with a feeling not of elation but of disappointment. "President Obama, I thought with a sigh, has become a European."

Become? In his policies and preferences, in his attitudes and worldview, Obama has always represented the European strain in American politics. We are talking here about the president who, as a candidate in 2008, made it a point to campaign in Berlin—a city more than familiar with mass rallies—and declare himself a "citizen of the world." The president who, on the eve of his election, said, "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming America," and made good on his promise with ambitious initiatives in health care, energy, and education that emulate the social democracies of Western Europe.

This is a president so beloved by European elites that he won a Nobel Peace Prize after a whole nine months in office. The president who returned to the German capital in 2013, quoting Kant at the Brandenburg Gate and invoking the "spirit of Berlin." The president who, during a recent visit to the continent, devoted an evening to a dinner party with "interesting Italians," and lamented the next day that he had to return to mundane matters such as protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States. Wergin’s revelation is old news. Barack Obama is as European as Lederhosen.

"While Mr. Obama’s new style of diplomacy—soft power and nonintervention—was at first seen as a welcome break with the Bush years, five years later a dismal realization has sent in," Wergin wrote. "It turns out that soft power cannot replace hard power." I could have told you that. What I could not have told you, what I did not anticipate, was that Barack Obama’s European proclivities would shape more than foreign and domestic policy. They would also set the contours of American politics at large. Eleven years ago, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld drew a distinction between "old Europe"—Germany and France—and "new Europe"— young democracies such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Time to add the category of "new old Europe." It has one member: the United States.

Like old Europe, we are aging, our birthrates are falling, our economy is sclerotic, our church attendance is declining, our discourse is undermined by sectarian and ethnic and racial and sexual and environmental censors. A foreign policy negotiated in Geneva, a domestic policy from the LSE, a social philosophy more Davos than Branson—we have been living with all of these since January 2009. But the crisis on the southern border, the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America and elsewhere illegally migrating to the United States, has brought into focus another parallel with Europe. Not a good one.

For years, England and France and Italy have been inundated with immigration, both legal and illegal, from the global south. Their governments have failed to address the problem adequately, alienating both migrants and native populations. Their politics have taken on an anti-establishment cast, with the rise of UKIP, FN, and the Five-Star Movement.

There was a time when Americans could feel superior to our European allies on matters of immigration and assimilation. That time is passing. With the arrival of the Dreamers the issues of migration, border security, amnesty, and incompetence are refashioning American politics, fracturing allegiances and commitments and social bonds, exposing the contradiction between liberal humanitarianism and national identity, and forging new coalitions, with the elites of both parties on the one hand, and the fading American middle on the other.

One cannot look at the images of protests in Murrietta, California, where demonstrators waving Gadsden Flags stopped school buses carrying the sons and daughters of Guatemala and Honduras to shelters, without recalling the vitriolic debates over busing in the 1970s, without thinking of the anti-immigration marches in Western and Southern Europe today. One cannot look at the images of the children themselves, sleeping in detention, looking vacantly in the distance, lured to this country under false pretenses, desperate for food and shelter and attachment and hope, without remembering the Spanish detention camps in the Canary Islands, or the Italian "Identification and Expulsion Center" in Rome. This isn't An American Tail. This is Children of Men.

The questions of sovereignty, compassion, and relocation, of the economic and social costs of mass immigration of displaced peoples, of the most basic understanding of what a nation is, what borders are for, what distinguishes a citizen from an alien: Such questions have dominated European politics, and are coming to dominate American politics as well. They have also coarsened European politics, made it more antagonistic. They have set the advocates of the European Union, and of the immigrants, against nationalist publics. Elite condescension is met with public antipathy, even extremism. The casualties? No biggies: just trust, cohesion, and fellow feeling—the very ingredients for a healthy, successful country.

Doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the European Union or the executive branch under Barack Obama: a complex, technocratic, arbitrary, arrogant regulatory state that fails in its most basic tasks, even as it grows in size and scope, causes a populist, nationalist, conservative reaction. Where that leads is anyone’s guess. Who predicted David Brat’s victory? Who would have thought that the president wouldn’t visit the huddled masses at the border, but would fundraise in a castle? Americans are entering political territory they have never traveled before. And strange days are ahead for the new old Europe.