Magazine article The Spectator

Jealous, Resentful, Impotent: Welcome to Old Europe

Magazine article The Spectator

Jealous, Resentful, Impotent: Welcome to Old Europe

Article excerpt

A few years ago, as I waited for a plane in Phoenix airport, I fell into conversation with a woman from Tucson. She greeted my statement that I had just flown on a plane from Britain with a level of astonishment that would not have been out of place if I had said it was a spaceship from Pluto. `And what is the weather like there?' she asked, wide-eyed with curiosity. `Oh,' I said, `it's pretty wet, but that's what comes of living on an island at the edge of the ocean.'

`Britain is an island!' she exclaimed. `Hey, John,' she shouted to her husband, `did you know the Brits all live on an island?'

Such encounters feed all our prejudices about America. They stand accused of being insular, unsophisticated and ignorant of the rest of the world. In many European eyes, these grave deficiencies make it all the more annoying that they have nevertheless become by far the richest and most powerful nation on our planet. To be seen as stupid invites contempt, and to be powerful produces respect, but to be known as both at the same time creates a particularly intense form of jealousy and resentment.

Such are the feelings of many on this side of the Atlantic towards America's assertion of its power. Bush is more dangerous than Saddam, they chant. Americans have killed more people than the Iraqis. The US seeks world domination and an oil monopoly. If none of these things is true, then the Americans just don't understand us in the rest of the world. And allied to the heated chants of demonstrators is the cold powerplay of the Elyse Palace, freely confessed to by French ministers in private, determined to take the opportunity to scotch Anglo-American leadership in world affairs.

But what is the true nature of America? Is the US really more dangerous to world peace than a mass-murdering, genocidal dictator who has invaded his neighbours, used chemical weapons, stowed away hundreds of tons of anthrax and tortured tens of thousands to death? Is it now an imperialist nation?

I have been lucky enough to travel across most of the states of America. I have sat with old men on their porches in Tennessee, and ridden with young wranglers in Montana in the mountains of the Great Divide. As a politician, I have visited schools in New York, retirement homes in Florida and technology firms in San Diego. And I have to say that it would be hard to come across a nation of people less imperialist by culture, temperament and inclination. America was forged in the first place by the families of Protestant settlers who had a work ethic, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a hostility to governmental power and royal authority. They went to a new land in order to be away from wars, taxes and kings. Their attitudes, reinforced by the waves of dispossessed people who have joined them in succeeding centuries, remain the central characteristics of America today. Americans are still by nature disrespectful of authority, deeply democratic by instinct, very conscious of their freedom, and particularly happy to live in a vast and beautiful land which is free from external threats.

Such people are difficult to rouse to war. If Americans are insular - and many of them are - they cannot be imperialist at the same time. In British and French eyes, their sin over much of the last century has been isolationism: `too proud to fight', as Woodrow Wilson said. Americans have always hated joining in other people's conflicts. …

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