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Do as we say, not as we do

Before criticising US foreign policy, Europeans should look at the actions of their own states

Gary Younge
Monday May 27, 2002
The Guardian

There is nothing so pathetic as the powerful claiming victimhood. White South Africans who bleat about affirmative action, as though apartheid represented a meritocracy, are to be pitied as well as pilloried. Business leaders who award themselves exponential pay hikes, only to carp about the damaging effects of the minimum wage, warrant condemnation but need counselling.

So it is with the White House administration, which comes over crestfallen and confused at the hostile reception that President George Bush receives in Europe. America's displeasure provokes exasperation but deserves an explanation.

One can understand why Bush might be a little confused. He has landed in a continent supposedly full of allies and signed a nuclear arms treaty with a former adversary. Yet almost everywhere he goes he finds diplomatic tension and demonstrators in the streets. He wanders the continent looking a bit like Ernest Harrowden in The Picture of Dorian Gray, whom Oscar Wilde describes as "one of those middle-aged mediocrities, who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their friends".

The source of the antagonism towards America is not difficult to divine. Not content with reneging on treaties it doesn't like, threatening countries it doesn't like and ignoring objections to policies it does like, the Bush administration wonders why the rest of the world does not seem to like it.

After September 11 commentators opined that America had lost its innocence. Well, it looks like they have finally got it back again.

But spend a week immersed in the American media and it soon becomes apparent that the rift goes beyond the diplomatic to the popular. Listening to the phone-ins and watching the talk-shows, the phonetics are familiar but in all other respects - political, cultural, strategic - the language is completely foreign.

Opinion polls suggest that two strands of thought dominate on each side of the Atlantic.

The general feeling in the US is that Europe has scapegoated them for taking the lead in fighting terrorism; Europeans, by and large, believe America has sidelined them and is taking their support for granted.

Recent wobbles notwithstanding, Bush's approval at home remains enormous. But only the Italians, among Europe's larger nations, rate him favourably. While Americans interpret the attacks on the World Trade Centre as an assault on the principles of democracy and liberty, a majority in Europe believe the assault was aimed at the United States, not the western world.

In certain countries more objectionable expressions of opposition can be found. A few days after September 11, 30% of Greeks thought the attacks were justified. In France, Leffroyable Imposture, a book which suggests that September 11 was staged by a wing of the US military to justify taking over Afghanistan, is a bestseller.

Visceral anti-American attitudes undoubtedly exist in Europe - a mixture of post-colonial snobbishness and ultra-left simplicity - but for the most part they remain unrepresentative.

If George Bush wishes to claim victimhood for himself or his nation he will have to stand at the back of a very long line. The horrific events of September 11 gave Americans a taste of the world's pain; it did not give them a monopoly on suffering.

The truth is, so long as Bush pushes ahead with this mindless, murderous military campaign and a world trade regime which discriminates against the poor and undermines democracy, he will remain a legitimate focus for anti-war and anti-globalisation protests.

Yet opposition to American foreign policy demands introspection in Europe. One of the few hopeful developments to be salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre is for America to wake up from its insularity and understand how little goodwill and how much animosity it had generated. Now it is Europe's turn to take stock of what an impotent and pernicious figure it is cutting in the world.

We might start with our own governments. For America did not rise to this position of unilateral dominance in a vacuum. It did so with the complicit, and in Britain's case explicit, endorsement of European nations. The US may be insensitive to the views of other countries but it is not immune to them. And while European countries may not have America's military clout they can muster considerable diplomatic muscle. Over the past eight months European leaders could have pushed for an enhanced role for the UN or support for an international criminal court - both valid responses to terrorism.

Instead they offered America a blank cheque and continue to be amazed when it keeps drawing on it. It is not European leaders' occasional opposition to Bush's foreign policy that makes them whingers - it is their lack of resolve to do anything about it.

The left must learn a similar lesson. We can demonstrate against Bush all we like, but only the Americans can vote him out. The focus for any meaningful, progressive intervention from Europe rests with whatever pressure we can put on our own governments.

This in turn demands an examination of the authority of those who speak for us. In the past few weeks Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for external relations, has slammed the Bush administration's "unilateralist overdrive" while the president of the commission, Romano Prodi, has warned that America's days at the helm are numbered. At issue here is not the the veracity of the statements but the democratic legitimacy of those who made them.

Given Florida's voting fiasco, Bush's democratic credentials may be questionable, but Prodi's are not. He has none. He was not elected. Those who back Bush now may sack him in 2004. How do we get rid of Prodi or Patten?

The political alienation created by this democratic vacuum is partly responsible for the re-emergence of fascism as a mainstream ideology in European politics. The electoral resurgence of the far right has prompted European leaders to clamp down on asylum seekers and refugees. Even as they express concern over America's plans to bomb Iraq they seek to close the doors on Iraqis who might arrive here to flee the bombing. Under these circumstances, the rest of the world is justified in asking on what moral authority these leaders lecture others. Undemocratic in its institutions and inconsistent in its respect both for international law and human rights, the EU (and its component nations) has shown itself to be peevish in the face of the strong and punitive in its dealings with the weak.

None of this invalidates criticisms of US foreign policy. Far from it. The demands for democracy, equality and justice are sound and universal. But it is no use trying to export them across the Atlantic, unless we are prepared to defend them here.

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