Does Old Europe Hate New America, Or Just President?

It wasn’t only in London, Paris and Berlin that hundreds of thousands took to the streets on Saturday, Feb. 15, in protest against war in Iraq-there were plenty of protesters on the streets of American cities. To characterize “old Europe” as peopled wholly by cheese-eating surrender monkeys and the U.S.A. by a warrior race uniformly and bravely behind military action is to traduce reality. As George W. Bush’s ratings fall to new lows, the conservatives around him-and the right-wing American commentariat-might reflect that many of the attitudes they detest as “old Europe” are alive and well in America.

Europeans-to the extent anyone on this continent of 370 million conforms to the generic stereotype-are baffled and extraordinarily anxious at the rhetoric now emanating from the world’s most powerful country. Mockery of President Bush’s linguistic faux pas has given way to the realization that he and the people round him are very different from the American elites we’ve become used to. Europeans expect America to live up to the high standards it sets for itself-and, at key moments over the last century, it has done so. Now there’s a realization that Mr. Bush is not of the same ilk; he is potentially very dangerous both for America and the world.

These apprehensions may be mocked and derided by the American administration and its take-no-prisoners outriders, who dominate the American media and national conversation, but that does not mean that our fears are not genuine-or well-founded. The majority on the European street is extremely wary about the doctrine of pre-emptive, unilateral intervention and the willingness to disregard international law and the U.N. process if it produces the “wrong” results; but that doesn’t make us anti-American. Rather, we want America to be the better Europe that generations of European immigrants set out to make it, believing in the promise of a new continent with its Enlightenment Constitution and passionate commitment to opportunity, liberty and an equal chance.

America has been the victim of a horrendous crime, and the barbarians of radical Islam, we know, will again use terror against the U.S. (and against targets in Europe too, don’t forget) if they can. They must be rooted out, and the deep causes of the crime addressed, even as we bring the particular terrorist networks to justice. But this complex task cannot be undertaken if we divide the world into the Manichean simplicities of George W. Bush: Those who are not for America must necessarily be against America. This is not good enough from the leader of the free world-and it’s certainly not good enough before the evil of the threat we face. We need sophistication, wisdom, the widest coalition possible, legitimacy-and, of course, a willingness to use force if every other avenue has been closed. Instead, we hear the language of pre-emptive war (which was outlawed by the Versailles Treaty of 1919)-and this from the greatest and most admired democratic republic in the world, a country that has always prided itself on its respect for law, at home and abroad. Europeans expect much, much more from America.

This, perhaps, is what Americans do not comprehend very well. Anti-Americanism in Europe does not play well, even in France, where it intrudes into the public discourse more than any other European country. Jacques Chirac is winning support because he’s asserting an idea of an independent France, le hexegon , that occupies an autonomous role in the world and stands for a cluster of values (peace, multilateralism, interdependence)-and taking on America at the same time. But when it comes to other core values-democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, impartial justice-no leading French politician or opinion leader (except those on the fringes of right and left) is going to position him- or herself as anti-American. And if this is true for France, it’s even more true for the rest of the continent. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has sacked two ministers for making unguarded, off-the-record anti-American remarks; he could not survive politically protecting them in office. Indeed, Mr. Schröder, like Mr. Chirac, is careful to argue that while he’s against pre-emptive action in Iraq until the U.N. process is exhausted-and thus in opposition to Mr. Bush-that does not mean he’s anti-American. Nor, in a fundamental sense, is he.

This is what troubles and infuriates Europeans. Whereas Mr. Schröder sacks ministers for making offensive remarks, Mr. Bush indulges his own; Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz or Condoleezza Rice can say anything that comes into their heads-some of it downright untrue and offensive-and there’s no penalty. This is, of course, the prerogative of the powerful throughout the ages, but Americans should not be surprised if their interlocutors bridle and chafe. The wonder is that there’s not more resentment.

Some of the claims made by leading American conservative commentators against Europe (I’m thinking especially of Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer)-statements that appear to reflect the views of conservative Washington-are so vicious that if they were not obviously detached from reality, there would be some real anti-Americanism. For example, the idea that America now wears the badge of Mars (the willingness to use military force, to assert itself with manly vigor and bear loss of life like other great powers in the past)-in contrast to the feminine loss of will in Europe-strikes Europeans as an astonishing case of memory loss and saturation in fantasy. Is this the same country that has a collective fainting fit at the sight of one body bag? That has been careful to fight its recent wars from 50,000 feet up? Whose tourists have so little sense of fortitude that mass cancellations follow after even the slightest hint of danger? American swagger, Europeans suspect, is the swagger of the schoolyard bully, and no more sturdy. The scuttle of Mogadishu or fighting for Kosovo and Afghanistan from the air more nearly define American military ambition-and if the going gets rough in Iraq, Europeans expect little sustained resolve or willingness to bear loss of life. Which is why it’s so important that if action begins, it’s launched from a platform of impeccable legitimacy-why the weapons inspectors must continue and why the U.N. process must be exhausted before the Security Council authorizes war.

The French and British have both demonstrated willingness to bear loss in the national interest. It’s that same tradition that makes both populations-and other Europeans who know from experience war’s senselessness and pain-so very wary. Until the ascendancy of today’s conservatives, America historically shared that caution: Vietnam produced the same embedded wariness, and for very good reason. That tradition, judging by the opinion polls and the growing anti-war protests, is not entirely dead-and my hunch is that the Kagans, Krauthammers, Perles, Wolfowitzes, Cheneys and Rumsfelds will find that their own country will display many of the same sentiments as “old Europe” if they engage in this war against terror in the way they plan.

Which shouldn’t be a surprise. The best of America is the best of Europe; the best of Europe is the best of America. The idea that these two pillars of the West can be fundamentally at loggerheads for long is nonsense. Rather, as I argue in my forthcoming book A Declaration of Interdependence , American conservatives have declared independence from the Western liberal tradition. Europeans are already protesting the consequences, but as that protest spreads to the U.S., the truth will emerge: It’s not Europeans and liberal Americans who are the isolated, dangerous eccentrics who menace peace, order and the rule of international law. It’s Mr. Bush’s Washington.

Will Hutton’s A Declaration of Interdependence (W.W. Norton) will be published in May. He is the former editor in chief of the London Observer .