European exceptionalism (updated)

by John Quiggin on January 31, 2010

I’d like to broaden John H’s discussion of the US as a center-right nation to consider the broader idea that the US is, in some sense, exceptional. As Barack Obama correctly pointed out not so long ago, every nation is exceptional in its own way, which tends to undermine the idea that any nation is specially exceptional.

Still, compared to the developed world in general, it seems obvious that the US is different in lots of ways: an outlier in terms of nationalism, military power, religiosity, working hours and inequality of outcomes and (in the opposite direction) in terms of government intervention, health outcomes and other measures typically associated with welfare states. Among these the outstanding differences arise from the fact that the US aspires, with some success, to be globally hegemonic in military terms and (with rather less success) in economic terms as well.

But, when you think about it, there is nothing exceptional here.

Almost every state of any significance in history has aspired to dominate its known world. In the last century, Britain, Germany, Russia and even France[1] aspired to this role, and right now Russia and China are keen to try. Religiosity, militarism, inequality, and governments that do little for their subjects are the norm rather than the exception. Long hours of hard work have been the lot of humankind at least since the arrival of agriculture.

The real exception to all of this is Europe[2]. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services.[3]

Then the EU itself. There aren’t many historical parallels and those that I can think of (the US under the Articles of Confederation and the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example) were rapidly abandoned. It’s ungainly, unloved and bureaucratic, and yet it has persisted for 50+ years (nearly 60 if you count the ESC). The Great Powers of the 19th are now, with marginal exceptions, parts of this post-sovereign collective.

It’s for these reasons that American views of Europe resemble de Tocqueville in reverse. Something so unprecedented, and against the laws of nature, they think, cannot possibly survive, let alone prosper. And yet it does.

fn1. As pointed out in comments, the bloody failure of these attempts between 1914 and 1945 helped cure most European countries of belief in national greatness. But Russia, which suffered more than anywhere else, has seemingly gone the other way.

fn2. That’s not to deny, of course, that there are lots of differences within Europe. Nevertheless, on the criteria described above, almost any European state appears as an outlier in historical terms.

fn3. The other developed countries (Japan and the wealthier bits of East Asia, Aust/NZ, Canada and, to the extent it can be regarded as outside Europe, the UK, sit somewhere in between.

{ 61 comments }

1

Chris Bertram 01.31.10 at 11:34 am

I’m not sure about the religiosity bit as applied to post-revolutionary France.

2

alex 01.31.10 at 1:02 pm

@1: apart from not seeing how that really matters, one might note that Napoleon bought back into official Catholicism almost as soon as he had unfettered power. France in the C19 was an officially Catholic country for getting on for 3/4 of the time, and Catholic religiosity amongst both the general population and significant sectors of the political class ran strong and deep. That’s why the secularist republicans’ struggle ran so long, and was so tough.

3

Sacha Sokoloski 01.31.10 at 1:03 pm

Is it really fair to say that the non-European non-US developed countries are somewhere in the middle?

On leisure time, we’re (speaking as a Canadian) certainly in the middle, but as far as egalitarianism, provision of services, pacifism and godlessness is concerned, based on the numbers I’ve seen, I think we’re right there with Europe. The notable exception being the UKs involvement in Iraq.

4

skidmarx 01.31.10 at 1:44 pm

Almost every state of any significance in history has aspired to dominate its known world.
But until the spread of television, no society had its world-view projected round the world; the Americans are now exceptional in that they largely watch TV and movies about themselves.
The real exception to all of this is Europe[1]. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end.
The business of the EU is EU business, not a particularly glorious end.

5

weserei 01.31.10 at 2:44 pm

It’s true that, since the do-over referendum in Ireland, the European Union has a single legal personality, and probably the power to give itself all the powers. But it doesn’t (yet) have a fully centralized foreign policy or a fully unified military command–witness the situation vis-a-vis the Iraq War. The UK and Poland opted in, while other EU members opted out. Granted, this was pre-Lisbon, but the situation remains the same. How militaristic would the US look if the blue states could have just opted out of Iraq and Afghanistan?

6

UNRR 01.31.10 at 3:17 pm

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/31/2010, at The Unreligious Right

7

M 01.31.10 at 3:23 pm

Yeah, but most of what a Contemporary European Dominance would buy the US already pays for. Yankee gunboats enforce an order where poor countries can’t muster as much leverage as they otherwise could, and Europeans free-ride off of this. They’d pay for it if the US didn’t volunteer.

8

hix 01.31.10 at 3:27 pm

“and probably the power to give itself all the powers. “

You got any source for that adventurous claim? And yes that was rethorical question.

9

P O'Neill 01.31.10 at 4:37 pm

Note that Europe is also unable or unwilling to use its combined power for non-military ends, such as real influence in global negotiations on climate change, trade, or economic/financial reform. They struggle to an agreed position, and then the US, China, and other semi-large countries and regional blocs do the actual negotiating.

10

weserei 01.31.10 at 5:21 pm

@hix: I’m not sure whether you were inviting me to respond or not, but my basic point is that the response of EU leaders to the first Irish referendum, the resultant outcome of the second, and the ambiguous and untested nature of the revision protocols of the Lisbon Treaty, together demonstrate a shift in the economico-politico-legal environment which makes it highly unlikely that anything could be done about a further attempt by the combined institutions of the EU to increase their own powers. Most of the relevant bridges haven’t been crossed yet, but I think it’s hard to contend that there hasn’t been a shift in the power relations involved.

11

hix 01.31.10 at 6:13 pm

Ah the Irish debate on the level of American death penal talk about healthcare, always a good basis for claims about the Threaty of Lisabon. The only thing that Irish debates showed is that insane conspiracy theories can reach up to 30% of the population in every country.

Let me collect the imaginative content of the threaty:
-total power for the EU
-conscription to an EU army
-alows unregulated abortion

Yours is the best so far.

12

Hidari 01.31.10 at 6:51 pm

I had a much longer post on this, which I brilliantly managed to delete, but, very briefly, surely Europe’s exceptionalism can be explained very largely by the events of 1918-1945? I don’t just mean that after this period many Europeans simply decided to turn their backs on war as a policy method (though many did). But I also mean that the appalling economic cost of the wars meant that for many decades after WW2, Europe was simply unable (financially) to project their military power internationally. By the time Europe was in a position to do so

a: There was no ‘power vacuum’ anymore, as the United States now held the international position that the European imperial powers had once held and

b: There was no need for European imperialism, as the United States was culturally similar enough to Europe and had similar enough aims, such that it was simply much easier for Europe to shield under the US umbrella and let the Americans do the fighting, with the Europeans occasionally pitching in to help. The way the French imperial struggle in Vietnam was simply handed over to the Americans when the French ran out of political will and money to fight it is the classic example of this.

13

Barry 01.31.10 at 7:05 pm

M 01.31.10 at 3:23 pm

“Yeah, but most of what a Contemporary European Dominance would buy the US already pays for. Yankee gunboats enforce an order where poor countries can’t muster as much leverage as they otherwise could, and Europeans free-ride off of this. They’d pay for it if the US didn’t volunteer.”

I’m sure that Europe would pay for *some* things, like keeping the sea lanes open. However, the USA currently has bases and troops in an amazingly large propportion of the countries of the world, and spends more than everybody else in the world put together; presumably not 100% of this is for the purely altruistic purpose of bringing ponies and painted schools to poor countries.

14

stostosto 01.31.10 at 9:43 pm

The real exception to all of this is Europe[1]. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services

There’s a book in this. Please!

15

John Quiggin 02.01.10 at 1:51 am

@14 One book at a time! Or maybe Lifehacker has a quasi-automatic process where you take a cute blog post and some combination of crowdsourcing and semantic webbiness turns it into a book for you.

16

Ken Thomas 02.01.10 at 5:15 am

John,

I think you capture a lot in the above post– at least, a lot that is on my mind (your Tocqueville reference!).

There is something relative unique happening in Europe. I think it is also something that requires quite a bit of hard inquiry, to understand.

In Berlin, at the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was struck by– other than the propaganda version– European leaders just beginning to take in, what had occurred. Again and again, it was repeated, that no one, ever imagined, a Europe in which one could travel as one wished– were young people, could study and work, in any country they chose.

This, is evident– from Ljubljana to Heidelberg to Gent. The exchange is– almost unprecedented.

Jytte Hilden, the former minister of culture of Denmark– reminded us that, in her grandparents’ time, we Europeans did not even have passports. (This is not quite true: my grandfather’s brother had one from Italy, though I’m not sure what it was good for). But one could travel, and there was once a Europe, that resemble the experiment that has emerged in the last twenty years.

Hilden also reminded us a little of the language problems of Europe, and its governmental processes– that each EU committee must wait six weeks between meetings, so that the translators can put all the documents into the official languages (“And still,” she said, “we do all the business in English and we all speak poor English.”)

And yet there is something more fundamental occurring around language in Europe– you can see it on the trains, in Berlin, when a group of young people shift fluidly between German, English, French, Russian and other languages. (You can find Russian and Czech on the train from Brussels to Aachen, or on the streets of Gent and Heidelberg these days; and all the pidgin versions, growing up around Paris and London and Brussels and other major cities).

(I’ll offer no analysis of that).

(And allow me to pause…)

17

Jamey 02.01.10 at 5:43 am

Most conservatives when they use the phrase American exceptionalism usually mean a sense of the United States as a nation with a special historical destiny or mission in the world, oftentimes there is a religious point of view tied up with this. That America has some divinely chosen destiny. to deliver freedom and democracy to the world.

The idea of America as an exceptional nation in that it is different from other nations is obviously true and benign. The other view of American exceptionalism is not so benign. Manifest Destiny. The Project for the New American Century etc. It usually takes the form of an imperialism that denies that it is imperialism.

18

Ted 02.01.10 at 6:52 am

After Europe’s devastating flirt with Marxism, no wonder it is currently somewhat more timid about religion.

19

Ted 02.01.10 at 6:57 am

@5. The EU is also a cultural wasteland with nothing to project globally that anybody wants to emulate or purchase.

20

Ted 02.01.10 at 7:03 am

Let’s face it, it was Anglo-American liberalism that protected and saved continental Europe from the Marxist jackboot. The tragedy is that now the threat of that Marxist jackboot has gone, the product of five generations of culture developed under the apron strings of others is revealed in all its bland soullessness. Quelle de mage

21

smacker 02.01.10 at 7:27 am

Ted,
I like how you back up your claims with evidence and an erudite flourish of a propos forign frases. Brava!

22

stostosto 02.01.10 at 8:07 am

@5. The EU is also a cultural wasteland with nothing to project globally that anybody wants to emulate or purchase.

And yet it isn’t the EU that is struggling with a three-decades long trade deficit and accompanying indebtedness to the likes of China.

23

alex 02.01.10 at 8:21 am

@20: yeah, ’cause American culture is the most intellectually and morally sophisticated in the world… Nice French, BTW…… not.

24

Walt 02.01.10 at 8:23 am

Look, trolling! What a novel experience itis to be trolled.

25

Zamfir 02.01.10 at 8:34 am

I am always surpised how easily the UK gets an “exceptional” status as more like the US than like the rest of Europe. If you compare the UK to, say, Germany, and then compare Germany to Greece or Finland or Romania, in what sense are the last all one continental block that doesn’t include the UK?

If the UK really is somewhere halfway between Germany and the US, shouldn’t the conclusion be that the US is actually very much like Germany too?

26

yabonn 02.01.10 at 9:28 am

Hidari at 12 :
The way the French imperial struggle in Vietnam was simply handed over to the Americans when the French ran out of political will and money to fight it

Always interesting to compare versions : in France, the usual story is that the French told the US not to go, as there’s not much to do against nationalism. Is the “handing over” the textbook version? (And, if I may ask, where?)

27

John Quiggin 02.01.10 at 9:36 am

@20

“Quelle de mage”

What of the magician??

Or maybe trolls can’t spell. What a pity.

28

Ted 02.01.10 at 9:53 am

stostoso

Nobody, least me, is denying the horrific US deficitS. But acknowledging that does not make European film, television, music, or higher education any more attractive to the rest of the world.

alex

“Morally sophisticated”? I would otherwise ask was ist das, but your own word choice tells us; sophist.

John Quiggin

If your idea of a “troll” is somebody who replies to your blog posts in any other way than kissing your feet…

29

Laban 02.01.10 at 9:54 am

Something so unprecedented, and against the laws of nature, they think, cannot possibly survive, let alone prosper. And yet it does.

The cultural and demographic changes of the last 50 years have IMHO yet to play out. Being (a slightly UK-centric view)

a) a baby boom that lasted until the 1970s

b) which facilitated an expansion of the welfare state

c) a cultural revolution (de-Christianisation, rise of individuality, ‘what’s good for me’)

d) which when it went mainstream (abortion, contraception, feminism) led to a collapse in fertility (Spain – 1975 TFR 2.8, 2001 TFR 1.1)

e) tax and welfare policies also helped to drive down fertility for working people – two-wage mortgage the norm

f) the welfare state needs new taxpayers – massive unfunded future pension and healthcare liabilities

f) having outsourced manufacturing of goods and services, production of children next logical step

g) hence mass immigration – those taxpayers have to come from somewhere. More than half the children born in London, say, have non-UK born mothers (in London, the largest group of these mothers would be Bangladeshi) and about 23% of children born in England likewise.

Now I’m not sure this is a sustainable model. As Mao said about the French Revolution ‘it’s too early to tell’.

30

hix 02.01.10 at 9:58 am

“I am always surpised how easily the UK gets an “exceptional” status as more like the US than like the rest of Europe. “

Wishfull thinking by the right. Debateing differences between France and Greece the same way as those between UK and France would be to admit that the UK is no worldwide empire anymore that can balance the entire continent on her own. It would also mean to aknowledge that left policy has a history in the UK, which would be bad for the alliance of pro inequality and anti change conservatives. Since the necessity of some international cooperation has to be acknowledged, an US/UK alliance, together with the other former colonies gets presented as alternative to the EU. Geography alone suggets thats not very rational, so cultural similarties to the US get overemphasiced while differences with the other European countries get exagerated.

31

Laban 02.01.10 at 10:00 am

sorry about the two f)’s. That’s what happens when you insert a new e)

32

Ted 02.01.10 at 10:03 am

Well part of it is that the US is an extension of the Anglo empire, whereas who really gives a damn about France and Germany’s global cultural projection: baguettes, berets, beer, and skinheads?

33

Ted 02.01.10 at 10:04 am

Compared to England’s liberalism, democracy, property rights, Rolling Stones, and the Spice Girls?

34

Zamfir 02.01.10 at 10:14 am

Wishfull thinking by the right.
Really? John Q is hardly a Tory.

35

stostosto 02.01.10 at 10:15 am

The way the French imperial struggle in Vietnam was simply handed over to the Americans when the French ran out of political will and money to fight it

How about the way French imperial struggle in Algeria was simply handed over?

More generally, European appetites for military intervention wasn’t immediately eliminated by the WWII experience.

The British were busy being quite heavy-handed in the Mau-Mau uprising in the fifties. And between them France and Britain tried to intervene in the Suez in 1956.

Portugal also held on to its colonial possessions in the face of armed resistance for decades after WWII. There was also things like the Greek civil war.

It would seem the narrative that “WWII destroyed European appetites for war” is a later development. Maybe even a rationalisation. I don’t think that makes it any less of a reality, though.

36

stostosto 02.01.10 at 10:26 am

Nobody, least me, is denying the horrific US deficitS. But acknowledging that does not make European film, television, music, or higher education any more attractive to the rest of the world.

To the extent America has a lead in these markets it’s a direct function of the size of its domestic market, English as the lingua franca and the economies of scale that flow from these.

Btw, American films, TV and music consistently place second in European markets — after the local product. Germans prefer German films, French prefer French music etc. It’s just that they don’t consume each others’ products much. There they opt for low cost American fare.

37

bert 02.01.10 at 10:29 am

Ted, skinheads are another of England’s gifts to the world.
The German ones even have a brand fetish about Lonsdale, in part because the name includes the letters for National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter, but mainly because it’s echt Englisch.

38

Ted 02.01.10 at 11:45 am

stotsotso

Dude, lose the verbosity.

America has a lead in these markets

See, that’s all you needed.

bert

The point is, like berets and Eurovision, skinheads have never traveled very far. ;)

39

Pete 02.01.10 at 12:08 pm

1) Europe isn’t a state, and certainly isn’t a nation. Not being a nation means it lacks the nationalistic drive for aggressive war.

2) Do not underestimate the extent to which the people who believe in Europe as a project think of it explicitly as a counterweight to WWII. We are occasionally told by ultra-federalists that the alternative to Europe is warfare.

3) Following on from that, it functions as a sort of padded playpen for Europe’s political classes, who can score points off one another and gain little victories for their nations and their own personal empires to their heart’s content, without actual warfare being involved.

40

bert 02.01.10 at 12:09 pm

“The point is …”

You lie! The point, obviously, is trolling.
I thought you were banging the drum for the anglosphere.
The Spice Girls gain admission to your airtight circle of wank.
But skinheads have to wait outside with the mooslims and frenchmen.
Tit.

41

Ted 02.01.10 at 12:14 pm

bert

The Spice Girls were a billion dollar pop group and an unparalleled icon of *cough* Girl *cough* Power. Unparalleled of course apart from Madonna, and er, er, Margaret Thatcher.

42

Ted 02.01.10 at 12:18 pm

Pete

Quiggin never claimed it was a “nation” but an “economic aggregate”. Personally, spare us the abacus approach to culture

43

novakant 02.01.10 at 12:37 pm

The US is exceptional in a post WW2 context in the sense that it managed to wage and foment countless declared and undeclared wars which cost millions of lives, toppled regimes whenever it suited its needs, abducted and tortured countless individuals without any accountability – and yet somehow managed to persuade large parts of the world, that they are the good guys. PR genius!

44

Ted 02.01.10 at 12:45 pm

novakant

Compared to the REAL post-WWII imperialists and the tens of millions they slaughtered, the US is a sissy.

45

Noah 02.01.10 at 12:54 pm

“In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services.”

Ming China?

46

hix 02.01.10 at 1:04 pm

What is an ultra federalist? Someone that wants Scotland to be able to do something without permission from London?

Watever those evil ultra federalists might be or not be, it is true that increased economic interdependence and institutional integration within the EU was always considered a way to reduce the risk off violent conflicts and unccoperative behaviour in general.

Big news, the EU was always more than just a free trade zone.

47

Ted 02.01.10 at 1:07 pm

hix

You are correct. It was always a project to politically and socially disarm hoi polloi; to substitute Brussels for Rome.

48

Walt 02.01.10 at 1:19 pm

I’m glad that the Internet is here to provide for the needs of the “Look at me!” crowd, and I want to think Crooked Timber for providing them a forum.

49

Ted 02.01.10 at 1:22 pm

Walt

Actually, hopefully the thinking comes from the “crowd” rather than the technology. Please feel free to contribute.

50

Hungover Guy 02.01.10 at 1:31 pm

As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

51

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.01.10 at 2:00 pm

Everyone feels they are exceptional, and good for them. It’s only the combination of arrogance and power that’s dangerous.

52

alex 02.01.10 at 4:35 pm

Like Ted, you mean?

Except for the power bit, obviously.

53

Dan Drezner 02.01.10 at 5:13 pm

Pedantic note: it’s “Articles of Confederation,” not “Articles of Configuration” for the United States.

Aargh! Fixed now thanks, JQ

54

Uncle Kvetch 02.01.10 at 5:49 pm

America has a lead in these markets

See, that’s all you needed.

Yes, Sweetie, yours is bigger than all the other boys’. Much bigger. Now run along, there’s a good lad.

55

daelm 02.01.10 at 6:52 pm

@ted

“The EU is also a cultural wasteland with nothing to project globally that anybody wants to emulate or purchase.”

dude, if anything’s a cultural wasteland, it’s the country that gave us miley cyrus and reality television. you should get out more.

d

56

John Quiggin 02.01.10 at 7:56 pm

Ted, you’ve amused us quite long enough. Nothing more from you, please, and, to everyone else, no further responses to Ted.

57

derrida derider 02.02.10 at 2:44 am

John, there you go imposing that non-existent European culture upon us with a Jane Austen line (actually from memory I think it’s “you have delighted us quite long enough”).

Of course, Ted is American and everyone knows Americans are irony-challenged and won’t get it.

Do I get to indulge in stereotyping too?

58

Zamfir 02.02.10 at 9:19 am

dude, if anything’s a cultural wasteland, it’s the country that gave us miley cyrus and reality television.

Big Brother at least was a Dutch invention

59

daelm 02.02.10 at 12:44 pm

big brother was conceived in 1997. the business case for a reality television viewership was made by jerry springer, who debuted his show in 1991 and instantly converted it into a live spectacle, where the trainwrecks and trainwrecksesses allowed onto his show supplied the content by means of their lives. reality television was born.

every iteration since then strives to perpetuate the notion of the spontaneous spectacle, each spectacle hopefully more horrifying than the next. it’s nothing more than voyeurism writ large, as anyone who watches it knows, and it serves no purpose other than to save one the trouble of peering through the curtains into your neighbours’ house. ‘reality’ voyeurism was born, matured and brought to its pinaccle in the same country that gave the world ‘celebrity’ voyeurism.

if that awesome conjunction of needs, products and venality, lightly garnished with a complete lack of shame, isn’t the defintion of ‘cultural wasteland’ then there isn’t one.

d

(JQ – i’m responding to Zamfir, not Ted, by the way.)

60

Zamfir 02.02.10 at 2:42 pm

Dalem, I am complete agreement with you about the wastelandishness of reality TV.

I just object to the claim that the Mericans invented it all.

61

daelm 02.02.10 at 4:34 pm

i don’t think there’s a gene unique to americans that makes them simultaneously highly religious and prone to inventing deeply disturbed media products. (though, when you think about it, religiosity and prurience probably do go together).)

and i don’t think Mericans invented everything bad. in fact, i don’t think there is such a category as American, except in the passport-issuing sense. it’s just that the notion of trainwreck as spectacle as entertainment – as far as i can see – is an outgrowth of day-time talk shows where voyeurism for pleasure was made a norm.

i tell you what – let’s split the difference and credit the dutch with the invention and the Mericans with the perfection. ok?

d

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