What Divides America From Europe? The Rule of Law.

There is something particularly exhilarating in looking at one’s own country as it is reflected in the mirror of another culture. And there are special opportunities for such enhanced vision when an American is overseas during a turbulent episode in the political life of the United States. I was in Italy for most of December as the news unfolded concerning the selling of arms to Iran, the connection between the shipment of these arms and the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and the transfer of some of the funds from these sales to support the Nicaraguan contras. The political ramifications of these disclosures in the United States fascinated Europeans in general, and Italians in particular. The Italian media were quick to dub the complex of events “Irangate,” and stories from Washington filled the pages of Italian newspapers and occupied a place of importance on the evening television news. The Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, provided extensive daily coverage, including several long interpretative essays. The very term “Irangate” indicates the manner in which the Italian media came to portray the story. Although the same term was used in some of the American press, it did not dominate the headlines in the way it did in Italy.

Most Europeans still find it difficult to understand why the illegalities surrounding the Watergate burglary, including the attempt by President Nixon to prevent their coming to light, should have first so paralyzed the American government and then caused the resignation of the President. Stupid actions, yes; illegal actions, yes; but actions which were of such a nature as to bring a government to its knees and a president to resign? What is it about the American political system, or about American culture, which could account for suck events? Although the Italians are aware of the many differences between the events at the end of the Nixon Administration and the recent revelations concerning Iran, their sustained use of the term “Irangate” manifests the same stupefaction, the same incredulity. Sophisticated Italian columnists examined the constitutional separation of powers between the President and Congress, and they saw in the American system of “checks and balances” a fundamental tension, in that, although the President is charged with conducting foreign policy, the Congress possesses the power of the purse and can, thus, effectively hinder a president’s policy. Presidents, in frustration, seek to circumvent those obstacles which Congress may place in their path; hence, the clandestine operations of Reagan’s National Security Council.

Other columnists in Italy saw a connection, on a deeper level, between the troubles facing the Reagan Administration and the recent defeat of the educational reforms proposed by the conservative government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in France. Buoyed by the success of the student opposition to what was called an elitist educational proposal, French labor unions, in pursuit of their own goals, were successful in paralyzing transport and several public utilities. The coincidence of all of these events led these columnists to discern a renewed mobilization of an egalitarian left on both sides of the Atlantic, and they represent, so it seemed to the liberal journalists in Italy, the swing of the political pendulum away from traditional, conservative regimes. The influence of Hegel, and especially his notion of the “spirit of an age,” has always been strong in Italian intellectual circles, and essayists in both the Corriere della Sera and la Republica found even wider links in the concurrent student demonstrations in several Chinese cities. The slogans of liberty and democracy on the Chinese banners indicated, so it seemed, a commitment to liberal ideas over against the autocratic features of the Old Regime, which had been only partially reformed.

In spite of the various attempts to locate “Irangate” in a broader context of American, European, and even world history, Italians still found it difficult, if not impossible, to understand how the American political system can be so dominated, and the government so apparently paralyzed, by these events. How can the stupidity of certain actions, and/or their illegality, come to interfere with the crucial concerns of the public business, both domestic and foreign, of a great power? Americans, even American politicians, must not understand that the affairs of state are far too important to be sidetracked by such a minor gaffe. What is it about the United States that allows such a relatively insignificant series of events to capture the continuing attention of the country’s political life?

In the face of such queries, Americans often react indignantly to what they consider to be a kind of European cynicism, a lack of concern for moral principles in the conduct of national and international affairs. European countries might very well function ac-cording to the Machiavellian principle of raison d’etat, but America is a nation of laws, and it is the respect for such laws which guarantees the freedom and liberty of its citizens. How is it that Europeans, who, so it seems, share our fundamental democratic values, cannot understand the important principles which are at stake in “Irangate”? In some respects, the strong, negative reaction in the United States to President Reagan’s secret “opening” to Iran was precisely because it seemed immoral, it seemed too much like the pragmatic European approach to international relations, and especially too much like an unprincipled trafficking with terrorists.

The reflection in the Italian press of the political controversy in the United States reveals profound differences between American and at least continental European ideals. It was fortuitous that in November there appeared in Italian bookstores a new book which addresses this very topic. Since many of the leading Italian newspapers reviewed the book in December, the coincidence of its themes with the reaction to “Irangate” was remarkable. Its author, Ernesto Galli della Loggia, is a professor of contemporary history and a regular editorial columnist for Stampa (Turin) and other Italian newspapers. He has written a searching analysis of the different political and cultural ideals of America and Western Europe. His book offers refreshing insights which challenge the oft- voiced notions of the “shared values” of Western democracies.

In response to the seizure of the Achille Lauro, the bombing of the Berlin night club (and the deaths of Americans in each of these incidents), and the striking absence of American tourists in Europe during the summer of 1986, Galli della Loggia addresses A Letter to American Friends (Lettera agli amici americani, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 130 pp.), in which he seeks to explain what it is that divides America from Europe. The violent events of the Spring of 1986 had brought into sharp relief many of the tensions in the Western alliance. The tensions are symptoms of a conflict which separates a strange family (una strana famiglia) in which, according to the author, the son (America) has, become the father of his father (Europe). The fascination which impels millions of American members of this family to journey as tourists to Europe is in many ways a desire to discover the cultural roots of America and thus to locate the place of the United States in the broad history of Western Civilization. Europeans observe their cultural heirs with a certain fascination- -as returning children, but as children who have come to occupy the role of technological, political, and even cultural parents for Europe itself. Although, ostensibly, the author writes to Americans, the book is addressed just as much to his fellow Europeans, and, I think, it ought to serve to illuminate discussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the outset, it is important to note that Galli della Loggia refers to “culture” and “civilization” in a broadly anthropological and political sense. He leaves aside the deeper philosophical sense of civilization in which common texts, such as the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, and others constitute a shared intellectual patrimony. Thus, when he examines characteristic features of European and American cultures, he draws his examples not from the great texts of the West, but from political and social values in their historical context. In addition, when Galli della Loggia discusses “European attitudes,” he limits his analysis to the reaction of European intellectuals to the left of the political spectrum because he considers them to represent the dominant cultural force in contemporary European society. Indeed, he notes that the fascination of Europe’s intellectual elite with the United States began with the emergence of the new American nation. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these intellectuals looked to the United States as an exemplar of democratic ideals. LaFayette sent the keys to the Bastille to Tom Paine and asked him to present them to George Washington since, according to LaFayette, it was the principles of the United States which opened the doors of the Bastille. Galli della Loggia thinks that the infatuation of Europeans with the new American republic is an initial instance of the love affair between the European left and third world movements.

Yet, even in the very early history of the encounter between the young republic and the old world there was a profound difference, a difference which remains fundamental. The American Revolution, almost as soon as it occurred, achieved a general consensus, and the new order, enshrined in the Constitution, quickly because the established order. For the European left it was (and is) the Revolution itself, and not the particular order which it established, which continued to be important. In fact, the very word “revolution” has profoundly different resonances in America and Europe. Americans made a revolution to achieve independence in order to produce a truly legitimate government, a government stabilized in a constitution which establishes the fundamental law of the nation. In modern Europe the quintessential revolution is the French Revolution, the ideals of which continue to inform those Europeans committed to the value of “revolution.” Such a commitment describes a mentality according to which the real legitimacy of government does not find its source in the legal limits written in a constitution, but in the adherence of the government to the general principles of human and civil rights. The important point is not whether or not there has been (or will be) agreement in Europe about what the “Rights of Man” (i Diritti dell’Uomo) are. Rather, many Europeans see their history as a battle for human rights (however conceived) against the authority of governments, even against the authority of governments operating according to established constitutional authority.

For Americans, the Constitution sets the limits of power of the state, and Americans see in the establishment of such limits a guarantee of their freedoms. How often do we hear that the United States is a “nation of laws” in which the sovereignty of law, and thus of a government based on the law, represents the key to American democracy. Galli della Loggia notes that, for Europeans the problem is the sovereignty not of the law but of the people. Furthermore, for Europeans a government in which the people are truly sovereign can never ultimately be based on the rule of laws. The distinction that Galli della Loggia draws is a subtle and important one. In principle, ultimate authority in the United States does reside with the people. In fact, the opening words of the Constitution, “We the people… ,” indicate the locus of legitimacy. But the way in which this authority is embodied in the Constitution, and the consequent emphasis upon this fundamental document, represent a significant difference from the European notion of the sovereignty of the people. Europeans, as a result, at least, of different historical experiences, are far less willing to embody popular sovereignty in constitutions.

Although Americans and Europeans embrace the ideal of a democratic political order, the very notion of “democracy” which each group has is quite different. A nation which affirms the ultimate sovereignty of the law is, for the European left, an essentially conservative (if not reactionary) society, despite its democratic forms. According to Galli della Loggia, Americans look upon their revolution as an affirmation of such a rule of law. For Europeans, “democracy” means “revolution,” not in some violent sense, but rather in the commitment to the view that the guiding principles of the social and political order are to be found not in laws but in abstract philosophical concepts. Unlike the French Revolution, which sought to overturn the social and political institutions of the Old Regime, the American Revolution sought to maintain, develop, and improve — not to destroy — the society which preceded it.

Americans reacted with incredulity when the Italian government allowed Abul Abbas to leave Italy, even though the Italian judicial system sought to interrogate him to determine his role in the seizure of the Achille Lauro. The interests of the nation, determined by the representatives of the Italian people, resulted in the government’s subverting the Italian legal system. The idea of “manipulating” or circumventing the law in the name of democracy has never been alien to Europeans. To Americans, the sovereignty of the law is a guarantee against the capricious exercise of power. The enforcement of the law is “una pietra angolare dell’ideologia americana,” a cornerstone of American ideology; it is central to the image America has of itself. Europeans may admire American “Westerns,” the cult of “law and order,” and heroes such as Gary Cooper, but they prefer Robin Hood.

How can Americans and Europeans differ so radically on such an important matter as the rule of law? Europeans would say that, after all, they have had many laws: Roman, feudal, ecclesiastical, monarchical, Fascist, Nazi, communist, etc. Modern Europeans trace their political roots not to a particular legal tradition, but to the thought of Machiavelli. In a dangerous and insecure world, the statesman must possess virtue; and, in the words of Machiavelli, sometimes it is necessary to be a lion, and at other times a fox. The life of a politician is a special vocation. Politics is not for dilettantes, and Europeans have often looked upon American presidents as being hopelessly unprepared for the office they have occupied. The religious dimension of American democracy makes it all the more alien to Europeans. No contemporary European leader would end an address to his people with the words, “God bless you.” The web of politics and religion in the United States is even more incomprehensible since Europeans look upon America as a fundamentally materialistic, hedonistic, and even atheistic society. No wonder that American political life is so confusing to Europeans. They possess a contradictory vision of American culture: a culture, which, for them, is both religious and atheistic. Galli della Loggia sees, in this European charge of an America dominated by a materialist irreligiosity, a remnant of the traditional European Catholic hostility toward the Protestant world and the liberal-capitalistic culture which it has produced. Europeans, in general, are ignorant of the unique religious history of the United States, and they do not understand the proliferation of religious sects: a proliferation which in many ways is the American analog to the proliferation of political parties in Europe. European political life is not without its inner tensions. The secular ideologies of the left exist in a Machiavellian political framework. In a sense, these ideologies have simply taken the place of the religious principles which Machiavelli expelled.

Americans believe in “democracy” in a religious way; for Europeans “democracy” is fundamentally a non-religious concept. In Europe all the powerful modern ideologies, including democracy, were born in opposition to Christianity. Christian theology and the institutions of Christian Europe have played an important role in the development of modern Europe, but these debts are more or less ignored: from Voltaire to Marx, from the philosophes to Hegelian philosophers of the left. America never had a national church against which popular democratic movements fought, and thus Americans do not perceive any gulf between religion and civil order. Europeans find it difficult to understand the American insistence on moral themes in politics, domestic and foreign. To speak of a “crusade” against communism, or of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” is to speak in a political language which Europeans do not comprehend. Galli della Loggia notes that Europeans find American anti-communism a strange phenomenon. Communism is an offspring of Europe. It might not be a “good son,” but it remains a “son.” Thus, unlike the United States, for Europe communism is “una coca di famiglia,” a family matter.

Americans often accuse Europeans of being inconsistent, that is, of wanting certain ends such as democracy, freedom, peace, and an end to terrorism, but of not being willing to take the necessary actions to secure these ends. To such a charge of inconsistency Galli della Loggia notes that “Europe does not love consistency [coerenza]. Here is the key word, the fatal word in our relation: consistency.” Europeans, he thinks, do not have the courage to admit that in fact they are inconsistent in their policies: but how could it be otherwise given the complexities of European history, and given that “Europe” is not a single political entity such as the United States? The “inconsistencies” which Americans see in European policies are the result of a fragmented history, a heritage of ferocious contrasts. The United States has had the historical luxury of coherent development with few of the disruptions which have beset Europe.

Europeans do not understand and do not accept the mode in which the United States is a democracy; they do not accept “the American face of democracy.” There is something in this face which disturbs Europeans, and their disdain reflects a profound feature of what Europe is and of the understanding Europe has of itself. In Europe, democracy was born owing its victory to a fear of the people: democratic advances in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were often a response either to violent popular movements or to the threat of such movements. European democracy, that is, the democracies of continental Europe, have always represented a precarious convergence of interests and coalitions in which compromise, including the compromise of consistency, was necessary from the beginning.

The “masses” in Europe, at least before 1945, exhibited a certain diffidence for democracy. Galli della Loggia thinks that it is the mass democracy of the United States, in which numbers and size count in a way which they do not in Europe, which Europeans find uncomfortable. He speaks of an “American universe,” of a “fisicita” which underlies the differences with Europe. “Fisicita” is a difficult word to translate in this context: it means a certain physicality, a manner of existence, the “figure” a nation cuts on the world stage. The physical, indeed corporeal, connotations of the term are meant to capture the image Europeans have of American culture. There is a vastness in American culture, a grandness and grossness, from clothes to food, to trucks that break the silence of the night, to big cars: all the signs of a “mass, popular” culture which offends European sensibilities. In a sense it is “la fisicita del popolo,” a “fisicita imperiosa,” which runs counter to the pre-eminence of an intellectual elite. Despite the fact that for more than 150 years European intellectuals have spoken of an alliance between intellectuals and the “common people,” there has never been a rejection of the central and dominating role which the intellectuals reserve for themselves. This instinctive disdain of the European intellectual for the grossness and bigness of American culture is similar to the reaction in antiquity of the Greeks to the Romans. The proud possessors of a rich cultural heritage, Greek intellectuals reacted with both contempt and a kind of grudging admiration for the successes of Roman power, a power which engulfed them along with the rest of the Mediterranean world. America’s sense of its historic civilizing mission is reminiscent of the ideals which informed the imperial pax Romana.

American hegemony in the post-World War II world has been a humiliating experience for Europe. American military power saved and preserved Europe, and this very fact is itself bittersweet. Is NATO anything more than “North American Territories Overseas”? There is a strange dichotomy in European attitudes here: on the one hand Europeans decry American domination, yet on the other hand they fear abandonment; they fear that the United States will not risk its cities to defend Europe against Soviet aggression.

Throughout Europe one frequently hears the charge that European culture is threatened by “Americanization.” In a sense, television programs such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” and fast food restaurants such as the new McDonald’s in Rome, are seen as greater threats than the USS Forrestal or Wall Street. To the extent that Ronald Reagan epitomizes modern American culture one can understand the particularly derisive reaction he receives in European intellectual circles. Europe sees itself as the victim of cultural colonization. As Europeans in past centuries condemned primitive cultures which they encountered but did not understand, so today they condemn American culture which they also do not understand. When Galli della Loggia analyzes the hostile European reaction to American culture he writes especially to enlighten his fellow Europeans. He thinks that what threatens Europe is not so much American cultural colonization, but rather the invasion of the culture of modernity: a culture connected with technological progress, and the capitalism and democracy of the masses. Europe, he thinks, fears modernity because it represents the abasement of Europe’s historic role in the world. It heralds the loss of the capacity to occupy a post of the first rank in the development of human culture, a loss of the role of world-leader, both materialistically and spiritually. It is the ancient fear of all cultures in the face of decline and death. It is a threat to Eruope’s very identity. This fear takes the form of anti-Americanism because America, Galli della Loggia observes, is pre-eminently this modern culture.

The modern culture of the masses with its emphasis upon the physical body and a certain un-restrained eroticism takes characteristic form in canonizing as “popular” a certain kind of blue-jeans, a certain kind of sunglasses, or motorcycle, etc. Europeans are the distant fathers of this culture and they remain fascinated with virtually everything American, but always with a certain dubiousness and skepticism. In many ways, the anti-Americanism of European intellectuals is an expression of an irrational anger in the face of the experience of a cultural impotence. Such a response is itself an indication of the loss of intellectual lucidity: the sign of a culture in decline.

Meditating in the eighteenth century on the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon noted the possibility of an eventual similar destiny for his Europe. Perhaps new barbarians will not appear, and, if they do, perhaps they will not succeed in conquering Europe. But if and when these barbarians are victorious, one thing, Gibbon thought, remains certain: it would be possible for Europeans to find in America a refuge, a place where Europe could re-emerge and flower again. On the contrary, as Galli della Loggia has shown, Europe will never be able to re-emerge and re-flower in America, because in America there has been for some time, already emergent and in full bloom, another culture. It is a culture which has developed in another place and, with respect to the culture of Europe, it is “incommensurabilmente diversa.”

Only if Europeans and Americans dispel the simplistic myths of a commitment to common political and social ideals, only if both groups recognize that which divides them, and the historical reasons for these divisions, can they then seek, if they wish, some kind of common ground on which to confront the problems of the modern world. There really is an ocean, cultural and historical, as well as geographic, which divides the two continents. The mirror which Ernesto Galli della Loggia holds up contains a sobering reflection for both the Old World and the New.


William E. Carroll is Professor of History at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. He is the author of La Creación y las ciencias naturales. Actualidad de Santo Tomás de Aquino (Santiago: Pontifical Catholic University of Chile Press, forthcoming December 2001) and Aquinas on Creation which he co-authored with Steven E. Baldner (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997) and Nature and Motion in the Middle Ages, editor (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985)

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