Our Euro President

obama-dresden.jpg

Barack Obama's seemingly inexplicable winning of the Nobel Peace Prize says less about him than about the current mentality of Europe's leadership class. Lacking any strong, compelling voices of their own, the Europeans are now trying to hijack our president as their spokesman.

There's a catch, of course. In their mind, Obama deserves the award because he seems to think, and sound, like a European. In everything from global warming to anti-suburbanism to pacifism, Obama reflects the basic agenda of the continent's leading citizens--in sharp contrast to former President George W. Bush.

Indeed it's likely that if Obama wanted to run for presidency of the E.U., he could mail it in. Unfortunately for him, he presides over a country that faces a very different future from that of Europe.

This is not to say we cannot learn from Europe in certain areas--namely fuel economy and health care. Republicans dropped the ball on both of these issues, and as a result both our health care system and automobile efficiency pale next to those of the continent.

Still, the reality is that America and Europe are very different, which would necessitate disparate policy approaches. Our growing divergence with Europe spans everything from demographics to economic needs and basic values. In all these areas, the gap is likely to increase over time.

This is why the Obama Administration's Europhilia, now likely to become more pronounced, represents a dangerous temptation. For one thing, Europe's generally ultra low birth rates--compared with those in the U.S.--imposes structural limits on how their economies can grow and even if they even need growth.

If our core problems come from over-consumption and irrational financial-sector exuberance, Europe's sluggishness stems from the lack of an expanding workforce and consumer base. This means Germany--by far the most important E.U. country in terms of population and gross domestic product--must rely on exports to maintain its generally slow growth rate. More important, as the current generation in their 50s retire, the workforce is likely to shrink dramatically in almost all European countries, making even modest growth difficult.

In a rapidly aging society like Germany's and those of other E.U. countries you can make a case for slow growth, limited work hours, early retirement and a strict regulatory regime. But for America, with its growing workforce and population, slow economic growth simply is not socially sustainable.

More broadly, we are talking about two different mindsets. As one writer puts it, Europeans "emphasize quality of life over accumulation" and "play over unrelenting toil." In contrast, most Americans seem ill-disposed to relax their work ethic, which has been central to the national character from its earliest days.

Of course, the European approach is celebrated by some Americans, particularly those who already have achieved a high level of affluence. It plays very well in "little Europes" of America, cities like San Francisco, Portland and Boston, places with relatively few children and generally slow-growing populations.

But most Americans do not seem ready for a lifestyle buffeted by regulations and limitations. Still attached to their aspirations, they seem no less satisfied with their way of life than do Europeans. Even amid the recession, 70% of Americans still embrace the idea that they can get ahead through hard work.

There are other critical differences. Americans remain more religiously minded. One analyst, David Hart, has spoken of Europe's "metaphysical boredom." Half or more of Europeans never attend church, compared with barely 20% in the U.S.

Among younger Europeans, the loss of traditional Christian identity--with its focus on long-term commitments, sacrifice and responsibility--is virtually complete: According to one Belgian demographer, barely one in 10 young adults in the E.U. maintains any link to an organized religion. In contrast roughly 60% of Americans, according to a Pew Global Attitudes survey, believe religion is "very important," twice the rate of Canadians, Britons, Koreans or Italians and six times the rate of French or Japanese.

Some observers, both in America and abroad, see this spiritualism, particularly among evangelical Christians, as reflecting a kind of social retardation. Yet belief in America is remarkably varied, extending beyond groups that are easily classified as liberal or conservative. In America, a broad "spiritual" focus--dating from the earliest founders and continuing through the transcendentalists and Walt Whitman--persists as a vital force. Even President Obama, whose base tends to be secular, has made much of his religious ties.

In Europe, the only truly rising faith appears to be the secular religion of the environmental zealots. Often almost theocratic in its passion, the green movement tends to be hostile to even modest population growth and economic progress. It's no coincidence that the last American to win the Nobel Prize was the climate change high priest himself, former Vice President Al Gore.

To be sure, Americans also care about the planet, but they seem more disposed to see technological innovation, not abstinence, as the best way to confront ecological problems. The kind of highly restrictive regulatory environment common in Europe--and sadly in such places as California—simply is not well-suited for a country that must produce much more wealth and millions more jobs in order to sustain itself.

Even though they may espouse secular ideals, this more growth oriented mentality also attracts a sizable number of talented and ambitious young Europeans to the U.S., as well as Australia and Canada. Although influential social commentator Richard Florida has claimed that the bright lights and "tolerance" of Europe are luring large numbers of skilled Americans, actual migration trends tell quite the opposite story. By 2004 some 400,000 E.U. science and technology graduates were residing in the U.S. Barely one in seven, according to a recent European Commission poll, intends to return.

Perhaps the president should speak to these young Europeans. They still buy the notion of America as a country open to innovation and striving for upward mobility. Europe, in contrast, perhaps as the result of two debilitating wars in the last century, understandably craves peacefulness and social stability over all else.

When he goes to Oslo next month, Obama should remember that America's future is not to become a bigger version of Norway, a tiny country fat with fossil fuels that can afford its air of moral superiority. We are also not latter day versions of Britain, France, Germany or Russia--all of them worn empires exhausted by history.

Ultimately America is about hope and aspiration. It is, if you will, a country based on an ideal, not a race or cultural legacy. As the British writer G. K. Chesterton once put it, the U.S. is "the only nation...that is founded on a creed." That creed is not so much religious as aspirational, and it will become more important as we attempt to cope with our own growing diversity as well as the rising powers from the developing world.

So even as he enjoys his popularity on the continent, Obama must be careful not to succumb to those who urge him to reshape America in Europe 's image. Take this prize, Mr. President, and then shelve it.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press early next year.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza



















Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

There is no "Europe"

Since when do five Norwegian Nobel Committee members represent "Europe"?

See the leap in popularity of the US after Obama's election all over the world, from 66% favourable in 2008 to 77% in 2009 in India, 64% to 79% in Nigeria, 47% to 61% in Brazil, 19% to 25% in Jordan, 37% to 63% in Indonesia and so on:
http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=264

I don't agree that "Europe", whatever that is, should be singled out for support for Obama when so much of the rest of the world has breathed a sigh of relief too. People talk about Obama being a "European President", but this suggests he is an African, South American and Asian President too.

Apart from that, I disagree with the generalisations about "Europe" made here. What countries are we talking about? Are Russia and Belarus included? Switzerland? The fairly free market economies of Estonia, Iceland and Ireland? Or is it just referring to the social democracies of Scandinavia? I think it's convenient, but usually inaccurate, to discuss Europe as if it is one country with one set of cultural values.

D'oh! I should have read

D'oh! I should have read Helen's comment - she beat me to it!

Also note that there was some outrage about the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama around the world too.
http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/1009/p06s10-wogn.html

Not Europe or its elite

The Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama by five retired Norwegian politicians. That is not Europe, Europeans or even European elite. They do not even represent Norwegians. That's it. Now try not to generalize unnecessarily. You know you don't like it when various Europeans, such as French, British, German etc etc do it about America and Americans.

a good point

i suppose i was speaking about their constituencies and europe in general

why do you think they did it?

Our Euro President

A thoughtful and thought provoking essay.

The linkage between demographics and creed is particularly insightful and I have not seen it made so clearly before. It endorses my own view that we live in an age of pessimism that began as the sixties ended and the seventies began.

Here in New Zealand we are both part of the New World but with stronger ties to the UK and the European view than most Americans. As one might expect our society is split between the US style optimists and the Euro style pessimists. Our greens – and there are many of them - favour zero population growth and zero economic growth. And even those of us who want to better themselves seem equally determined to make sure other people are not allowed to do so - to save the planet.

Many political commentators look for the current equivalent of the old left/right debate.
I think Joel has put his finger on it.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.
http://www.rmastudies.org.nz/

one note...immigration into

one note...immigration into the united states for highly-skilled technical workers is much easier than immigration into the eu for florida's 'creative class'. that being said, berlin alone is now home an estimated 30,000 american expats.

question

jason

given the fact that berlin has very high unemployment and not much industry, are these 30,000 artists, students and professors of film and post-modernism?

i can't imagine they are working very much - and earning less.

Barack Obama's Fairy Palace

His problem is that most don't share his vision for America.

Not everyone wants to live in:

BARACK OBAMA'S FAIRY PALACE

http://naturalfake.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/barack-obamas-fairy-palace

Europe, the Nobel Prize for Peace, and Obama

ISTM that Europe, in embracing a no- or low-growth lifestyle, is making a virtue of necessity; at the least, it's a chicken-and-egg question. Was Europe in favor of no growth, "quality of life" as opposed to financial ability to raise children, draconian conservation of resources, etc., before or after the conditions leading to these (formal or informal) policies arose?

It's absolutely true that the Nobel Prize's being awarded to Pres. Obama says everything about the prize-awarders and nothing about the President (unless he nominated himself, eleven days into his Presidency, which I very much doubt). But his accepting it says lots and lots about him. That he did in fact accept it was deeply disappointing to me; the way in which he accepted it was just as deeply troubling... because he accepted it explicitly in terms of carrying out an agenda of value to Europe, without regard to the welfare of the nation he was elected to lead. He assumes in his acceptance that the people of the United States are on board with this agenda, but - like the author - I disagree that the fundamental (perhaps "structural" is a better word?) similarities between the United States and Europe entail as much common cause as the President's acceptance implied.

I would like to respond to

I would like to respond to Jamie McCardle:

"because he accepted it explicitly in terms of carrying out an agenda of value to Europe, without regard to the welfare of the nation he was elected to lead. He assumes in his acceptance that the people of the United States are on board with this agenda"

You write as if Obama is acting devious, but he won the election by a strong majority, and his "agenda" (a rather sinister term more becoming of Glenn Beck?) was no secret to the hundreds of millions of Americans who voted for him. There is no deception going on here. You may disagree with Obama's world view, but lots of Americans appreciate his vision of a multilateral future, as a positive change from the arrogant, go-it-alone mentality of the Bush years.

This doesn't deny that there are key cultural and economic differences between the U.S. and Europe that the author points out, but in foreign policy - the issue that inspired the Nobel committee to award Obama - a majority of Americans think Obama is spot-on.

The new leisure class

"But most Americans do not seem ready for a lifestyle buffeted by regulations and limitations."

I know plenty of Americans who could not care less about regulations and limitations - so long as they don't have to work or think very hard, and have someone like Obama redistribute other peoples' wealth their way.