Neo-conservatives claim that the US and Europe are diverging in their values and interests. Atlanticists claim that on both counts, the US and Europe remain closely aligned. Both schools are wrong.
In their values, the US and Europe are growing closer. At the same time, their geopolitical interests are diverging. The attitudinal divide between Americans and Europeans is easily exaggerated. The influence in the US government of social conservatives in the southern and western states is grossly inflated by the presidential electoral college, the malapportioned US Senate and the rigging of congressional electoral districts by Republican state legislatures. Conservatives may keep winning elections for a few more years. But time is not on their side. White southern Protestants, the base of today's Republican Party, are steadily shrinking as a percentage of the electorate.
On issues of sex and reproduction, Americans are steadily becoming more "European" in outlook -- even in the conservative heartland. Gay marriage is still controversial, but acceptance of gay rights is increasing. The controversy over stem-cell research is likely to accelerate the defeat of the religious right's crusade against human biotechnology. As Alan Wolfe, the sociologist, has noted, even evangelical Protestants are growing more liberal.
In the realm of the media, as well, the US is becoming more European. For generations, what was banned in Boston could be bought in Paris. Europe continues to break down barriers in censorship -- not necessarily for the better, as the European invention of reality television proves. But the American media tend to follow European breakthroughs after a few years. Thanks to cable television and, in time perhaps, internet programming, the censorship efforts of US conservatives will be thwarted.
While the US remains far more religious than Europe, the long-term trend is toward European-style secularism. Although still a minority, the number of purely secular Americans has increased dramatically with each census -- at the expense of the liberal denominations of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism. As a result, hardline traditionalists make up a growing sector of America's shrinking religious population. This creates a misleading image of a religious revival in the US, where in fact church attendance and religious belief are in long-term decline.
While the US is moving towards European-style social liberalism and secularism, Europe is becoming ever more American in terms of the economy and constitutional politics. Since the 1980s, under the influence of neo-liberalism, European governments on both left and right have been moving away from statist social democracy towards more market-based economies with less generous entitlements. American constitutional theories are conquering Europe as well. Parliamentary democracy rather than US-style separation of powers remains the European norm. But the American constitutional devices of judicial review, written constitutions, bills of rights and federalism have been adopted by many European countries whose political thinkers once rejected them. Britain is an example.
Immigration, too, is "Americanising" Europe. Once a source of emigrants, Europe, now greying and with low fertility, is increasingly the destination of inward migration. As a result, Europeans must deal with challenges of assimilation and ethnic politics with which Americans have long been familiar.
For better or for worse, the two sides of the Atlantic are converging on a similar model of society: secular and liberal in the realm of values, market-oriented in economics, focused on individual rights in the constitutional realm and admitting large numbers of immigrants. But the transatlantic convergence in values does not translate into foreign policy harmony. Even as their societies become more alike, the geopolitical interests of the US and Europe are diverging.
The disappearance of the Soviet threat has removed the chief reason for the NATO alliance. With Russia experiencing a demographic nightmare of high mortality and low fertility, Europe is more likely to be threatened by chaos to its east than by an aggressive great power.
As the dominant power in east Asia, the US worries about the military implications of China's rise. This is not a major concern for Europe. Both the US and Europe share a common interest in thwarting al-Qaeda and similar jihadist movements. Nevertheless, the interests of the two differ in the Middle East.
Unlike Europe, Russia, China and India, the US neither borders the Muslim world nor itself contains a substantial Muslim population. This fact permits America to have a Middle East policy influenced by geopolitical ambitions and domestic political factions, such as the Israel lobby and its Christian Zionist supporters. America can afford this policy because it is next to Mexico, not the Arab world. That the US is far less vulnerable than Europe to al-Qaeda is suggested by the Madrid bombing along with the absence of al-Qaeda attacks in the US since September 11 2001.
Europeans are more likely to pay the price for US misadventures in the Middle East than the American people. When Europeans point this out, they are accused of appeasement by American neo-conservatives. The truth is that Europeans, for whom the Middle East is their "near abroad", have far more at stake than Americans, for whom engagement in the region is a matter of choice rather than fate.
The US and Europe really are drifting apart. The divide is caused not by different social values but by different geopolitical interests. In the years ahead, Americans and Europeans are likely to become more and more alike. But they are likely to agree on less and less.
Copyright 2004, The Financial Times