Hannes Richter


Hannes Richter

The Transatlantic Divide: Sixty Percent of Healing is Awareness of the Problems
by Melitta Schubert

Let me say that the 3 ½ years I spent in the U.S. were among the most interesting and wonderful in my life. And I am particularly grateful that I could be there especially during the crucial period between 2000 and 2004. While my predecessor might have had more stable and quieter times, I experienced many unforgettable moments during those years: I arrived in the middle of the period when sanctions were imposed on the Austrian government (to which the U.S. had a remarkable diplomatic and reasonable approach). Then there was the election of George W. Bush, followed by the day most people will never forget in their lives: 9/11. All of this was peppered with the anthrax scare, the fear of the D.C. sniper and Hurricane Isabel.

I am a great admirer of the country I was allowed to live in and am profoundly convinced that a split between Europe and the U.S. would be fatal in the long run for both sides. We have too much in common - the famous "common values" - and if one talks about the "Western world" or the "Occident," one means both of us. It is the whole world which today is threatened by an outside danger (Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction). I do believe that every European instinctively grasped the meaning of this on that terrible day of 9/11, but as often in life, one soon forgot that instinct.

I am a convinced transatlantist and profoundly am of the conviction that we need to stick together more than ever. But we have to understand each other better. I would, therefore, like to point out some characteristics of Europeans and of Americans that sometimes may be reasons for misunderstanding. As in psychology, to be successful in relating well to others, it is always important to try to understand the other person - what motivates him or her, what background does he or she come from, what is the mindset that makes him or her tick. Things don't go well if we apply our own personal prejudices. And that is true in politics as well. If we both try to get behind the scenes of each other's reasoning and understand their origins, it will be much easier to deal with each other. It will also be much easier to overcome that dialogue of the deaf that we sometimes have instead of a real dialogue that will allow us to find common ground even on controversial issues.

1) Wide-Angle View vs. Zoomed-in Picture:

It is only a few months since I moved from Washington back to "good old Europe," more precisely, to Brussels. It was like moving from the center of power in the world to the center of power in Europe. And I find that I am experiencing a certain change of intellectual perspective.

In Washington, it was like having a daily bird's eye view of the whole world. Anything happening had an impact somewhere or everywhere in the world. The think tank community was working on all areas of the world or discussing the various areas of interest or of trouble in the world: China/Taiwan, North Korea, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, etc.

In Brussels, the main focus of attention is the very difficult EU integration process (Enlargement, the Constitution, i.e., lots of difficult and partly technical issues which need long and heavy negotiation to reach a compromise).

Let me compare it to photography. In Washington, I had a wide-angle picture of the world - which also meant that Europe was but a small spot in that picture. In Brussels, I am looking through a lens with the zoom activated to its maximum. Automatically what is outside the picture is almost outside the mind's eye.

I think this difference in perspective is true for many of the intellectual and political elites and may explain some of the incomprehension of U.S. policies, especially since 9/11.

2) Result-Oriented Thinking vs. "Esprit Cartesien"

In Europe, with various degrees of intensity, we are taught already in school to approach a problem by first looking at the pros and cons, to put it in a larger context, and only then, propose a solution. The path to this solution is then tested for all possible adversities so that the ultimate solution is more the result of a process of evaluation than a goal set from the very beginning.

In my view much of the dynamism of the U.S. is due to a totally different approach: The main drive is trying to achieve a result. If there is a problem, then think of a solution and try to make it happen. One's main energy is set on achieving the goal. If adversities pop up along the way, they are dealt with, without however, losing sight of the ultimate goal.

These are two fundamentally different approaches, and they explain the American exasperation with the slowness of the European integration process and the European exasperation with the more straightforward approach of American policies.

3) Religious Society vs. Secular Society

In Europe, a very wide spread of left-wing intellectualism and the power of social democratic parties has led to a kind of 'top-down' democracy where the individual is largely relieved of responsibility, expecting the State or government to take care of everything.

In the U.S., 80 percent of the population are openly religious, and the reference to God or religion is much more part of public life than in Europe. The application of categories such as "good and evil" is not exceptional, but difficult for us Europeans to understand.

Another aspect that relates to this has to do with patriotism and nationalism: I was amazed and impressed with the strength and positive force of American patriotism. It is the uniting element of all people from different origins - they strive for it and are proud of it. In Europe, or at least in some European countries, you get criticized if you say you are proud of being from country such and such. We feel - for obvious historical reasons - uneasy about any expression of patriotism, but I do think we need more of it in order to give us enough self-assurance to really face the threats to our societies.

All this explains what Nicole Gnesotto points out as different 'visions of the world' in the publication "Shift or Rift."

4) Different World Visions

Europe, after centuries of bloodshed and wars which culminated in the two World Wars has now succeeded in creating a zone of peace that has lasted over 50 years and in which war has become unthinkable. Negotiation, compromise and shared sovereignty are at the center of this concept. From this stems scepticism about the use of force in general, and the thought that this strategy is applicable everywhere in the world.

The U.S., on the other hand, has had its sense of worldwide responsibility strongly sharpened by the horrible events of 9/11 and produced- in my opinion very correct - the view that terrorism and "rogue states" can only be confronted by applying, or at least not excluding, a serious threat through use of force. I point out these different characteristics of ours not to add to the divide but to allow for better understanding and to contribute to overcoming it. In psychology one says that 60 percent of healing is awareness of the problems. I think this applies to transatlantic relations as well. So, let me conclude with a few general thoughts.

America need not fear Europe and Europe need not fear America. A strong and more united Europe is an asset and not a liability. Here, we Europeans have our homework of explanation to do. And a superpower that shows leadership and takes on responsibility - even if making mistakes along the way - is a good thing. But it should then listen all the more to the concerns of others.

In addition, we Europeans should not blame the U.S. for playing a bilateral game with the various members of the EU. We should try rather to be more coherent and more constructive on our own. The U.S. should support the emergence of a more integrated Europe while European politicians should stop using the anti-Americanism card when expressing their public opinion.

Last but not least, I think the greatest responsibility lies with the media: If 80 percent of European populations really do consider President Bush a bigger danger than Saddam Hussein, then this totally distorted opinion is largely due to very biased and anti-American reporting by the European media. But I am afraid that it is wishful thinking to hope that the media would stop trying to widen the gap.

Let me conclude with two quotes:

Louis Michel in a recent article in the Financial Times , strongly arguing the importance of the transatlantic relationship, spoke for Europe when he said: "Fellowship instead of followship."

Tony Blair said in his speech to the U.S. Congress in June 2003: "To be a serious partner, Europe must take on and defeat the crass anti-Americanism that sometimes passes for its political discourse. What America must do is to show that this is a partnership built on persuasion, not command."

Melitta Schubert was Deputy Chief of Mission at the Austrian Embassy in Washington before being posted earlier this year to her current position as DCM at the Austrian Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium.