The American dream is fading - and the future belongs to Europe

The United States has passed the high point of its success and is doomed to decline due to its internal weaknesses

Mary Dejevsky

The Independent

04 November 2004

As yet, they are just straws in the wind, fragile harbingers of change as liable to be blown away as to settle. But if a growing minority of observers are right, more and more such straws will soon be wafting across the Atlantic and the incoming President will need to do more than brush them dismissively off his lapel.

For half a century now, each US president has faced a more or less predictable slate of foreign policy conundrums competing for his attention. In no particular order, they have included the Middle East, Russia and its satellites, China and its neighbours, the Indian subcontinent - and whichever regional war the US is currently fighting. Europe - fractious, self-absorbed and arrogant - has hardly registered on the White House radar.

What has Washington's recent Europe policy really amounted to? Reluctant and thankfully brief interventions in corners of former Yugoslavia, laced with complaints about Europe's own failure to act. A touch of French-bashing here, some gentle courting of so-called "new Europeans" there, scornful forecasts about the credibility of the euro - and all topped off with flights of grand rhetoric and lavish anniversary receptions to lubricate an ever less substantial North Atlantic alliance.

Sometime soon, though, the US will have to wake up and formulate a Europe policy. Its old assumption that America represents the future of Europe and a model - desired or inevitable - for its development needs to be drastically revised. It could even be that the old and new continents are set to change places.

In the past half year, three supremely qualified analysts have quite independently reached similar conclusions. They deserve to be taken seriously: firstly, because their arguments run against a well-established consensus; secondly, because all have lived and worked as well as studied on both sides of the Atlantic, including Britain and continental Europe; and thirdly, because in their own fields they are all empirical analysts with impressive records.

Emmanuel Todd, whose After the Empire sees the eventual decline of the United States implicit in its social divisions, was among the first to predict the demise of the Soviet Union from the facts of demography and the economy on the ground. Anatol Lieven, whose America Right or Wrong identifies an American nationalism that he sees in the context of the European nationalisms of the past, has unmatched experience of other cultures. Lastly, Jeremy Rifkin, whose The European Dream compares the economic and cultural boasts of the United States against the statistical and European reality, is that rare phenomenon: a management guru on the left of US politics, who eschews jargon, questions assumptions and feels as comfortable in Europe as in the US.

There is also a fourth reason - I admit it - for giving credence to these studies, which is that I happen to agree. My own conclusions from living and working in Britain, continental Europe and the US concur in almost every detail with theirs.

Todd's thesis is that the United States has already passed the high point of its success and is doomed to decline because of its internal weaknesses. These include its half-hearted attitude to empire, the contradiction implicit in its claim for the universality of its model with the de facto racial and social segregation it practises at home, and the narrowing of its cultural horizons. Falling American life-expectancy, disparities in health and the rise in poverty also come into his equation.

Lieven argues that what Americans regard as the unique, and generally superior, "American way" is but a form of nationalism, identical in many ways - good and bad - to the nationalisms of pre-war European states or the former Soviet Union. The Republican Party, he suggests, would anywhere else in the world be called the Nationalist Party. He dares to see a malign aspect to the flag-waving and monolithic patriotism of the media that followed the 11 September attacks.

The landmark aspect of this book, however, is neither the wealth of detail he draws on nor the political incorrectness of much of what he says, according to today's American canon. It is rather that he views the United States as just another country, subject to the same weaknesses and influences and capable of fitting the same analytical categories as "abroad". Lieven takes the United States down to size. No wonder he had difficulty finding an American publisher.

Rifkin's title, The European Dream, shows that his premise, too, includes a healthy rejection of American "exceptionalism". As the most wide-ranging analysis of how Europe works, however, this is the study that should worry the White House most. For while many flaws in the US system are well-rehearsed, few economists acknowledge the achievements of the EU and few politicians believe that Europe could ever be coherent enough in its ambitions to challenge the power or popular appeal of the United States. Rifkin hazards that the European Union could supply an alternative model of development.

Whether the new EU constitution comes to anything or not, he contends that Europe is already far more of a success than its constituent countries recognise, and potentially the next superpower in the making. The common currency is now stronger than the dollar. France, Germany and others may have flouted the borrowing conditions, but not by much - look at the debts the United States has run up. Growth in much of Europe may be sluggish, but at least it is not swollen by credit and wishful accounting. Anyway, he argues, most of the accepted economic indicators favour US definitions of success. The world of the future, he implies, may contemplate the two models and prefer European measures of contentment.

Rifkin's argument is so compelling because it uses simple facts and figures to challenge existing US claims of supremacy. He is also a man with a mission - not only to convince Americans that they must notice renascent Europe, but to convince Europeans that they share important values and that their project is something to be proud of. For, deep down, he fears that Europe and its destiny are in danger of passing each other by.

Even as the US model becomes unsustainable, he worries, those Europeans hitherto most resistant to the American model are finally capitulating. Thus, despite their superior productivity indicators, shorter working hours, superior health systems, more benevolent social safety nets, more merciful judicial systems and more successful diplomacy, even the French and Germans are being bamboozled into following Britain in adopting more American free-market ways.

Don't do it, he is telling us. You are on the right track. Europe has a valid model of its own which is more suited to the world of the future than the fading American dream. And we should not do it: those straws in the wind for the incoming American president are omens that we Europeans should heed, too.