America, Wake Up to the European Dream

By Jeremy Rifkin

Los Angeles Times

November 1, 2004

Europe: We love to vacation there, if we can afford it. It's the cultural mecca many of us flock to, to awaken our senses and feed our souls. But Europe as a political entity? To Americans, it's just a creaky old set of governments presiding over a moribund economy marked by inflexible labor policies, bloated welfare bureaucracies and an aging, pampered populace. It's the state of Eurosclerosis, right?

Not anymore. Toss out that image of Europe as relic. On Friday, the heads of the 25 member nations of the European Union signed the European Constitution (to be ratified over the next two years by each state), effectively creating the first transnational political entity in history. These "United States of Europe" represent the rise of a new ideal that could eclipse the United States as the focus of the world's yearnings for well-being and prosperity. Yet our country is largely unaware of and unprepared for the vast changes that are quickly transforming the Old World and giving birth to what I call the new European Dream.

The old dream, the American Dream that made the individual the master of his fate and emphasized the personal accumulation of wealth, is faltering. A national survey taken in 2001 showed that one-third of all Americans no longer believe in the American Dream, either because it has failed them, or because they believe that in an increasingly interdependent world, it no longer works. Even the most self-reliant among us are vulnerable to phenomena beyond our control: a SARS epidemic, a terrorist attack, global warming. In this sort of world, the European Dream, with its emphasis on inclusivity, diversity, sustainable development and interconnectedness, is the world's first attempt at creating a global consciousness. And it deserves our close attention.

If you want a sense of the strength of this new vision, talk to the young adults of Europe. They're a new breed, increasingly choosing to remain on their continent rather than migrate to America, once a hope for many, especially in Eastern Europe. For them, the continent is no longer a world of warring states, walled-off cities and guards at every border, but a wide-open region where old economic, political and cultural barriers are breaking down, leading to new opportunities and new ways of thinking.

A young German woman I recently met had just completed a year studying in Spain on the EU's Erasmus exchange program, which has sponsored more than a million intra-European exchange students since 1987. She told me she now has close friends all over the continent. "We constantly visit each other, often work and vacation together, and date one another," she said. In contrast to their post-war-generation parents, who still harbor prejudices against Europeans of other nationalities, she and her friends are positive toward each other and optimistic about Europe's future, she said. A 2001 survey showed that one-third of Europeans between the ages of 21 and 35 said they regard themselves "as more European than as nationals of their home country."

There are lots of reasons for their optimism. We Americans still think of our country as the most successful on Earth, but the EU is now a close rival. With its 455 million consumers, it's the largest internal market in the world, and the largest exporting power. And the euro is now stronger than the dollar -- a reality few American economists considered possible just four years ago.

The EU's growing economic clout has humbled once all-powerful U.S. businesses. The union has blocked mergers between American companies (General Electric and Honeywell), fined Microsoft on antitrust grounds and stymied attempts by U.S. businesses to introduce genetically modified food into Europe.

In many of the world's leading industries, European transnational companies dominate. European financial institutions are the world's bankers. Fourteen of the 20 largest commercial banks in the world today are European, and European businesses lead in the chemical, engineering and construction, aerospace and insurance industries, as well as the food wholesale and retail trades. Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European, while only 50 are U.S. companies.

Beyond this burgeoning economy, which is bound to draw capital and people to Europe in ever greater numbers, Europe also offers significant quality-of-life advantages. In terms of wealth distribution -- a crucial measure of a country's ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity -- the United States ranks 24th in the world; all 18 of the most developed European countries rank higher, with less income inequality than we have. There are now more poor people living in America than in the 16 European nations for which data is available. And America's homicide rate is four times that of Europe. My European friends can't understand why so many Americans have guns; they find the phenomenon frightening.

Why these differences exist has to do, I believe, with the nature of the dream on each side of the Atlantic. Both are anchored in the ideal of personal freedom. But each defines that freedom differently. Americans have always associated freedom with autonomy, and autonomy with property. The wealthier you are, the more independent you are, and the more secure you are. Europeans find freedom not in autonomy, but in embeddedness. For most Europeans, the community's quality of life is more important than individual financial success. The more communities you join, the more options you have for living a full and meaningful life. Belonging -- not belongings -- is what brings security.

My European friends are far less consumed with possessions than most Americans I know, and they spend much more time with one another. It's not uncommon for family and friends to talk for four or five hours over dinner or drinks. Like many Americans, I often get antsy in these marathon sessions, but it's all part of the European sense of togetherness.

Europeans often remark that Americans "live to work," while they "work to live." Although the demands of globalization mean that Europeans have to work somewhat harder than they used to, they still get an average of five weeks' paid vacation a year, where Americans get two. And the European Dream understands the value of leisure and even idleness. In Europe, no one seems to be in a hurry to "get somewhere." A European colleague once admonished me: "The problem with you Americans is that you are unable to surrender to the moment and wait to see what pleasant experience might come your way." He has a point. Most Americans, myself included, believe that happiness isn't something that comes to us, but something we must forever work toward. Most Europeans simply don't feel that way.

Where the American Dream emphasizes economic growth, the European Dream focuses on sustainable development. Environmental awareness is much higher in Europe than in America, even if sustainable development is beginning to make inroads here as well. Compared to us, Europeans are fanatical about conserving energy. When I stay in a major hotel in Europe, I have to insert my card key into a slot to turn the lights on in my room. When I leave, I retrieve my key from the slot and the lights automatically turn off. Similarly, when I approach an escalator in most airports, it doesn't begin to move until a light beam signals my presence.

Europeans accept heavy taxes on gasoline and opt for smaller cars to save energy and reduce the effects of global warming. America consumes nearly one-third more energy than the 15 most developed EU countries, even though they have a combined population that's nearly 100 million more than the United States'.

The American Dream depends on assimilation, but the European Dream is based on nations' preserving their cultural identity and coming together in a multicultural universe. The EU's inhabitants break down into 100 or more different languages and dialects, making the region one of the most culturally diverse in the world.

The American Dream is wedded to love of country and patriotism; the European Dream is more cosmopolitan and outward-reaching. Europeans now provide 47 percent of all the humanitarian assistance in the world. (The United States contributes 36 percent.) While Americans are willing to use military force to protect our self-interests, Europeans favor diplomacy and economic aid to avert conflict.

Of course, Europe hasn't suddenly become Shangri-La. For all their talk of preserving cultural identity, Europeans have become increasingly hostile toward newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers from other parts of the world -- even as their continent becomes more attractive to these very people. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, as is discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities.

For the European Union itself, many difficulties remain, including integrating the 10 new Central, Eastern and Southern European member states, whose economies lag far behind the wealthier Western and Northern members. The EU's governing machinery in Brussels is a maze of bureaucratic red tape, and its officials are often accused of being aloof and unresponsive to the needs of the European citizens they supposedly serve.

But the point is not whether the Europeans are living up to their dream. We Americans have never fully lived up to our own. What's important is that Europe has articulated a new vision for the future that differs from ours in fundamental ways. Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, has admitted that the EU's goal is to establish "a superpower on the European continent that stands equal to the United States." When I asked him to explain what he meant, he spoke of the European vision as one of a new type of power, based not on military strength but on economic cooperation and the construction of communities of conscience, a new kind of superpower based on waging peace.

Utopian as it sounds, remember that 200 years ago, America's founders created a new dream for humanity that transformed the world. Today, a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical, and worthy, new dream.

Author's e-mail: jrifkin@foet.org

Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, is the author of "The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream" (Tarcher/Penguin).