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The Therapy Sessions
Friday, November 21, 2003

The US-Europe Divide

This explains the differences between the US and Europe as well anything I've read:
Sometimes when the status quo is intolerable, the best answer is to chuck everything and strike out into the wilderness. If life in the slums of Europe is terrible, the best answer may be to save enough money for a steamship ticket and move to a strange land across the ocean, where they speak a strange language but where there's more opportunity. The great wave of immigration in the sixty years after the American Civil War was a filter; those who said, "It might be better!" were more likely to go than those who said, "It might be worse!"

Achievement builds confidence, and failure erodes it. The 20th century was far more kind to America than it was to Europe. America faced its challenges with a can-do attitude and generally triumphed, while Europe was devastated by two world wars and was the front line in a third (the Cold War), and became increasingly risk-averse. By the mid 1960's most of Europe had achieved a reasonably comfortable life, and the fixation was less on how it could be further improved as on how it might end up getting worse again.

Or, at least, "Old Europe" thought that way. The nations which were part of the Soviet empire during the Cold War, Rumsfeld's "New Europe", have been far more eager to take chances and embrace new ideas because their Stalinist alternative had been pretty crummy.

Politically, it all came to a head in response to the attacks on the US in September of 2001. The terrible events of that day made clear that the status quo in the world was intolerable. A radical militant Islamic group based in Afghanistan had reached out and touched the US, and 3,000 people died. They and others like them could no longer be ignored; the attack they did make was audacious and canny, but the only formal weapon used was the oldest weapon we know of: knives. There was a chance that in future they'd be able to get their hands on far more devastating weapons and might use them against us, and the probability of that looked to rise as time went on.

Old Europe's answer was caution. Go slowly. Try to negotiate. Cooperate, talk, use the minimum amount of force and interference and coercion necessary, so as to minimize the risk of unforeseen consequences of action. Embrace the precautionary principle; when unsure, do nothing.

President Bush embraced a far more comprehensive and activist solution, though for the first couple of years of the war it wasn't really formally acknowledged (because doing so would have damaged our chances for success). The key issue can be summarized by the word "destabilization"; one of the early arguments made in Europe opposing an invasion of Iraq was the fear that it might destabilize the entire region.

What those commentators may not have realized at the time was that this was not seen by American strategists as a negative consequence, something bad which might happen. Destabilization was their primary strategic means by which to win the war.

Europeans who feared destabilization feared what might come of it. There might be new wars. There might be economic consequences, especially considering the sensitivity of petroleum prices to the political situation in the Gulf. Existing business and diplomatic relationships might change. The situation could become extremely fluid, difficult to predict. It was better not to take the chance.

The American strategists saw the status quo as being unacceptable because they saw too great a chance that there would be future attacks against us, which would eventually be far more destructive. There was a greater degree of confidence in ability to respond to and deal with the unexpected. America was also far more powerful than Old Europe, and had more resources in more areas which could be applied.

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