GHDI logo

Europe and the United States (May 31, 2003)

page 5 of 6    print version    return to list previous document      next document

The fortunate historical constellation in which West Europeans developed this kind of mentality in the shadow of the Cold War has changed since 1989–90. But February 15 shows that the mentality has survived the context from which it sprang. This also explains why ‘old Europe’ sees itself challenged by the blunt hegemonic politics of its ally. And why so many in Europe who welcome the fall of Saddam as an act of liberation also reject the illegality of the unilateral, pre-emptive and deceptively justified invasion. But how stable is this mentality? Does it have roots in deeper historical experiences and traditions?

Today we know that many political traditions which command authority through the illusion of ‘naturalness’ have in fact been ‘invented.’ By contrast, a European identity born in the daylight of the public sphere would have something constructed about it from the very beginning. But only what is constructed through an arbitrary choice carries the stigma of randomness. The political–ethical will that drives the hermeneutics of processes of self-understanding is not arbitrary. Distinguishing between the legacy we appropriate, and the one we want to refuse, demands just as much circumspection as the decision about the interpretation through which we appropriate it for ourselves. Historical experiences are only candidates for a self-conscious appropriation; without such a self-conscious act they cannot attain the power to shape our identity. To conclude, a few notes on such ‘candidates’ that might help the European postwar consciousness gain a sharper profile.

Historical Roots of a Political Profile

In modern Europe, the relation between church and state developed differently on either side of the Pyrenees, differently north and south of the Alps, west and east of the Rhine. In different European countries, the idea of the state’s neutrality in relation to different world-views has assumed different legal forms. And yet within civil society, religion overall assumes a comparably un-political position. We may have cause to regret this social privatization of faith in other respects, but it has desirable consequences for our political culture. For us, a president who opens his daily business with public prayer, and associates his significant political decisions with a divine mission, is hard to imagine.

Civil society’s emancipation from the protection of an absolutist regime was not connected everywhere in Europe with the democratic appropriation and transformation of the modern administrative state. But the spread of the ideals of the French Revolution throughout Europe explains, among other things, why politics in both of its forms – as organizing power and as a medium for the institutionalization of political liberty – has been welcomed in Europe. By contrast, the triumph of capitalism was bound up with sharp class conflicts, and this fact has hindered an equally positive appraisal of free markets. That differing evaluation of politics and market may explain Europeans’ trust in the civilizing power of the state, and their expectations for its capacity to correct ‘market failures.’

first page < previous   |   next > last page