Two uncultured, parochial reasons to care about Europe

It hasn’t been a good year for Europe, and it hasn’t been a good year for Europe’s image in the US. Political bloggers find their posts on Europe aren’t much read. World affairs commentators relegate it to distant senescence or use it to play out weird ideas about Islam or the welfare state or couples therapy.

So, why care about Europe? Let’s start with two traditional arguments, which are wearing thin: that Europe is culturally important; or that Europe is geopolitically potent.

Start with cultural. Paris is lovely, and Rome is a very good holiday destination. Europe is where a lot of our culture came from. Europe is where a lot of Americans came from- though the recency of Europe in their heritage is diminishing, and the number of Americans whose relatives migrated from Europe is also diminishing. If you buy the case for the humanities, and the study of culture and history in general, you probably buy the case for studying Europe…but maybe you don’t.

Another is geopolitical: that Europe has the power to influence our lives and what we can do (invade, impose, induce, cajole) as a country. This makes up most of the American debate about Europe. The implicit assumption is that we should focus our attention on rising powers so we can play great games of power politics and strategies. Europe is neither much of a threat nor much of an ally. So first we get Donald Rumsfeld gleefully dividing “old” and “new” Europe, followed by a national “pivot” to India and China. The hideous performance of European elites in the financial crisis, coming after decades of failure to develop a musclebound foreign policy, hardly draws our admiration from Beijing to Brussels.

Neither culture nor military capacity demand our attention, and so American elite discourse disparages or disregards the whole continent. It’s a museum.

This shows you the poverty of American elite discourse about the rest of the world. There are two more reasons to care about Europe even if you aren’t interested in cultural history or convinced of its geopolitical importance. They happen to explain why a much more diverse range of American elites seem to live on transatlantic flights, regardless of whether they work in policing, financial reform, comparative federalism, health finance or chemistry.

First, Europe is where we find our peers. It is where we find the overwhelming majority of countries with our problems and ideas. Most statistics show the US to be quite comparable to the United States, as shown by Peter Baldwin and our visitor at CES in a few weeks, Jens Alber [pdf]. It is with Europe, not China or South Africa, that we share problems of aging populations, or immigration, or active labor market policy, or health care cost containment. That’s why the most common degree of top Obama administration officials isn’t in the US at all- it’s the LSE, about as far as Asia’s rising powers as you can get. The excitement of exchanging health care ideas with China or India or Africa is undeniable, but how much can we really learn from countries that spend as little as 1/100th of what the US spends on health care?

That shared fund of problems, debates, and ideas, is the second reason to care because it gives rise to solutions Europe shapes. Europeans, with their huge markets and established policy community, still shape international regulations as diverse as chemicals regulation, mobile phone standards and bank capital adequacy requirements. China might be developing impressive naval force projection, but Europeans are big players in the ISO, and the ISO shapes many American businesses and lives. That might be a kind of geopolitical power; it certainly means understanding Europe is a good idea for budding smartphone designers or chemical engineers.

So why care about Europe? I won’t try to convince you of its geopolitical or cultural importance if you aren’t already convinced. If wars are what interest you, Europe will disappoint. Its nationalisms once caused huge wars but now amount to bickering about the ECB. But even if Europe produces no wars, crises, or BRICs in 2012, it will remain our peer, and that’s why we will continue to go there for policy debate and discussion. Geopolitics is a very narrow guide to interests, and so is tourism; real policy debate with peers does actually matter.

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About scottlgreer

Associate Professor, Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. I am a specialist in the health politics and welfare states of of advanced industrial countries, with a special research focus on the politics of the UK, France, Spain and the European Union.
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