Throughout Eastern Europe, I’ve asked, “What can your country teach America?” I’ve documented their excellent suggestions in The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.
As part of this process, Europeans often told me, quite bluntly, what they think of Americans. The fact that I’m half-European and that I have no American blood in me (I was born of a French father and a Chilean mother) probably made them more comfortable to share their true thoughts. I had often heard similar criticisms in Western Europe, which is why I'm posting this in the Western Europe section. After getting an earful, it became clear that there are a few things Americans can teach Europeans about America.
There are five themes that Europeans wail against Americans:
There’s a lot of truth to these five criticisms. In fact, in my book I often make fun of these things. However, let’s load up the aircraft carriers and stealth bombers and blast away the five most common criticisms about Americans.
Let's start with the first one and then the other articles will address the other four, although you're welcome to jump to the one that interests you most.
Part 1 of 5 of the "What Americans Can Teach Europeans" series
Europeans say, “America is imperialistic. It starts wars. The CIA is everywhere.” True, true, true. America’s foreign policy is aggressive. However, let’s examine this more closely.
First, it’s important to realize that at any point in history, there is at least one superpower or empire. You can’t get around this. Some might whine, “But why must there be a dominant power at any given time? Why can’t all nations just be equally powerful?” You don’t need to be Machiavelli to see how cute and idealistic such a question is. The short answer: power is relative, so whichever country is relatively more powerful than nearly all the others is the superpower du jour. Accept it just like you accept gravity.
The world has seen many empires: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Genghis Khan, Ottoman, Persia, France/Napoleon, Austria-Hungary, Russian/Soviet, Japan, Prussia/Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, United Kingdom, and even those loony Vikings. The most recent addition to this list is the American Empire. Of all these empires, none has been softer and less controlling than America.
For example, previous empires would crush and swallow conquered territories. When Rome conquered new land, that land became part of the Roman Empire. When Spain, Britain, France, and the Dutch conquered the New World, those territories effectively became states under their empires. However, when America subdues a country, it doesn’t make it the 51st state, forcing everyone to learn English and use the US dollar. For instance, after helping liberate Europe after WWII, America didn’t try to put any Western European country under the USA, like Russia put Eastern Europe and Central Asia under the USSR (in 14 Soviet republics and the various Eastern Bloc satellites).
Instead, the US took a much softer approach, giving all the countries back to their people. Past empires would have made Iraq the 51st state, but the US didn’t. Although America sent its military to several Central American and Caribbean nations in the twentieth century, it never made any of those territories a state, even though it easily could have. After WWII, it controlled the tiny Pacific island of Guam and kept operating foreign military bases (which had been setup to fight off the more aggressive empires of Nazi Germany and Japan). However, the US didn’t make Guam the 51st state. In short, previous empires always expanded their territory directly, often imposing its government, language, currency, and culture; however, America has (since the twentieth century) shown remarkable restraint.
Yes, the US acted like most empires in its early history, but it has never been as powerful as it has been in the last 70 years, but it hasn’t added a state to its empire since then. Some say that’s because we’re no longer in the day and age when such blatant empire building is acceptable. Yet Russia added plenty of countries under its belt after WWII, which wasn’t that long ago.
Moreover, previous empires would expand when they could. Napoleon, Hitler, and Genghis Khan conquered the land around them because they could. Yet how easy would it be for it to conquer Canada, Central America, or a few Caribbean Islands? Indeed, just 150 years ago, American troops marched all the way to the capital of Mexico, forcing the Mexicans to surrender. Instead of slicing all of Mexico into American states (which is what all previous empire builders would have done), the US bought only the contested land from Mexico and assumed all debts Mexico owed to Americans. That’s quite different from Europeans who would not only take the land (without paying), but would also force the loser to pay reparations.
Moreover, previous emperors would never let such a juicy target like Canada just sit there. They would invent some phony war to rally Americans, claiming that we must unite Alaska with the US by swallowing Canada up, making one contiguous nation. It’s like Germany absorbed Austria before WWII. By absorbing Canada, the USA would surpass Russia as the biggest nation in the world, something that would be irresistible for any empire builder. However, we are not only pretty nice to Canadians, we even let them beat us in ice hockey.
America is not a saint. Its early history, especially regarding the Native Americans, is filled with evil acts. Today, America can still be brutal, tyrannical, hypocritical, and unjust. Americans are humans after all. All nations have done terrible acts to not only its neighbors, but to its own citizens. America is guilty too.
Moreover, it’s true that Americans enforce their imperialistic domination through economic and diplomatic arm twisting. America may not own Mexico or Canada, but those countries (and many others) often have to bend to America’s will.
On the other hand, what country wouldn’t exercise its power? If Slovakia or Lithuania really wanted something for its people, wouldn’t it twist a few arms to get it if it could? Governments serve its people (or at least its politicians). That’s their job. So if a government can help its rich get richer, its poor get jobs, its businesses get new markets, its economy get bigger, or its standard of living get higher, then it will do it. They’d be bizarre if they didn’t. Therefore, it’s natural that the US will play dirty games to get its way. However, compared to previous empires, America’s methods are far less cruel. Whenever you see America twisting someone’s arm, ask yourself: what would Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Caesar, or the Pharaohs have done? Would you prefer that?
Europeans rarely recognize that of all the empires the world has ever seen, none has been gentler and less heavy-handed than the American Empire. Someday they might. It’s inevitable that one day the American Empire will fade away, just like all previous empires. By definition, a new empire will rule in its place. Maybe it will be China or Russia. Whoever it is, it’s likely that most people of the world will have some nostalgia about the American Empire and say, “You know, those fucking Americans may have been imperialistic bastards, but they sucked a lot less than today’s superpower.”
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This is an excerpt from the Appendix of The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. Although this article is filed under Western Europe, its message is for Eastern Europeans and everyone else on the planet who believes these five American myths. For those who worry that fanatical American patriots have brainwashed me, don't worry. About 99% of my upcoming book is about what Eastern Europeans can teach Americans (hence, the title). I'm simply sharing the 1% of my book that argues the contrary point. Please read the Introduction to The Hidden Europe to get the complete picture.
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