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Winning Hearts and Minds of the Europeans

October 20, 2002|Seth Gitell | Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix.

BOSTON -- One humid night in Berlin this summer, I dined with four European acquaintances at the home of a Hungarian grad student. For more than two hours, as my host opened first one and then another bottle of Moldavian rose, we spoke intensely about Sept. 11, Afghanistan and terrorism.

The Europeans, like many on their side of the Atlantic, were skeptical of U.S. motives. They lambasted what they saw as the U.S. view that everything can be solved with bombs. I laid out the many legitimate reasons for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and for military intervention in Iraq. They kept harping on what they saw as U.S. neocolonialism and unilateralism.

Throughout the evening, I reminded them about the October 2000 bombing of the Cole and the August 1998 African embassy bombings -- events that had barely scratched the surface of their consciousnesses. The dinner ended with goodwill on all sides, and I felt I had done something of at least partial value by articulating the American point of view. But the evening was disturbing. These were well-read people, intellectuals. Yet many of the points I made were new to them. It was obvious that no one is making articulate arguments on America's behalf directly to the Europeans.

President Bush has worked hard to convince the American people of the need to confront Saddam Hussein. His administration has reached out to the Arab world, with Voice of America now employing Radio Sawa to broadcast to Arab youths, and former advertising executive Charlotte Beers heading up a State Department public diplomacy effort. Such efforts have not been made in Europe. While diplomatic contacts have been made at high levels of government, little effort has been directed at influencing opinion among ordinary citizens -- particularly the Germans and the French. This lack of effort is reflected both in recent opinion polls and in the anti-U.S. protests that seem to sweep across Europe each weekend.

There is nothing new in Americans and Europeans having different viewpoints. After World War II, Western Europeans were far more sympathetic to communism than people here. The difference is that then, unlike now, the U.S. did something about it.

In addition to the Marshall Plan, which transferred $13.3 billion from the U.S. to Europe, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which tied the U.S. to its European allies militarily, the U.S. also engaged in a sometimes overt, sometimes covert effort to win over European intellectuals. At a time when so few are cogently making America's case abroad, the U.S. would be wise to look back to how it won the battle of ideas during its struggle with the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, the U.S. carefully nurtured European intellectuals who took the side of the U.S. Not far from the site of my dinner in Berlin, according to Peter Coleman's book "The Liberal Conspiracy," Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler 52 years earlier addressed a gathering of a U.S.-supported group known as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. "Friends, freedom has seized the offensive," Koestler proclaimed, making the case against communism in Eastern Europe. Sidney Hook, Melvin Lasky, Ignazio Silone and George Orwell eventually joined Koestler's brigade of Western anti-Soviet intellectuals.

To promote this movement, the U.S. government also sponsored a German literary magazine, Der Monat. "The Soviets were holding all kinds of meetings, publishing newspapers, magazines," recalls Irving Kristol, the co-founder of Encounter, a monthly English-language magazine sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. "Apparently someone thought America should be doing something to counteract that."

The congress generally, and Encounter specifically, had their roots in the concept that, in order for the public to endorse an idea, it must first be put forward by intellectuals. The congress, although secretly funded by the CIA, served as the democratic, liberal conduit for anti-communist ideas from 1950 until 1967, when its CIA connections were exposed. It provided the funding and infrastructure for a series of publications across Europe and the rest of the world to promote these ideas and the convocation of serious international seminars to do likewise.

Today, American pop culture reaches Europe in other ways, mostly through television, music, movies and the Internet. But these venues do not provide a serious breeding ground for ideas, and in Europe, much more than in the United States, ordinary people look to intellectuals for guidance.

American lawmakers acknowledge that the U.S. must do a more effective job of making its case to Europe. "Clearly, we need to do a better job of getting our message out to other parts of the world about who we are, what our values are and what we stand for," says Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). (Bayh does call it "surprising that we even face that task in Western Europe, an area where you would feel the preexisting common ground would be much stronger.")

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