Rift With Europe Runs Deep

U.S. views on war, guns, religion strain the alliance that has defined Western democracy.

February 18, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Europeans think Americans are ignorant, bullying, greedy, trigger-happy barbarians. Americans think Europeans are snobbish, cowardly, bureaucratic, decadent, traitorous wimps.

That, at least, might be the conclusion drawn by a visitor from another planet these days. The Iraq crisis has brought the relationship between the United States and Europe to new lows, unleashing ugly instincts and shrill voices on both sides.

U.S. congressmen and comedians have rediscovered the joys of French-bashing. Antiwar marchers in Spain last weekend declared that President Bush was worse than Hitler and that the United States kills for oil.

It seems hard to believe that the United States and Europe are actually old friends and partners and that their alliance is at the heart of a Western culture based on personal liberty and political democracy.

Optimists, including White House officials, predict that this spat between Europe and the United States will prove temporary -- like their disagreements over Vietnam, or NATO missile deployments during the Reagan era -- and is inevitable among democracies.

But others wonder if the dispute over Iraq is a symptom of a schism that has deepened since the end of the Cold War. Some Europeans foresee a split with the United States, as increasingly hostile cultures disagree over fundamental values and issues: war, guns, the death penalty, the role of religion in everyday life.

"The biblical references in politics, the division of the world between good and evil, these are things that we simply don't get," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. "In a number of areas, it seems that we are no longer part of the same civilization. You have a fairly religious society on one hand and generally secular societies on the other operating with different references. What would unite us does not seem to be in the forefront."

Similar sentiments could be heard on the streets during last weekend's huge antiwar marches in Europe. The chants and picket signs denounced the Bush administration with a venom that even outdid the longtime tradition of anti-American rhetoric here.

Andrea, a 24-year-old activist among the million-plus marchers in Rome on Saturday, said he was protesting against the government in Washington, not the people of the United States. The demonstrator, who declined to provide his last name, followed that distinction with the opinion that the Sept. 11 attacks resulted from unjust U.S. policies.

"The terrorist attacks that happened were due mainly to the American politics and not so much to a prejudicial anti-American sentiment," he said. "Certainly if you bomb kids, schools, bridges under the flag of justice and human rights, you have to expect some crazy person will respond."

Such talk hints at trouble ahead for the "beautiful friendship" -- in the memorable words of Humphrey Bogart to Claude Rains at the end of "Casablanca" -- that bonded Americans and Europeans in the 1940s.

Millions of Europeans expressed solidarity with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. But there were also voices declaring that the world's only superpower had been punished for its arrogance.

In the days just after Sept. 11, 80% of the callers to one of France's top call-in radio shows declared that the attacks "were well done, it served the Americans right," said Christophe Hondelatte, the host of the show on the RTL network. Hondelatte said he decided not to broadcast the calls because he thought they were offensive and inappropriate.

"It was incredible," he said. "It showed me how strong anti-Americanism is here."

Even sympathetic Europeans, analyst Heisbourg said, might not grasp the trauma the World Trade Center carnage inflicted on the American psyche.

"They don't understand what 9/11 meant for the U.S. -- a terrible shock that affects the whole world outlook of Americans," he said.

Nonetheless, most protesters interviewed Saturday said they do not despise Americans, just their current leaders. And ideology plays a basic role in the transatlantic rift.

Most Europeans, whether leaders or voters, are well to the political left of the Bush administration, especially on foreign policy.

French President Jacques Chirac is a veteran center-rightist who was elected on a law-and-order platform, but France's independent approach to what it sees as U.S. domination of international affairs has propelled him to the forefront of the antiwar bloc at the United Nations.

Antiwar feeling is among the strongest in Spain and Italy, which have center-right governments. Prime ministers Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy are popular and skillful politicians, but voters across the spectrum scorn them for backing Bush on Iraq.

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