Does Europe still need the United States?
In contemporary Europe, America feels like an afterthought
I’ve visited four European countries in the past four months: Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. I’ve had conversations with policymakers, scholars, students, corporate executives and citizens in each. As one discussion segued into another, and as I traveled across cities and countries, one overarching question emerged in my mind: Where was the United States?
Since the end of World War II, Europe and the U.S. have been linked arm-in-arm in the establishment of governmental and non-governmental organizations, the struggle against totalitarianism, and the advancement of democratic principles. As someone keenly aware of this history, it was all-the-more striking to feel America’s absence on the continent in 2022. The U.S. seemed to be almost an afterthought, as if Europe had moved on. As one German friend said to me, the U.S. feels like a life-long friend from whom you’ve recently drifted apart. You still care about them, of course—but maybe you just don’t have as much in common as you used to?
More on this below, but first, a few updates:
🏛️ Washington, D.C.: I’m back in Washington, D.C., after summer travels. During my short hiatus, our subscriber list grew by 8%. So, welcome to all our new readers! To those who’ve been here, welcome back. I hope you had a restful end of summer.
🗽 New York: This month, I’m headed to New York for two important events. Readers may remember last year’s inaugural Unfinished Live. The tech conference is back with two days of speakers, live podcast recordings and art installations asking how we design a tech future that is better than our tech present. Check out the details, and join me at The Shed in Manhattan. The following week, I’m speaking as part of a month-long art installation and tech summit in Chelsea called A Species Between Worlds. Curated by artist John Mack, I’ll be sharing the stage with Jonathan Haidt, four-time TED speaker and recent inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with UN adviser Sinead Bovell. RSVP here (it’s free). Major support provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
🔔 Philadelphia: Our friends at the National Liberty Museum have opened a new exhibition, truth*. The timely exhibit takes a look at how truth gets determined in a complex world, and I was pleased to serve on the advisory committee. Visit the museum and check out the exhibition. Shameless plug: my book History, Disrupted is on sale in the museum gift shop. If you don’t yet have a copy, that’s a great place to get one!
📽️ “The U.S. and the Holocaust”: I was fortunate to be invited to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this week for a preview of Ken Burns’s new documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” For those familiar with Burns, the style and narration of this film mirror his previous ones: crisp narration, extensive B-roll, interspersed with scholarly and personal interviews. While not groundbreaking in form or content, for audiences unfamiliar with how little the American government did to rescue Jews from the Nazis, the film is an important introduction. The six-hour series airs on PBS next weekend.
📝 Responsible Tech guide: Our friends at All Tech is Human (ATiH) are releasing their updated Responsible Tech Guide in mid-September. I’ll be featured along with many other luminaries and scholars in the tech industry. ATiH is hosting an event to celebrate the release, in conjunction with A Species Between Worlds. Check out the ATiH website for more information.
🇬🇧 Tony Blair Institute: Also this week I was fortunate to attend an event and dinner with colleagues from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Operating in 20 countries, the Institute works on a number of issues including tech regulation, combatting disease, climate resilience and economic development. Follow them on Twitter if you’re so inclined.
Speaking of Tony Blair, back to Europe…
It’s worth noting that mine are merely anecdotal observations. Europe is a large and diverse place, a constellation of nation-states each pursuing its own interests while also navigating seismic challenges as a bloc. The challenges include the war in Ukraine; Russia’s imperialistic ambitions; climate change; economic instability; tech regulation; disinformation and misinformation; rising authoritarianism; and mixed support among EU citizens for the work of the European Commission and European Parliament. Europe has a lot on its plate.
Many of these issues also confront the United States, and each day government officials, diplomats and members of civil society on both sides of the Atlantic are collaborating to address them. My observations are not meant to discount such efforts—including my own! I was invited to Europe by colleagues precisely to foster such transatlantic cooperations. The U.S.-E.U. partnership matters greatly to the future of our planet, both at governmental and individual levels.
So, what am I referring to?
1. Europe feels oriented eastward, not westward
First, I would say that from my conversations, the “eyes” of Europe are focused more eastward towards Russia and China, as opposed to westward on the U.S. Obviously an aggrieved nuclear power on one’s doorstep creates a need for concentrated focus. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its larger imperial ambitions are an urgent matter in countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic. In Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland, my sense was that support remains firm for Ukraine, but public opinion has shifted from the day-to-day combat operations to questions of energy dependence and rising gas and fuel costs. That subject seems to dominate European attention both in the punditry classes and among civilians. Energy costs are forecasted to be astronomical this winter due to Russia cutting off its delivery of natural gas. This has created a short-term crisis that also accelerates the need for longer-term investment in wind, solar, hydrogen and nuclear energy. What interested me about these conversations was how little the U.S. was invoked. There was no suggestion of a U.S.-backed “energy Marshall plan” for Europe, for example, nor any belief that the U.S. could step in to reinforce Europe as it had during 20th century crises. Europeans seemed to want to solve their energy questions on European terms, likely through a combination of state subsidies, alternative fuel sources, and increased investments in green technologies.
Some of that green technology will come from China, the other principal focus of European attention. China is never far from the minds of Europe’s political or intellectual classes—in large part because Europeans know how reliant they are on China. Manufacturing has decreased across Europe over the past 25 years, and continues to be on the decline. It is now less than 20% of GDP and 16% of employment in the EU. The goods that Europeans purchase are largely made in Asia; Europe and China exchange more than $700 billion in goods and services, and Europes’s electronic, chemical, mineral and pharmaceutical industries are all heavily reliant on China. The EU and China actually negotiated a massive investment deal in 2020 that is temporarily on hold, but it has been reported that it will be back on the table in 2023. The deal is seen by some as a direct affront to American efforts to counter China politically and economically.
2. Europe is not waiting for the U.S. on key policy decisions
While American policymakers debate whether to reign in big tech, Europe has forged ahead with new policies on Internet regulation and data privacy protections. Its General Data Protection Regulation has been in effect since 2018, and this year both the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act were passed. Among scholars and researchers who study tech regulation, Europe is now seen as a leader, not waiting for America to decide whether or not social media and tech must be reformed—even though the tech companies were created in the U.S.
On climate, Europe is also not waiting to see whether U.S. lawmakers will act in a meaningful way. The E.U. Climate Law of 2021 stipulates that Europe’s economy and society must be climate-neutral by 2050, and that they reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 55% by 2030. Whether the E.U. meets these targets remains to be seen, yet even at the local level in Europe one gets the sense of a more serious approach to climate action than in the U.S. This has likely been amplified by the very real effects of climate change that everyday Europeans are feeling: massive droughts, evaporating rivers, raging forest fires, and scorching temperatures—the latter especially acute in a continent devoid of air conditioning. Nowhere in my European travels did I get the sense that Europeans are looking to the United States for leadership on climate.
3. America’s cultural influence may be dwindling
One area that America has long maintained cultural hegemony has been in entertainment. Hollywood movies and American TV shows were ubiquitous throughout the 20th century, especially in Europe, even playing an important role American foreign policy objectives.
To my surprise, though, anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that could be changing. In one conversation in Berlin, a scholar remarked to me how American movies and shows were now only one of many sources of entertainment for Europeans. Asian movies and shows, especially from Bollywood, South Korea and China, were attracting a sizable number of viewers, particularly on Netflix. Streaming services had enabled a wide array of content that did not originate in the United States. The E.U. has also sought to spur investment in its own entertainment industry, including recent laws that mandate a certain percentage of Netflix and Apple+ content be homegrown. And while sports leagues such as the NBA and the NFL are making some inroads in Europe, nothing has been able to unseat soccer (aka “football”) as the continent’s passion sport. I did not see a single NBA, NFL or MLB jersey on the streets of Europe, but I did see plenty of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and English Premier League shirts.
The final surprise was to hear how German university students were no longer taking classes in American history. This was told to me by one professor and echoed by another at a separate institution. Students from across Europe at German universities seem to be more interested in studying other parts of the world, particularly China and Asia. When courses in American history are offered, few students enroll. The only exceptions are courses on the Second Amendment. Indeed, Europeans in all countries seem astonished by American gun violence and our inability to do anything meaningful about it. They are also bewildered by our divisive politics, and a public discourse that seems to be a perpetual race to the bottom. One got the sense that America is viewed as a friend who has lost their way and cannot get their act together—even among American expats. None of the Americans living abroad I met expressed much desire to return: life in Europe had fewer guns, fewer school shootings, less divisiveness, felt safer, calmer and more stable. Living in Europe seemed like a relief from the chaos of America—even with an ongoing war in Ukraine.
How much will U.S.-E.U. history matter?
The irony of all this was how it played out against a backdrop of so much American history, particularly in Belgium and Germany. On the streets of Leuven, Belgium, there is a plaza named for Herbert Hoover and the famed KU Leuven library has the names of American schools etched into its bricks, each of whom contributed towards its rebuild. At the center of Berlin is the face of an American soldier watching over “checkpoint Charlie,” and in the Soviet Surrender Museum in East Berlin one can see the table where the Allies accepted the Axis surrender, the American flag still front-and-center.
It remains an open question, though, how much these shared histories will figure into a cloudy global future. Economic and military cooperation will certainly continue; the arming of Ukraine by the United States has been critical to the war, and the U.S. presence in NATO is essential to Baltic security. (Not to mention weapons and arms deals, which comprise a huge sum of money exchanged between the two continents each year). The E.U.-U.S. relationship is far from severed.
But sometimes friends grow apart, and perhaps we in the U.S. have some soul-searching to do as to why. In the past decade we have become consumed by our own political infighting, swallowed by our divisive politics, solipsistic in our media coverage, and, during the Trump Administration, neglectful of our diplomatic corps. (It was reported in 2017 that President Trump sought to slash the State Department budget by 30%, enacted a hiring freeze, and left half of the senior positions unfilled). In trying to win the culture wars within our shores, we have, perhaps, lost sight of our friendships beyond them. But the world will not wait for America to get its house in order. When America does not act, other nations step in to fill the void. And when America does not lead, other nations or continents set the direction for the globe.
American power does not emanate from how we go it alone, but rather from how we collaborate with others. When traveling abroad, one is reminded that no country is an island—not even one surrounded by oceans.
Have a good week.
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