European Affairs

Europe Is Contesting the American Dream     Print Email
Jeremy Rifkin

We love to vacation there. But when we think of institutional Europe, what comes to mind is an old and creaky set of governing institutions riding precariously astride a moribund economy plagued by anti-market bias, inflexible labor policies, bloated welfare bureaucracies, and an aging and pampered population. Many Americans dismiss Europe as outdated and out of touch.

The reality on the ground, however, in neighborhoods and communities, in corporate boardrooms, and in the corridors of power, suggests a far different state of affairs. If the American way of life is over-hyped, Europe's hidden assets have been woefully undervalued and undersold. The long and short of it is that America is unaware of and unprepared for the vast changes that are quickly transforming Europe from a collection of disparate, and, in the past, warring nations to a United States of Europe.

Let us begin with some facts. Europe, with its 455 million consumers, is now the largest internal market in the world. It is also the largest exporting power. And the euro is now stronger than the dollar - a reality few American economists would have thought conceivable just four years ago. Why then are so few Americans paying attention to the dramatic changes taking place in Europe as it moves ever closer to a political and economic union? To a great extent, the problem is perceptual. Americans, and most Europeans, still compare individual European nations to the United States when it comes to relative political and economic power. But such comparisons make less and less sense. European states are becoming as much a part of the European Union as American states are part of the United States. Rather than thinking of Germany, for example, in comparison to the United States, we should compare it to California - Germany being the largest state in the European economy and California the largest state in the U.S. economy. When we begin to shift the way we make comparisons, we start to grasp the enormity of what is unfolding and the potential consequences for America. Germany's Gross Domestic Product of $1,866 billion exceeds the $1,344 billion GDP of California. The UK, the European Union's second largest economy, with a GDP of $1.4 trillion, is nearly twice as large as our second largest state, New York, with a GDP of $799 billion. France is nearly 50 percent larger than our third most powerful state economy, Texas. Italy is more than twice as big as our fourth most powerful state economy, Florida. Spain edges out our fifth biggest state, Illinois. Although it may be painful for Germany, the UK, France, Italy, and Spain to have their economies compared to California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, this is the new frame of reference that is emerging as European nations metamorphose into a larger transnational political space with a single economy. The European Union is, indeed, a new superpower that rivals the economic power of the United States on the world stage. In many of the world's leading industries, European transnational companies dominate business and trade. European financial institutions are the world's bankers. Fourteen of the twenty largest commercial banks in the world today are European, including three of the top four, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, and BNP Paribas. European companies outperform their American counterparts in the chemical industry, engineering and construction, aerospace, food and consumer products, the drugstore retail trade and insurance, to name just a few fields. Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European, while only 50 are American.

This is not to suggest that European companies have suddenly leaped way ahead of their American competitors. In some industries, European businesses are clearly the market leaders, while in others U.S. companies still dominate. The message is rather that Europeanbased global companies are able to match their American counterparts more often than not.

Much of the European Union's potential depends on its ability to create a streamlined and seamless internal commercial arena. The European Union is in the early stages of assembling a continental wide transportation network, an integrated electricity and energy network, a common communication grid, a single financial services market, and a unified regulatory framework for conducting business. The European Union has established what it calls Trans European Networks (TENS) covering the transport, energy, and telecommunications sectors, with the goal of connecting all of Europe in a single state-of-the-art high-tech grid. The price tag for uniting Europe is expected to reach upward of $500 billion and will be financed by both government and the private sector. Many difficulties remain in creating a cohesive internal market across Europe, including integrating the ten new Central, Eastern and Southern European member states whose economies lag far behind the wealthier Western and Northern members. Still, the positive accomplishments far outnumber the remaining obstacles. Equally important, with English increasingly becoming the lingua franca of Europe, Europeans will be able to exchange their labor, goods and services with an ease approaching that of the internal U.S. market by 2020. English is already the language of choice in many university and graduate school courses, especially in the business and science curriculums.

Americans are so used to thinking of their country as the most successful on earth that they might be surprised to learn that, when it comes to the quality of life, this is no longer the case. In the European Union, for example, there are approximately 322 physicians per 100,000 people, against only 279 in the United States. The United States ranks 26th among the industrial nations in infant mortality, well below the EU average. The average life span in the 15 most developed EU countries is now 78.2 years compared to 76.9 years in the United States.

Children in 12 European nations now rank higher in mathematical skills than their American peers, and in eight European countries children outscore Americans in science.When it comes to wealth distribution - a crucial measure of a country's ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity - the United States ranks 24th among the industrial nations. All 18 of the most developed European countries have less income inequality between rich and poor. There are now more poor people living in America than in the sixteen European nations for which data is available. America is also more dangerous. The U.S. homicide rate is four times higher than that of the European Union. Even more disturbingly, the rates of childhood homicides, suicides, and firearms-related deaths in the United States exceed those of the 25 other wealthiest nations, including the 14 wealthiest European countries. Although the United States has only four percent of the world's population, it now contains a quarter of the world's entire prison population.While the EU member states average 87 prisoners per 100,000 people, the U.S. figure is an incredible 685 prisoners.

Europeans often say that Americans "live to work while they "work to live. The average paid vacation time in Europe is now six weeks a year. By contrast, the average American gets only two weeks. Most Americans would also be shocked to learn that the average commute to work in Europe takes less than 19 minutes. When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is beginning to surpass America.

Europe's rebirth is propelled by a new European Dream that, in many respects, contrasts sharply with the older American Dream. Nowhere is that more so than when it comes to defining personal freedom. For Americans, freedom has long been associated with autonomy. If one is autonomous, he or she is not dependent on others or vulnerable to circumstances beyond his or her control. To be autonomous one needs to be propertied. The more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming selfreliant and an island unto oneself.With wealth comes exclusivity and with exclusivity comes security. For Europeans, however, freedom is not found in autonomy but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to many interdependent relationships. The more communities one can access, the more options one has for living a full and meaningful life. It is inclusivity that brings security - belonging, not belongings.

The American Dream puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth, and independence. The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life, and interdependence. The American Dream pays homage to the work ethic. The European Dream is more attuned to leisure. The American Dream is inseparable from the country's religious heritage and deep spiritual faith. The European Dream is secular to the core. The American Dream depends on assimilation: We associate success with shedding our former ethnic ties and becoming free agents in the great American melting pot. The European Dream, by contrast, is based on preserving one's cultural identity and living in a multicultural world.

The American Dream is wedded to love of country and patriotism. The European Dream is more cosmopolitan and less territorial. Americans are more willing to employ military force to protect what we perceive to be our vital selfinterests. Europeans are more reluctant to use military force and instead favor diplomacy, economic assistance and aid to avert conflict and peacekeeping operations to maintain order. This is not to say that Europe has suddenly become a utopia. For all their talk of preserving cultural identity, Europeans have become increasingly hostile toward newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers. Ethnic strife and gious intolerance continue to flare up in various pockets across Europe. Anti- Semitism is on the rise again, as is discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities. While Europe's people and countries berate American military hegemony and what they regard as a trigger-happy foreign policy, they are more than willing, on occasion, to let the U.S. armed forces safeguard European security interests. Meanwhile, both supporters and critics say that the European Union's governing machinery, based in Brussels, is a maze of bureaucratic red tape. Its officials are often accused of being aloof and unresponsive to the needs of the European citizens they supposedly serve. The point, however, is not whether the Europeans are living up to their dream. We Americans have never fully lived up to our dream. What is important is that Europe has articulated a new vision for the future that differs from our own in fundamental ways. These basic differences are crucial to understanding the dynamic that has begun to unfold between the 21st Century's two great superpowers.

Two hundred years ago, AmericaÁÃs founders created a new dream for humanity that transformed the world. Today, a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical new dream - one they believe is better suited to meet the challenges of an increasingly interconnected and globalizing world in the 21st century. Perhaps our friends in Europe have something to teach us.


This article was adapted from Jeremy Rifkin's new book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004)

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.

 
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