A review of The Europeans, by Luigi Barzini
Western Europe has become "at best a finger-wagging, foot-dragging entity" in the contemporary world. It is unable or unwilling to create a common currency, a common foreign policy and, above all, a common defense policy, which would be indispensable if it were to play a leading role in international affairs today. Thus, it remains "pessimistic, prudent, practical, and parsimonious, like an old-fashioned banker. It has learned not to rush into anything, even if it is the obviously necessary or advantageous thing to do. It always prefers to wait and see. It enjoys delving into the complexity of things; the more complexities it can find, the better. Europe looks for nuances, the bad side of anything good, the good side of anything bad." The late Luigi Barzini, a noted Italian parliamentarian and journalist who wrote one of the most penetrating studies of his own people (The Italians), closely examines the national traits, the fears, and the aspirations of Europe's democracies in order to see why Western Europe remains so disunited.
Of course, it has achieved a certain core of unity which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Young Europeans learn their neighbors' languages, and more and more people are able to listen to each other's television broadcasts across borders. More Europeans now study, work, travel, and find companions and spouses in each other's countries than ever before. It has become almost impossible to distinguish European nationals by their dress, and each nation's cuisine has been heavily influenced by the others. Indeed, supermarkets and stores everywhere are increasingly stocked with more or less identical products. Thanks to such European economic unions as the European Community (EC) and the European Free Trade Association, industries merge and merchants swarm across borders as never before.
There are political changes as well. European diplomats rarely write stuffy, ambiguous notes to each other as they once did, and they chat with each other (sometimes using first names) by telephone as if they were in the same city. Most important of all, Western Europeans are determined that there will be no repeats of 1870, 1914, and 1939; war among the Western European nations has become utterly unthinkable.
Western Europeans have certainly made some strides toward unity since 1945, but Barzini notes with regret that they have reached a plateau and cannot seem to go farther. The centerpiece of European unity, the EC, is "bogged down in innumerable petty, inglorious disputes, some as small as grains of sand, a few more important." They cannot agree on the wording on a future European passport, the thickness of fishing nets and the zoning of seas in which to use them, the free exchange of such things as eggs, chicks, wines, and lambs; also, they haggle stubbornly over such questions as whether the Germans have the right to call a synthetic white dressing in jars "mayonnaise." More importantly, they cannot agree on the extent to which, and the speed with which, other European nations should be permitted to join the EC.
Why has the advance toward European unification ground to a halt? Barzini points to four fundamental reasons: First, each European nation preserves its "egoismes sacres,"its sensitive national pride. Each clings to the memory of its own heritage and remains persuaded that it contributed to European and world civilization in a decisive way. In some countries, such as Germany, this national pride is not as strong as it used to be, but it is powerful enough to "stiffen the spines of ministers meeting in Brussels." Second, he argues that Europeans were mistaken in believing that the construction of a customs union (which, one must admit, is no minor achievement) would inevitably lead to broader unification. Early optimists committed the error of thinking that "economic man" was the whole man, but man certainly does not live from booming regional trade alone. Third, the perception of the threat from the Soviet Union has diminished over time, thereby weakening an important initial motive for European unity. Fourth, he argues (incorrectly) that the open question of ultimate German reunification has been an obstacle to greater European unity.
Barzini admits that the European nations are justifiably proud of their separate heritages, even though they pay a high price for such pride. In separate chapters he describes the strengths and weaknesses of selected European countries. His chapter headings accurately reveal his thrust: "The Imperturbable British . . . take their place in the world for granted" and harbor an innate aversion to "vast, noble, and vague political designs, especially when formulated by foreigners." "The Mutable Germans" are, according to Barzini, still "the heart of Europe" and have a "blotting-paper capacity at all times to absorb and improve alien conceptions," such as democracy and European unification. "The Quarrelsome French" are a scarcely governable people who alternate between the extremes of political paralysis and firm rule by one man from the top. In the words of the statesman and historian Francois Guizot, "France has undergone . . . the most astounding alternatives between anarchy and despotism, between illusion and disappointment; it never gave up for long either order or liberty." The novelist Flaubert had defined the French people as "the first people in the universe," and DeGaulle never tired of saying that "France is the light of the world." Such convictions create difficulties for foreigners who must deal with the French. The often-frustrated non-Frenchman is constantly forced to remind himself that he is not dealing with a country that really exists but with the powerful, dominant, and envied country that most Frenchmen dream still exists. "The Flexible Italians" are almost always baffled by their own behavior. Because of centuries of foreign domination, they developed an ineradicable suspicion and mistrust of all governments, laws, regulations, and official authorities. They survive only by selectively obeying their political leaders and by maintaining an important dichotomy between "public lies and private truths." Finally, "The Careful Dutch" (a chapter which deals with all three BENELUX countries) are the most ardent early apostles of European unification.
What European unity does exist is a result of three kinds of fear which continue to serve as a kind of paste to hold Western Europe together. The first and paramount is the fear of the Soviet Union. The second, which is seldom mentioned in public, is the fear that Europeans have of each other. The third fear is of the United States. Barzini prefers to speak of "anxiety," "apprehension," "doubts," or "uneasiness" rather than of "fear" of the United States. In any case, he is correct in noting that most Europeans do tend to shake their heads in unison when they observe "The Baffling Americans." For the American reader, this final chapter is by far the most important because Barzini presents a very accurate view of how many Europeans judge Americans, their policies, and their presidents. Unless Americans are familiar with Europeans' perceptions of the United States, they will not understand why their European allies act and react as they do.
Europeans' ideas of Americans, on which continued stable and close mutual relations and trust ultimately depend, include many clichés (which always lag far behind reality), distortions, myths, rhetorical exaggerations, and wishful thinking.
Some of the most powerful and indestructible stereotypes were born at the beginning of this century, with such remarks by Theodore Roosevelt as "I took Panama" and "Speak softly but carry a big stick." At that time, America was seen as a virile, proud, unafraid country led by a conservative, moneyed, Protestant oligarchy, who adored monopolies and "the almighty dollar."
This image was subsequently superimposed with other, often contradictory, images. During the First World War, America was viewed as a young, naive, generous, heroic country on its way to becoming a benevolent empire which seemed really to believe in "open covenants, openly arrived at." America's immense industrial capacity became especially apparent during the Second World War, followed by the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Alliance, and the willingness to defend liberty throughout the world in the post-war years. Contemporary America presents to Europeans a specter of a country full of doubts and controversies, abounding in outlandish new ideas, experiments, cults and crackpots of all kinds, with a foreign policy periodically meandering incomprehensibly. But the image of contemporary America does not blot out all the previous images, which remain very much alive. The United States is seen to be a healthy and hardy country, even if it is a turbulent and contradictory one. Barzini admits that all nations are, in some ways, multiform and incomprehensible. However, he asserts that Europeans are particularly anxious about their inability to define and comprehend the United States today because Europe's destiny depends upon America.
Barzini notes correctly that a vast majority of Europeans (in both East and West) favor the values of the United States over those of the Soviet Union. He argues, however, that Europeans fear the possible rigidity of both the superpowers in dangerous times when procrastination, evasion, ambiguity, and flexibility could perhaps postpone or even prevent a showdown in a crisis. Europeans believe that such lack of elasticity stems mainly from the fact that both superpowers see themselves partly as abstract philosophical experiments. Both were born of glorious revolutions and are determined in very different ways to improve the lot of mankind on earth. Each regards itself as the ultimate model for all of mankind and views its historical mission as its principle raison d'etre. As Barzini points out throughout the book, the European nations themselves still have a strong sense of mission and destiny, but they refuse to see their own sense as creating the kinds of dangers posed by that of the superpowers.
Europeans view Americans as being an admirable but impatient and unpredictable people, and they strongly dislike the predicament in which they find themselves: being dependent upon the Americans. They can never be sure which part of Americans' contradictory character will manifest itself at any one time: "the knight-errant idealism" or the well-known American pragmatism; interventionism or isolationism? They never quite understand the elaborate decision-making process in Washington, and they are baffled by the time-consuming process for selecting a new president. Further, they suspect that the United States is not always aware of its own impact on Europe. A change of American tastes can have a boom-or-bust effect on entire industries. Purely domestic American considerations can cause the value of the dollar to oscillate, thereby creating serious trade problems for the Europeans, who have no influence, let alone control, over American financial policies. Finally, Barzini is absolutely correct when he argues that no matter what policy an American president pursues, it is almost impossible for him to win the whole-hearted approval of the Europeans. Whether he is well-versed in foreign policy or not, whether he conscientiously leads or forgets to lead the West, no matter how well or badly armed the American defense establishment is, and no matter what the American policy is at any moment, hard or soft, a large number of Europeans will not be satisfied.
Any attempt to describe the peoples of an entire region of the world and their attitudes toward the United States is a bold venture. Most who are tempted to try usually quickly back off and flee to the safety of narrower studies. Given the scope of this book, it is hardly surprising that it contains many generalizations, some over-simplifications, and a few factual errors. Barzini dares to ask far more questions than he answers. But it does have considerable merit. It is highly enjoyable reading and is written in a rich and quotable language. He accurately captures many of the most significant characteristics of the most important Western European nations, and he is deadly accurate in his description of the ambiguous way in which Europeans view America. This is a book which certainly deserves to be read.