God versus the State What American Conservatives Need to Know about Europe
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent trip to Washington has a lot of people talking about "common values" among conservatives. But a US conservative is a different species from a European conservative. And the neo-cons just don't get it.
What's the difference between konservativ and conservative?
It's hardly surprising that Chancellor Angela Merkel is a woman with pro-American instincts. It was the US victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, after all, which allowed her to graduate from a communist upbringing in East Germany to leadership of a re-united Germany.
But since the beginning of her term in November, it's been post-Cold War realities -- including secret CIA prisons in Europe, extraordinary renditions, and Guantanamo -- which have defined the US-German relationship. Indeed, given such differences, one wonders just what exactly are those "common values" so often touted by conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic? What does the American and European right share?
British historian Tony Judt recently pointed out that Europe and America have been lumped together in an entity known as "the West" only since Word War II. It's an entity that held strong from Pearl Harbor through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But ever since the pressure for this western "community of values" disappeared, we've returned to a world order that's defined international relations since 1815: a world made up of sovereign nation-states. And its a world order that doesn't know a "community of values." When Austria, Russia, and Prussia tried in 1815 to forge such a community in Europe, against the tide of revolution, England and France kept their distance, and the Holy Alliance devolved into an alliance of eastern powers. Historical experience and national interests -- the soil of all conservatism -- were simply too diverse.
What was true then is still true. America may be the land of promise for conservatives now, the way Great Britain was the land of promise for liberals (including free-market liberals) in the 19th century. But in principle nothing has changed. What Angela Merkel sees as self-evident because of her personal background doesn't match up with the collective historical memory of most Germans.
God versus the state
Of course, Continental Europe is different from the US. What Americans see as naturally paired -- individualism with tradition, Christian fundamentalism with open markets -- have been separated in Europe since the Thirty Years War. In America, the individual came before the state, in theory and in chronology. In Europe after the Thirty Years War, for want of a strong middle class, rebuilding society was a matter for princes and the royal elite.
In American tradition, the only power looking out for everyone is an individual God. In Europe, the state is the basis and goal of every social structure. Europe wasn't built by land-hungry colonists plunging into an unknown world, but by French kings and their Habsburg cousins, trying to forge a stable society from the ashes of the (bitterly religious) Thirty Years War. The still-virulent mercantilism of leaders like French President Jacques Chirac and French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has its roots in this past.
German princes in Hessen and Prussia repopulated the land with Protestants fleeing religious persecution. Frederick the Great dried up the swampy Oderbruch region near Poland and turned it into farmland. Such public works helped revive Europe after the fury of religious intolerance had laid the continent to waste, and a personal -- Protestant -- God was consciously linked to the state in order to shore up a new social contract. Conservatives at first resisted the state's taking responsibility for a weak society. Later, though, they defended the state's new authority against the anarchy of individualism -- and served the state even when it didn't quite meet their conceptions of what a state should be.
A 300-year long chain
Today, some on the European right call for individual responsibility, and disparage any belief in a collective state. But in doing so, they tend to overlook that the establishment of state welfare as an absolute necessity for a modern European state is the last link in a 300-year long chain. Europe was built by its princes, America settled by its people. The very fact that more castles, theaters, galleries, and public parks exist between Paris and Moscow than in any other part of the world is just the other side of a coin which some "conservatives" today would like to cash in for a fundamental change of mind.
Like England and France, after two devastating world wars, Germany arrived at the social state. This allowed Germans to forget their dreams of empire (as Michel Foucault has argued), in the same way the war called the British back from India, and the French from their revolutionary, Napoleonic dream of world liberation.
Without their social state, Germans would have fallen back on "Germanness," which had already proved to be a slippery slope. Germany never managed to fulfill Bismarck's vision of a "reich" -- at least not with the Germans' full cooperation. Legitimate power needs to inspire loyalty rather than fear (something Hitler failed to understand); and if Bismarck's vision of a united Germany had historical justifications, it had no self-evident force as an idea in itself.
Which is to say: Hitler's reich never called on Germans' imagination, or on their hopes, or on their faith in humanity. Being "German" involved no commitment, like being English or French -- it implied no service to supranational ideals like those represented by the Christian kingdom in France, whose idea of civilization led directly to the Revolution in 1789. Compared to an Englishman, with his sense of tradition, a German has only a vague idea of his "nation" and his national traits.
In fact, there's no plain and natural German Way of Life. German society -- unlike, say, the traditional way of life in the Republican Midwest -- derives from a German cultural tradition which is difficult to separate from German state tradition. And people have simply become used to it.
Neo-cons just don't get it
That's the difference between the US and Germany: Americans are used to minimal government, but for Germans, after two world wars and the collapse of almost every religious certainty, the welfare state has become a spiritual necessity, which can be reformed but not revolutionized without damage to the collective soul.
There's been a lot of talk of "common values" lately. What does that mean?
Angela Merkel understood these connections only after her muddled election last fall; the champions of a "community of values" still haven't understood them. But in the end, an alliance based on common interests won't collapse just because the values are different. History, too, has seen alliances bound goals rather than values.
When the French Republic managed to forge an alliance with the Russian empire, it was only because France and Russia could diplomatically ignore each other's values. The goal, after all, was defense against a common threat and not to make the French feel at home in Russia.
In other words, the sooner we disconnect German foreign policy from the straightjacket of "common values," the more stable relations with the United States will become. Conservatives understand this line of thinking. Neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, on the other hand, remain blinded by "common values."