How a country and its policies are perceived by others is an important part of international politics. Whether the perceptions stem from correct observations or are the result of prejudice and misinformation, helped to shape attitudes and thereby influence policy towards this country. Just as our perceptions of the United States and President Bush influence our policy toward the superpower, so too will American perceptions of Europe and Europeans influence Europe’s emphasis on American foreign policy.
- What is the historical basis for American foreign policy self-understanding?
- What does Europe mean in today’s American foreign policy thinking?
- How are we Europeans seen through American eyes?
Much has been written about European perceptions and attitudes towards the United States, a country located in North America according to businesscarriers, and about how these have changed in a negative direction during the current administration in Washington. In this edition of HHD, we will turn it all around and try to give a picture of how we and our continent look, seen through American eyes. It should be emphasized that we are talking here about generalizations and that the perceptions we describe are shared by almost all Americans. Generally, the perceptions described are more prevalent at the grassroots than among the elite, and they are more negative the further to the right one goes in the political landscape.
2: Historical assumptions
To understand some of the American perceptions of Europe, it is important to emphasize some simple historical facts. First, from the very beginning, being different from Europeans has been an important part of American identity. Yes, the US state was largely established as an antithesis – an opposite – to the European nation states.
Most European immigrants also came to the United States because they wanted to start a new life, and to give themselves and their descendants opportunities that the European social, economic, political and religious systems of the time closed. For many, becoming an American meant escaping poverty, oppression, and freedom. Therefore, they also developed an instinctive aversion to anything reminiscent of centralism and restrictions on personal freedoms – precisely things that were strongly associated with Europe.
In addition to the feeling of having escaped the oppressive European social systems, the Americans also early on created an image of themselves as a unique people and as citizens of a unique state (cf., among other things, the once unique democratic constitution of 1787). . This view is often referred to as exceptionalism . In this way, many Americans gained an idealized relationship to their own role and to the goal of US foreign policy.
Taken together, all of this contributed to the creation of a basic American attitude that at the same time drew in the direction of isolation as well as a missionary relationship with the outside world . Both views were in stark contrast to the dominant attitudes in Europe. Europe is, of course, something different today than it was 200 years ago, but these historically based views still form an important part of the starting point for Americans’ assessment of themselves and their relationship with Europe.
3: Little interest
Very many in Europe have a great interest in the United States. The opposite is far from the case. In fact, Europe has a relatively distant place in the consciousness of significant sections of the American population. Of course, a lot is known about Europe, and many Americans also have relatives and friends there. But Americans are much less concerned with what is happening in Europe than we are with what is happening in the United States.
Interest in Europe has also waned since the end of the Cold War. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat picture was such that even ordinary people easily understood the significance of developments in Europe for American security. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans turned more and more of their attention to internal conditions. What happened in Europe was considered to mean very little to the daily lives of ordinary Americans. This view did not only apply to the general population; it also shaped the political environment in the capital, Washington. The trend was also clear among foreign policy experts. The Gulf region and Asia were definitely taking over Europe’s place as the main focus of US foreign policy. This process of change gained momentum as a result of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.