Friday, January 14, 2011

Freedom's retreat and what matters to Europe about American decline

Here's an odd thought in light of the latest dire news from Freedom House. The advocacy group's 2011 survey of Freedom in the World finds last year to have been the fifth in a row where it measurably retreated. That is the longest period of decline in the survey's 40 years. The survey highlights the "increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, which has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge." And now for the thought.

Europe needs the US as an advocate for democracy. Sound odd? In the US, naturally, you usually hear this the other way around. But consider it from the European perspective. In Europe you rarely hear anything of the sort any more. Maybe US democratic credentials are still weak after the spectacle of a court-settled presidential election that left the impression of a political system increasingly vulnerable to clever manipulation. Europe's need for the US as an advocate for democracy, at any rate, sounds anachronistic. But that would be to make the same mistake as much of the European political class.

Assange supporters in Europe's parliaments are so busy dancing on the grave of the corporatist western power they have scarcely noticed what in their world has changed that really matters. With the US caught in a debt-and-unemployment trap, what matters to Europe is that there is no longer any successful non-European supporter of European values left in the world. It's still too soon to rely on India or even countries like Chile.

Without the US, Europe's message of democratic openness gets lost in Europe's perceived historical tribalism and exclusive post-colonial wealth. Rather than laying a claim on values relevant to everyone in the world, those open-society ideals sound like a rationalization motivated by race and tribe somehow meant to preserve Europe's lucky lead in wealth.

For many years, the US -- and more recently, Japan -- blocked this excuse to dismiss Europe's democratic ideal of a permanently open competitive forum for ideas in society. Admittedly, the US shares racial characteristics with Europe and thus might, at first, be argued to be just an offshoot of it. But the US shares racial characteristics with Asia, Africa, and South America, as well. As for Japan, even the angriest Addis intellectual must admit that it's hard to get farther from Europe than the Land of the Rising Sun. And yet both Japan and the US grew wealthy on openness.

Neither Japan nor the US capture the imaginations of people around the world any longer. Japan seems arrested by depression and self-doubt. The US seems to the rest of the world to be shedding its greatness voluntarily given Americans' growing capacity for self-delusion about science, the world, and what members of a community owe one another.

In fact, the old Roman Realm is losing the US in two ways. One is that the US is getting poorer as well as less credible in the world beyond its borders. The other is that it has lost the ace that always commanded the full attention and respect of people in every corner of the world. The ace was that the poorest American once had an even chance of bettering herself. The statistics since 1980 show she no longer has that chance.

And as Japan crouches in the lengthening shadow of China, that leaves Europe very much on its own.

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