Crossing the New Transatlantic Divide: Fighting anti-Americanism in Europe and anti-Europeanism in America.

Part I.

A Bewildered Ambassador

While living in Europe during the fall academic semester of 2006, I did quite a bit of traveling on my own, especially to Ireland, the country where I spent most of my childhood. I left Ireland when I was almost thirteen. I am now twenty. In my years apart from Europe, I have gone through many identity phrases: from European immigrant-child, to semi-assimilated sort-of-foreigner American, to what I am now, an American with a vaguely European past, potentially European future, and quarter-life identity crisis.

During my travels in Europe last fall, Europeans saw only the American. After all, I have an American accent just ever-so-slightly tinged with Irish. Moreover, I exhibit what are often thought to be “American” superficial behavioral traits; I speak loudly, I can’t pull of the sloppy-but-chic look, and I want my food NOW, dammit.

As an American abroad, I soon came to learn, firsthand, what it feels like to be viewed as the embodiment of my country’s foreign policy. Friends who had been in Europe in recent years warned me before I left of burgeoning anti-Americanism among Europeans of my generations, but I shrugged off their warnings. Obviously, once Europeans learned that I was a Democrat and had opposed the Iraq war, they would embrace me in solidarity.

That view turned out to be extremely naïve.

One night, while using free wifi to check my email in the common room of a hostel in Galway, Ireland, I heard a group of young Europeans having a political discussion behind me. One of them, an outspoken young Londoner, had just finished reading a book about American foreign policy —obviously from a critical slant—and was discussing his not-so-subtle views on the United States. Irish, Czech, Polish, and Spanish students were also engaged in the discussion, which was rapidly descending into all-out America-bashing. When their attention shifted from the US government to its people, I’d had enough. I turned around from my computer, and said, “Can I join in?”

My accent startled the group of Europeans. “You’re American!” declared the suddenly scarlet-faced Czech. The young Londoner stood his ground. “Ok, defend your country’s long history of invading other countries to topple their governments and arming terrorist groups only to turn around and call them the enemy when it’s convenient,” he challenged me. I told him I couldn’t defend that. The group scoffed, almost in unison. “You Americans are so lazy,” the Londoner continued. “You blindly follow your leaders, even when you know they’re wrong. That makes you as guilty as they are.” When I pulled my “I opposed the Iraq War” card, the Irish student threw his hands in the air. If I opposed it, if millions of Americans opposed it, why did it happen? Is America a democracy or not? The Europeans demanded answers. I had become a bewildered and unconsenting ambassador.

Sighing, I told them that the run-up to the Iraq War and the war’s subsequent spiraling into bloody chaos have revealed deep factures in the foundation of America as a liberal democratic state. The biggest problem, I explained, was public ignorance of the international consequences of America’s actions. I said that as long as a bulk of the voting population didn’t understand or care about foreign policy, a handful of elites would remain free to pursue their own interests in ways that violently shake the rest of the world. I tried to emphasize the fact that, despite overall ignorance and apathy, there are still many millions of Americans who care deeply about how their country affects the lives of people far away and how they are perceived by people in other countries. The organization I work for, Americans for Informed Democracy, tries to educate American young people about international affairs, I explained, hoping they would see that I was part of the solution, not the problem.

After a while, the Europeans warmed to me. The Londoner told me I was a refreshing exception to the rule. I sheepishly added that there are many exceptions. The other students in the group apologized for giving me such a hard time, and invited me out drinking with them. Because I had to get up for an early flight the next morning, I politely declined and retired to my room.

In my bunk-bed that night, serenaded by a loudly snoring Spaniard, I lay awake thinking about the conversation I’d had earlier in the evening. Why had the Europeans put me on the defensive? Why didn’t they immediately let me off the hook, when they learned of my political leanings? Even more troubling, in my mind, was the question raised by the composition of the group. Czechs, Irish, Brits, and Poles are generally thought to be very pro-American by European standards, but I hadn’t felt that at all. Had the Bush presidency eroded even ties based on longstanding friendships, huge diasporas (especially in the Irish and Polish cases), cultural exchanges, and shared history?

When I returned to Brussels, where my study-abroad program was based, I began reading and collecting articles about Europeans’ opinions of the United States, and Americans’ opinions of Euro-American relations. I wanted some idea of where the future of the two sides of the Atlantic was headed. What I’ve learned in the months between then and now has done little to relieve my worries, but has provided me insight into our rift, and how we (Americans and Europeans) can prevent it from getting worse.

Next:

Part II: Anti-Europeanism in American Political Discourse and Popular Culture

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