I returned this week from a trip abroad during which I interacted with many Europeans. The experience made me ponder a nagging question: how do Americans stack up against our counterparts in Europe with respect to cultural awareness and knowledge of world affairs? While my sample size was relatively small and clearly biased, I think my conclusions could withstand a more rigorous analysis.
We Americans are truly less culturally knowledgeable than our European counterparts. Most Europeans speak at least two (often three plus) languages, travel extensively throughout the varied regions of Europe, and know far more than the average American about history and geography. While some of this is due to simple population densities and a first-class rail system, it is nonetheless fair to say that Americans are relatively ignorant compared to Europeans on the cultural front.
With respect to current world affairs, here too I think the Europeans have a significant edge. Their general level of knowledge regarding current conflicts, as well as the political situations in countries apart from their own, is more sophisticated than the average American. It is safe to say that almost nowhere in Europe would you encounter polls showing such widespread ignorance on important basic questions (for example whether Iraq had WMD or whether the scientific consensus is that humans are at least partially responsible for the greenhouse effect).
However, when it comes to important moral judgments and the interpretation of world events, Europeans can be just as myopic, shortsighted, and biased as the Americans they criticize.
Europeans have a very negative attitude towards America because of the Iraq War. They view America as a bumbling hegemon led by a tough-talking Texas cowboy poseur. Despite the (not insignificant) truth in these perceptions, Europeans are reluctant to admit the extent to which they rely on American power and the ways in which their Enlightenment values must sometimes rely on military might.
I asked some of those I encountered why no European power, such as France or Germany (especially Germany), had considered sending troops into the Sudan to stop the genocide, both for humanitarian reasons and to show the world that other powers besides America could be relied on to promote human rights in a meaningful way. My question was always met with lame excuses or silence. I mentioned American intervention in the Balkans, in which it was unilateral American power that stopped the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs. Again, crickets. Europe lives under an umbrella of American military security, but Europeans are more apt to criticize the size of the U.S. military budget than to acknowledge their reliance on it.
The world would be a better place if Americans moved closer to the European model with respect to cultural awareness: it would be great if we spoke more languages and could find Iraq on a map, all the while not shying away from our recognition that democracy and liberty must be backed by military power. (In my view Barack Obama, with his international experience and liberal global vision, comes closest to this ideal among the current presidential hopefuls.)
On the other hand, Europeans would do well to acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to back a commitment to liberal democracy and secularism with force; not all uses of military power are illegitimate and the result of imperialist design. Their hesitation to rely on military force is certainly welcome, but not their unrealistic and sometimes dangerous rejection of it in its entirety.