In all the talk about the various clashes between civilizations, and in all the harsh and judgmental classifications that the latter have been subjected to since September 11 --which, remarkably, shifted all discourses about the new millennium in a new unpredictable direction, thus wiping out what until August of the first year of the millennium has been described as a general "globalization" that is wiping out all cultural differences in favor of more malleable identities forced by late capitalism-- and in all this rush to create cultural identities of the "us" versus the "them" in what is now perceived as a "new world order" affected by international terrorism, what has been overlooked is how much the United States stands culturally on its own vis-à-vis the European continent as a whole. Now that Tony Blair, in his new revamped Thatcherism, would like to see Vladimir Putin (an ex-KGB, it should be added) and Russia (which until recently was the boss of the ex-USSR) as an "ally" against "terrorism," and that Silvio Berlusconi has shamelessly embarked on a re-discovery of the Christian roots of the West, thus pointing to a time-lag of 1,400 years between Christendom and Islamdom, the cultural differences within the western alliance are now grossly overlooked in favor of discourses on the "free" world and its democratic values. That the west --which apparently now includes Vladimir Putin in its cohort-- sees itself as united has nothing surprising, in particular that the "group-of-eight" primarily perceives itself as a protector of capitalism (even though, by modern standards, Russia could hardly be perceived as a success story in this respect), and that, in the final analysis, it's economic success that really matters --the economy-stupid motto.
Yet, the cultural differences between the two sides of the Atlantic are significant enough so as not to be left to academic commentators alone, and rethinking them in light of the recent events could be beneficial in particular if the United States is pushed to revise its international role. In fact, the September 11 events in all their horror are only a small "event" in world history --part of what Fernand Braudel has rightly labeled as "histoire événementielle"-- that would indeed look miniscule on the long run, unless, of course, a sustained war of terrorism maintains itself for several decades, so that even our daily life-styles become affected. But even though such long-term scenarios are a serious possibility, there is nothing at present that would even remotely suggest that the United States will go through a revision of its cultural identity, in particular in the way it identifies with or distances itself from Europe.
Various American administrations have at times been justly or unjustly accused of "isolationism," even though most of them, since World War II, had to impose themselves boldly on the international scene. In fact, and as far as global politics goes, it is next to impossible for any administration to remain devoted to domestic matters only, as it will eventually be immediately swapped by the chaotic political world scene. The new Bush administration had promoted at its beginnings an image of home self-sufficiency and withdrawal from the world, but then the renewal of the mandate of the peace-keeping force in Kosovo had to be approved, with a further extension of NATO power in Macedonia granted; the smart-sanctions policy in Iraq had to be revisited; and a major crisis with China had to be avoided after the spy-plane incident; and, last but not least, the Palestinian state as a solution has been finally endorsed (thanks to the twin towers), so that even the Clinton proposals on the "sharing" of Jerusalem would look moderately shy by comparison.
But whatever we think of the Bush foreign policy team and its misadventures, the main problem, however, remains that policies are always asserted, as the ones of the previous administrations, within a background of indifference and general unconcern from the population at large. Indeed, there is a visible élitism throughout the history of the United States which delegates crucial decision making to all kinds of well recruited political, economic, and judicial authorities. The rest of the population remains for the most part concerned neither with the rationality nor the outcome of such decisions, and the fact that president Bush, like his father during the so-called Gulf war, has seen his approval ratings surge to over 90% only shows that an apoliticized public, which for a long time has remained outside decision making, only manifests tribal affiliations of a poor judgmental nature in moments perceived as dangerous to the nation.
There are obvious historical roots that would explain the apolitical nature of the American public, and the narcissistic image that it develops with its own self and with the rest of the world as well, or to state things a bit differently, in the way this public projects itself into the rest of the world without any knowledge of the cultures, societies, and civilizations out there. It remains to be seen, as Braudel once noted in his "grammaire des civilisations," how long the United States can still maintain that image of a "fresh beginning," one that represents America not only as an autonomous continent surviving on its own, but also as superior in its values to a decadent Europe. One can only note in this respect how the social sciences are implemented on American campuses, and how European authors and arts are received on the other side of the Atlantic (which Braudel perceived as a natural extension to the old Mediterranean). Either those works of the sciences and arts are popularized to the point of non-recognition, or else --and that's typical of élite colleges-- they're defaced in a post-modern jargon which cuts them from their socio-historical roots. Either way, the result is that the social sciences, which are a purely European creation, have been abstracted from their genuine battle fields so as to become academic topoi, which bore the students to death, and which provide their bearers tenure appointments and all kinds of meaningless "core" programs. (Ironically, such core programs typically bypass American culture in favor of the more classical Greco-Roman and European origins.)
On a similar vein, the relationship that America maintains with its own history and the rest of the world remains abstract at best, hence one of distance and non-commitment. Communism was considered the biggest threat since World War II, but the Americans never concretely fought the Soviets or Chinese, or any other communist power for that matter. Indeed, the war on communism gave more inspiration to the likes of John Le Carré and his beefed-up spying novels than to a politics that makes sense, and thus was fought remotely without the burdens of a real war. That became in effect the norm since the Second War where Nazism, fascism, and Bolshevism were "out there" on an other continent. Thus, in spite of the fact that American casualties in that war were high, there was no direct experience between what the American public was going through and the various European political experiences of the time. Even the Vietnam war, with its 50,000 American and one-million Asian casualties, was a remote experience that was not connected to a concrete common "border." And more importantly, in spite of all its cinematic digressions (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, etc.), the Vietnam experience has yet to be perceived in terms of a war with an "enemy" whose culture and socio-historical becoming are different from what the United States has itself experienced in its short history. Indeed, the Vietnam war is still perceived as some kind of "police action" to limit the expanding powers of communism. In that respect, the Gulf war, with its CNN videotaped "live" media coverage, was even worse: there was no notion of what "we" were supposed to do with those "other" cultures.
On all occasions the United States managed to pull itself from
a crisis without the pain of revising the fundamental assumptions
of its own culture. Hence a culture that fundamentally remains
apolitical, and whose symbols the rest of the world has been addicted
to (including for the likes of bin Laden), but which remains strangely
sealed to that "outside." It is, in other words, that
concrete experience with the other cultures that lacks
the most --beginning with decadent Europe.