WHAT image does Europe have of America? Whatever it may be, it is a reflection of actual conditions in this country, it contains an evaluation of America's role in international politics, and it expresses the attitude of the nation concerned with respect to both. The faithfulness of such images to the original is always open to question; they cannot, and are not meant to, conform to standards of photo­ graphic objectivity or even journalistic reportage. The present image of America abroad is no exception to this rule, and it is neither less nor more distorted than the images nations used to form of each other in the course of their history and mutual relationships. If there were nothing more involved than misunderstandings, misinterpretations and occasionally violent outbursts of resentment or dislike, the matter would be hardly of more than historical, limited interest.

There are, however, several respects in which the image of America abroad does not conform to the general rule. The first, and perhaps most relevant, exception is the fact that the European image, in distinction from others, cannot be considered a mere reflection and interpretation of actual conditions, for it pre­dates not only the birth of the United States, but the colonization and to some extent even the discovery of the American continent.

Without an image of America, no European colonist would ever have crossed the ocean. The dream and purpose carried by the colonists eventually led to the establishment of one part of European mankind on this side of the Atlantic; it was both the first European image of America and the guiding idea that inspired this country's colonization and political institutions. This image of America was the image of a New World—a name given to no other of the many new lands discovered at the beginning of the modem age. Its content was a new ideal of equality and a new idea of freedom. Both of these, as Tocqueville said, were "exported from Europe, and neither was fully comprehensible except in the context of European history. Only in the United States did this image find a political realization through the establishment of the American Republic. Yet even this realization was partly an import from Europe, since the founders of the Republic sought counsel in Locke and Montesquieu, who more clearly and more elaborately than Rousseau and the French ideologues (who influenced the history of European revolutions) had laid down the legal and political principles for the foundation of a new body politic.

Through the American Revolution, Europe's image of America came true. A new world was being born because a new body politic had come into existence. By the same token and at the same moment, Europe and the United States (i.e. that part of the new continent which, indeed, had become a new world) parted company. Whatever image Europe had of America, this image could never again become a model or guiding idea for whatever was done or happened in the United States.


EVER since this part of European mankind ceased to be a colony, framed its Constitution and declared itself an independent Republic, America has been both the dream and the nightmare of Europe. Up until the last third of the nineteenth century, the con­tent of the dream was freedom from both want and oppression plus the assertion of human autonomy and power against the weight of the past, a past which through the authority of political institutions and the tradition of spiritual heritages seemed to hinder the full development of the new forces of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the same time, the very dream was a nightmare to those who were apprehensive of this modern development, and the decision as to whether America was a dream or a nightmare depended primarily, not upon concrete experiences in this country, but upon the political views of the writer, as seen in the attitude he had taken toward the conflicts and discussions of his native land.

Thus America and Europe had parted company. But the image of America as it shines through travelers' reports and novels, poems and political treatises was never alien or exotic, like the images of Africa or Asia or the South Sea Islands. Instead, it remained the sometimes fantastically exaggerated and distorted picture of a reality where the most recent traits of European civilization had developed in an almost undiluted purity.

This attitude toward America, first of all, was of course Tocqueville's own, as was indicated quite openly in the very title of his work—Democracy in America. The whole book bears witness to the fact that his interest in the workings of democracy as a European possibility—or even a necessity—was greater than his interest in descriptions of a foreign country. He came to America to learn the true lesson of the French Revolution, to find out what happened to men and society under the unprecedented conditions of equality. He regarded the United States as a large and wonderfully equipped laboratory where the most recent implications of European history were tried out Europe, he was sure, if not the whole world, was about to be Americanized; but he would never have thought this process could be somehow in opposition to the European development, as though America and Europe were different in origin and historical destiny.

To Tocqueville, Americans were not a young people against whom Europeans could summon up either pride of ancestry and civilization or, as the case might be, to whom they would feel inferior in vitality. The Americans, be said, "are a very old and a very en­ lightened people who have fallen upon a new and unbounded country." Had Americans told him, and they were in fact even then quite likely to, that "the American nation, as it is today, was hewn from the forests in comparatively recent times, when brilliant and complex civilizations had already existed....for many centuries" (as Robert Trumbull said early this year in the New York Times Magazine), he might have replied that the origin of this delusion of youth was in eighteenth century ideas about "noble savages" and the purifying influence of uncivilized nature rather than in actual experiences of pioneerdom and colon­ ation. Or, to put it another way, only because the new history-consciousness of the West used the metaphor of individual biological life for the existence of nations could Europeans as well as Americans delude themselves with the fantastic notion of a second youth in a new country.

However that may be, Tocqueville came to America to look at "the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress." The principle of equality, far from having its roots in the new continent, had been, politically, the most relevant and most striking result of all great events "of the last seven hundred years" of European history. From the viewpoint of modern Europe and the development of the modem age, the United States was an older and more experienced country than Europe herself. So confident was Tocqueville in this view of America as the product of a European development, that he saw even strictly intra­ American developments, such as the migration to the West, as a stream that began "in the middle of Europe, [crossed] the Atlantic Ocean, and [advanced] over the solitudes of the New World."

In its details, Tocqueville's view can be debated and stands in need of correction. But by and large it is corroborated by the historical fact. The American Republic owes its origin to the greatest adventure of European mankind which, for the first time since the crusades and at the height of the European nation-state system, embarked upon a common enterprise whose spirit proved to be stronger than all national differences.


TOCQUEVILLE is the greatest but not the only author of the last century who saw the New World as the outcome of an old history and civilization. Today this view is the element conspicuously missing in Europe's image of America. All other opinions of nineteenth century writers, insights and errors, dreams and nightmares alike, have somehow survived, although they have degenerated into clichés whose triviality makes it almost impossible to consider seriously the constantly increasing literature on the subject. But today the U.S. is considered to have no more relationship with Europe than any other country, and frequently considerably less than Russia or even Asia, both of which are being Europeanized through Marxism for a considerable segment of European opinion—by no means including only Communists or fellow-travelers. There are many reasons for this recent estrangement.

Among them is American isolation, which before it became a political slogan had been a political reality for more than a hundred years. In this respect, the European image of America as outside and unconnected with her own development has its origin in America. There is a much more cogent reason, however, which also goes a long way toward explaining why Europe will so often pretend to find herself in closer kinship with non-European nations than with America; this is the stupendous wealth of the United States.


AMERICA, it is true, has been the "land of plenty" almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. The general high standard of living (which was not hindered by and did not prevent the formation of gigantic fortunes) was early observed and rightly seen in connection with the political principles of democracy and the concomitant economic principle that nothing ought to be so expensive as personal services and nothing so rewarding as human la­bor. It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe—after the first world war­ this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different, conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.

We all know from personal experience that friendship involves equality. Although friendship can be an equalizer of existing natural or economic inequalities, there is a limit beyond which such equalization is utterly impossible. In the words of Aristotle, no friendship could ever exist between a man and a god. The same holds true for the relationships between nations where the equalizing force of friendship does not operate.

Between nations, a certain equality of condition, though not an identity, is necessary for understanding and frankness. The problem with American wealth is that, at some moment, it progressed beyond the point where understanding from other peoples, and more specifically from those who inhabit the mother-countries of many American citizens, no longer seems possible and where even personal friendships across the ocean are put in jeopardy.

Those who believe that this situation can be easily corrected by Marshall plans or Point Four programs are, I am afraid, mistaken. To the extent that material aid is motivated by authentic generosity and a feeling of responsibility beyond the more obvious political and economic interests and necessities of American foreign policy, it will earn us no more than the very doubtful gratitude which the benefactor expects—but generally does not receive—from the object of his beneficence.

Mistrust of American intentions, the fear of being pressured into unwanted political actions, suspicion of sinister motives when help is given without political strings attached—these things are natural enough and need no hostile propaganda to arouse them. But even more is involved. In this case, as in all beneficence, the prerogative of action and the sovereignty of decision rest with the benefactor, and therefore, to cite Aristotle once more, it is only natural that the benefactor should love his beneficiaries more than he is loved by them. Where they have suffered passively, he has done something; they have become, as it were, his work.

To these real problems in America's international relationships, Communist propaganda abroad adds the palpably false accusation that the United States became rich from imperialist exploitation, and the even more obvious fantasy of a class-ridden economy where masses toil in misery. These lies are easily contradicted by reality, and they will not live as long as the recent and more dangerous attempt to translate the Marxian division between capitalist and proletariat into terms of foreign policy. This interpretation divides the nations of the world into have-and have-not-countries, and according to this interpretation the only country to fall into the first category is, of course, the United States. Unfortunately, this image of America can draw upon a certain store of experience, and it is now in turn dangerously reinforced by certain current "Americanistic" attitudes and ideologies in the United States. These, I am afraid, are much more widespread and express a more general mood than traditional isolationism or the limited appeal of America-First movements. Abroad, the anti-Americanism which is the other side of this coin is actually much more dangerous than all the tirades against an imperialist, capitalistic land which have become the stock-in-trade of Communist propaganda, precisely because it corresponds to a growing "Americanism" at home.


THE question of the wealth of the United States is no trivial matter, and on the international scene it probably constitutes one of this nation's gravest long-range political problems. It almost seems that the consistent development of the principle of equality under circumstances of great natural abundance has so changed the conditions of human life that U.S. citizens appear to belong to a species sui generis. Nor does this situation improve when the average American tourist naively assumes that a similar miracle could occur in other countries if only their people had the wisdom to adopt American institutions and the American way of life.

Perhaps the average American cannot be expected to understand that although equality of condition is spreading throughout the whole world, this equalization will take a different course and require different measures in countries lacking the natural abundance of the American continent. More serious is the fact that the inability to understand each other's circumstances has begun to rear its head in our foreign policy. Much of the unpleasantness in recent British-American relationships, for example, can be explained on these grounds. It is the old story; nothing seems so difficult to understand and stands so squarely in the way of friendship as a radical difference in exterior circumstances.

It has always been the misfortune of rich people to be alternately flattered and abused—and still remain unpopular, no matter how generous they are. That Americans abroad should get a little of this age-old treatment is neither surprising nor unduly disturbing. But it is an altogether different matter that a radical shift has taken place recently in the class structure of those Europeans who are in sympathy with America and those who are not.

For centuries, this country has been the dream of Europe's lower classes and freedom-loving people. At the same time it remained a nightmare for the rich bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and a certain type of intellectual, who saw in equality a threat to culture rather than a promise of freedom. To many of the lower classes in Europe, the restrictions on immigration after the first world war put an end to their hopes of solving their problems through emigration to America. To them, for the first time, America became a bourgeois country, her wealth having become as inaccessible as the wealth of their own bourgeoisie.

After the second world war this situation became more acute, as United States policies first supported the re-establishment or the continuation of the status quo everywhere, and then adopted an unfriendly attitude toward Great Britain's peaceful and, on the whole, moderate and controlled change of her own social conditions under the Labor government. Since then, America has seemed not only rich beyond the wildest fantasy, but determined to support the interests of the rich all over the world. Certainly this was neither the intention nor the outcome of American policy abroad, least of all in Europe where the Marshall Plan benefited every class of the population and American officials frequently went out of their way to find some remedy for the worst social injustices. Nevertheless that is the way things have seemed to be. As a result, sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call "reactionary,'' whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.

Anti-American feeling is, of course, exploited by Communist propaganda, like all other troublesome issues. But to consider it a propaganda product is a serious underestimation of its popular roots. In Europe, it is well on the way to becoming a new ism. Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.


IF it is true that each nationalism (though, of course, not the birth of every nation) begins with a real or fabricated common enemy, then the current image of America in Europe may well become the beginning of a new pan-European nationalism. Our hope that the emergence of a federated Europe and the dissolution of the present nation-state system will make nationalism itself a thing of the past may be unwarrantedly optimistic. On its more popular levels—not, to be sure, in the deliberations of statesmen in Strasbourg—the movement for a united Europe has recently shown decidedly nationalistic traits. The line between this anti-American Europeanism and the very healthy and necessary efforts to federate the European nations is further confused by the fact that the remnants of European fascism have joined the fight. Their presence re­minds everybody that after Briand's futile gestures at the League of Nations it was Hitler who started the war with the promise that he would liquidate Europe’s obsolete nation-state system and build a united Europe. The widespread and inarticulate anti-American sentiments find their political crystallization point precisely here. Since Europe is apparently no longer willing to see in America whatever it has to hope or to fear from her own future development, it has a tendency to con­ sider the establishment of a European government an act of emancipation from America.

Americanism on one side and Europeanism on the other side of the Atlantic, two ideologies facing fighting and, above all, resembling each other as all seemingly opposed ideologies do—this may be one of the dangers we face. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.