- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

Historical Limits

Dear Chancellor, (Published (German and English) Handelsblatt, 12 April 2010)

When you visit, I hope we may be spared the usual pieties about the values which unite us, assurances that we stand together against named and nameless enemies, pledges of cooperation in matters economic and environmental. Certainly, America’s Jewish leaders, shocked by Obama’s even handedness in the Holy Land, will expect you to treat Israel as if it were a state of the Federal Republic. As a friend, perhaps you could ask them to rethink their increasingly primitive ethnocentrism. Indeed, you could exchange the dreary rituals of Transatlantic friendship for its substance. Do us the honor of supposing that we are adult enough to tolerate difference.

Your Presidential host, despite achieving health care legislation which might bring the US into the middle of the twentieth century, confronts a divided nation. The hatred and violence welling up from the bottom reflects not the country you imagined from the other side of the Wall, but a society which, politically, cannot master its social conflicts. We can hardly unite with the Europeans in defense of freedom when we do not agree on what it means. There is something absurd, even spectral, in the platitudes of the Transatlantic experts who people the research centers in Berlin, Brussels and Washington.— they seem to be circling the earth in a spaceship.

We urgently need to begin an exit from empire. The President knows this, and so do many senior commanders, diplomats, intelligence officers and the critical segment of the public. Iraq is threatened with chaos, Afghanistan is as ever resistant to foreigners, an attack on Iran would result in multiple disasters. Yet it is impossible to make serious reductions in the Pentagon budget, or bring home the troops sent to the Phillipines in 1898. The President proceeds by small steps, hoping that one half the nation will get the point and that the other half will miss it. Germany, with France, was wise to stay out of Iraq, but is now trapped in Afghanistan If war with Iran is to be averted, the Europeans will have to think for themselves—in public.

A physicist’s sobreity might lead you to conclude that the Afghans and their neighbours should be left to solve their problems and that the German army should leave before worse befalls it. That would help Obama educate his own public about historical limits. You could also join the other Europeans in removing US nuclear weapons from the continent. By accepting the notion of a “free world” which requires American “leadership,” (a vulgar simplification even before 1989) you risk welding our large capacity for mistakes to Germany’s own. Meanwhile, professions of loyalty encourage the most naïve of Americans in their illusions and the most cynical in the brutal pursuit of their interests.

A substantial American economic recovery is not in sight. You will be visiting California, with its centers of technological innovation. Stop at under staffed clinics, over crowded schools, resource poor universities and look at our decaying infra-structure, generally. The material foundations of American existence are disintegrating. and with them, our possibilities of creating a productive and more solidary American future. You resist the market dogmatists in Germany. The President needs help in educating the half of our public which thinks of social life in crude Darwinian terms. Few Americans, and fewer Germans know that our New Deal had substantial German intellectual and spiritual origins. Germany’s social market economy is, potentially, its most valuable export good.

A large number of our citizens think of global warming as a professorial fraud, designed to trap the nation into social planning. God, our Fundamentalists insist, gave us the earth to do with as we wished. Your own inheritance is of a different version of stewardship—it would hearten some of your hosts to hear the former Minister of Environment talk about it..

What this country needs least is confirmation of its most vulgar illusions: if there is a primal Amerian sin it is surely what the theologians term the sin of pride. You come not only as the head of government of a respected nation, but as a European. It is a pity that an autonomous, an effective, a united European Union does not seem to be a priority for many European leaders. Shakespeare said that he had little Latin and less Greek—but well before Eurostar, combined his Englishness with an expansive vision of life on the continent. (“Brave new world that hath such people in’t”). Old Europe would do well to speak to us of its newness.

Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center. His “Nach Dem Fortschritt” was published in Germany by DVA in 2003.