Think Again: National character matters

An America trending toward Europe – as seen with Obamacare – would be a major concern.

By BY JONATHAN ROSENBLUM
February 5, 2010 20:56
US President Barack Obama.

US President Barack Obama.. (photo credit: AP)

The rapid decline of US President Barack Obama’s popularity – the most precipitous in recent history – will delight those here put off by his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and/or his lack of seriousness with regard to Iran. That rejoicing is premature. American presidents, even unpopular ones, pretty much control foreign policy agenda (as opposed to their domestic agenda, where Congress has a larger role) until they leave office.

There is, however, another aspect of the election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat held by Teddy Kennedy for almost half a century that augurs well for Israel: It demonstrates that America is not yet Europe.

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As a candidate, Obama was described by Fouad Ajami as the first “cosmopolitan” to ever seek the presidency on a major party ticket – i.e., the first candidate to look to European models of governance as the ideal. Obamacare, his signature issue, is an explicit attempt to bring European socialized medicine to America. Obama’s resounding victory and the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate seemed to suggest that America was trending in the same direction.

And that could not be good for Israel.

Europeans increasingly view it with hostility. Nearly 60 percent of Europeans describe it as the greatest threat to world peace, and in many countries that figure is much higher. An America trending toward Europe, then, would be a major concern. Not by accident has the most “cosmopolitan” American administration also been the most anti-Israel in decades, so far.

In A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, Robin Shepherd analyzes the cast of mind that predisposes Europeans to hate Israel so much, and repeatedly raises the question as to whether these attitudes could take hold in America (or have already done so on elite campuses). In addition, Europe has remained passive in the face of both the internal demographic threat from its Muslim population and the external threat of radical Islam.

The sources of Europe’s appeasement mentality are many. Having ceased to produce children, Europeans are understandably less concerned about the future. They are content to buy time until they can shuffle off this mortal coil in peace. And having cast off traditional religion, they find no transcendent values worth dying for, since nothing awaits them after death.

The European model of decision-making by centralized bureaucratic states or the European Union also contributes to passivity in the face of danger. Those who willingly turn over the control of their lives to a centralized bureaucracy, and no longer insist on their right – or at least that of their elected representatives – to make the crucial decisions about their lives are less likely to fight to defend themselves from external threat.

A FEW years back, I experienced that maddening European bureaucracy firsthand. On a bus ride from London to Bournemouth, the driver stopped after two hours, with Bournemouth less than 45 minutes away, and announced that European Commission regulations forbade him from driving any longer without a 45-minute rest break. That enforced stop raised the same question that pops into my mind every time I’m asked by airport security to remove my shoes and belt: How can people tolerate this idiocy?

The defeated European constitution, which ran to more than 1,000 pages of numbing detail about everything, including the permissible size of ball bearings, was the classic expression, to quote Ajami again, “of the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will.” In the Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu described the interplay between the laws and institutions of a particular society and the character of the citizenry. Monarchies, for instance, emphasize honor, while democratic societies stress virtue. And modern government by bureaucracy – something Montesquieu was spared from witnessing – fosters passivity.

In Montesquieu’s day, the monarch may have possessed in theory the power to tell any citizen what to do, but he lacked the technology and the resources to supervise each citizen and to enforce his decrees in every hamlet of his kingdom. If things went well, one could pretty much live out one’s life without hearing from the king or his minions. That is no longer the case with respect to the modern bureaucratic state, which seeks to regulate every aspect of citizens’ lives.

Today’s Western Europe is a laboratory for testing Montesquieu’s theories of the impact of institutions on national character. As Mark Steyn puts it, “Europe demonstrates [how] a determined state can change the character of a people in a generation or two.”

The nanny state that promises citizens security from all the vicissitudes of life, including the necessity of making choices, creates a citizenry from which all resolve has been drained.

(By the same token, social structures can also encourage the development of particular virtues. In Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue that compulsory military service explains a great deal of the ingenuity and improvisation so crucial to the success of the country’s hi-tech and bio-tech industries. Military service, they write, teaches Israelis to “lead and manage, improvise, become mission-oriented and to work in teams.” And the relatively nonhierarchical nature of the IDF encourages them to speak up if they think things can be done better. American executives are astounded by the total lack of inhibition of even junior employees here to challenge entrenched ways of doing things.)

THE ISSUE of national character is not academic as far as Israel is concerned. As Europeans have become ever less inclined to defend themselves, they tend to resent those countries, preeminently Israel, which insist on doing so against mortal threat. Accusations of bellicosity are a salve for European loss of will.

The European model includes a renunciation of national sovereignty in favor of multinational groupings, like the European Union, in which decision-making is almost exclusively in the hands of bureaucrats, and a rejection of the use of all military force that does not bear the legitimating stamp of the UN Security Council.

Americans have traditionally rejected these models. They have been jealous of their sovereignty and loath to submit to international bodies, like the International Criminal Court. And they have consistently recognized the place for the projection of military strength: The US spends more on defense than the next 40 countries combined.

These attitudes, among others, predispose Americans to be sympathetic to Israel – a doughty little nation that does not hesitate to defend itself, even in the face of international condemnation, and which has repeatedly refused to submit its fate to various “wise men,” be they European diplomats or expositors of customary international law.


In this context, the likely last-minute defeat of Obamacare has major implications for Israel. Obamacare would create an enormous new bureaucracy, and transfer most health-care decisions from physicians and patients to government bureaucrats. The Massachusetts election was, above all a rejection of the attitude that the Ivy-league educated class knows what’s best for the little guy – i.e., a rejection of the European model.

That America is not ready quite yet to follow Europe on the course toward national suicide is good news.


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