European exceptionalism

, by Robert Jacek Włodarski

European exceptionalism
US Navy soldiers unfurl an American flag at a baseball stadium in 2009. Photograph: Petty Officer 1st Class David McKee (U.S. Navy)

Around Fourth of July again, we have witnessed the newest wave of American patriotism. Some of our friends had their fireworks, barbecues, family reunions and parades. Surely, many of them indulged themselves in the idea of American exceptionalism, which also pervades European culture.

It has been embedded in our minds for decades. The idea that American patriotism, political stage and state ideology had always been unique was parallelly introduced by Alexis de Tocqueville and Seymour Martin Lipset. Indeed, the black-and-white mindset of the Cold War intensified the belief, much more than Tocqueville had ever anticipated. No matter what happens, we still want to see Lincoln’s country with a duty to ensure the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, [that] shall not perish from the earth”. Somehow, we’ve been infected with the view shared by Reagan, Kennedy and Kissinger that the U.S is a “City upon a Hill” that everyone looks up to.

We couldn’t be more wrong. EU countries already have everything we have been looking for in the U.S. This is especially visible in the case of patriotism. We cherish peace, Americans celebrate militarism. We applaud our religious diversity, Americans commemorate their Christian uniformity. We learn from the dark story of our continent, Americans praise theirs. Therefore, American patriotism seems not too unique. It is more similar to the approaches taken by the Russian or Indian patriots or even the European nationalists. European patriotism, however, with its tolerant, self-reflective and pacifist nature is genuinely exceptional.

American militarism vs. European pacifism

No one can deny the special bond between American patriotism and the military, but it is not extraordinary. Every war is praised. If you don’t follow the standard, you stand against the “American way of life”. No conflict is left out and each has its own commemorated heroes. The list is long. The American War of Independence has Washington, the Civil War has Lincoln and Grant. The Spanish-American War brought warmonger Theodore Roosevelt into office. The Great War had (the ironically pacifist) Woodrow Wilson and the Second World War Eisenhower. Korea made MacArthur an icon. Even the infamous Vietnam War made Senator McCain more respected.

This does not constitute a unique approach but just another bunch of people praising the military. Paradoxically, the country has always feared the rise of a military dictatorship. No one has noticed the U.S is more similar to pre-1914 militaristic Imperial Germany than to a genuinely peaceful nation. Criticism of the American soldiers is perceived as an attack on the “American way of life”. Just look at the publicity around the iconic book Catch-22 in 1960s, the TV series M*A*S*H in 1970s or even the movie American Sniper more recently. Don’t dare to criticise the military in America. The US is not exceptional in its attitude towards war. Unfortunately, it’s just the next nation glorifying it.

On the other hand, Europeans have already learned more about the nature of war. We show an unprecedented contempt for militarism. The bloody and dark history of the continent showed us that war is not a glorious wave of patriotism producing countless heroes, fascinating tales and stronger nations. Europe has learned that militarism leads to senseless deaths, destroyed lives, broken families and orphaned children. While the Americans flex their muscles, we understand that genuine patriotism involves working for peace, stability and development.

No one is impressed by military parades anymore. Our heroes are reformers, scientists, musicians, journalists and artists. Almost none of the post-war leading “champions” of European public stage has been a military leader. We admire Helmut Kohl, Adenauer, Wałęsa, Attenborough, Bono or Celine Dion. We respect the military, but we learned it the hard way not to glorify it anymore. While Americans hail victories and heroism of the conflicts, our patriotism focuses on the end of the fights and avoiding them. Doesn’t it show that Europe is truly exceptional?

Religious devotion vs divine neutrality

Americans have always boasted that their country respected religion more than any other nation. Is it the case in 21st century? Their patriotism revolves around the uniform Christian culture more than in the case of the EU. Take a look at the Washington politics. Rarely do establishment politicians criticise religion in the U.S. Every American President has repeatedly and dully referred to Christian values. No matter whether you analyse progressive Obama or regressive Trump, following some branch of Christianity has been the common denominator.

For most of the U.S. population being a patriot involves following “Christian heritage”. Most Europeans can barely understand when they hear American politicians pledging to defend “Christian culture”. Imagine hearing the President of your country said they were “stopping cold attacks on Judeo-Christian values”, as Donald Trump vowed. Hence, Christianism has become an integral and privileged component of American patriotism. Is it truly unprecedented after the three millennia of religious conflicts?

To the contrary, the majority of EU countries ceased to link religion with their identity. Throughout countless religious wars, slaughters and conflicts European states had to learn to be neutral on what people believed in. While Americans praise their uniformity, Europe embraces diversity in almost every country. This is a true exception! We have Protestants, Muslims and Catholics peacefully coexisting in France, Germany and Sweden. We have countries, which are extremely religious, like Poland bordering with states fiercely atheistic, such as Czechia. There is no hatred, intolerance or conflict because of that.

Nowhere in the EU is religion so strongly incorporated in a country’s patriotism as in the US, India or Russia (Poland and Spain might be exceptions here). Moreover, the pan-European identity of the European Union is religiously neutral. Never will you find a speech of Federica Mogherini, the head of EU diplomacy, commenting on the significance of defending the Christian values. On the other hand, this will be painfully easy in the case of Mike Pompeo, American Secretary of State. People have built up identities around religions for ages. This is not special. Only European patriotism, in its variety, tolerance and openness is exceptional.

Glorious history vs self-reflection

The attitude to history makes American patriotism another example of a naïve and idealistic belief that one nation can be always morally right. People from the US still have the romantic idea of the history of mankind. For them, it has always been a fight between the good and the evil. Every conflict is the noble clash of ideas and the “good guys” always win. Of course, they are always the moral ones.

The projected image of the colonisers resembles more the noble and enlightened ideas of Thomas Jefferson than mass murderers of the indigenous Americans. The Civil War is still a passionate and idealistic fight against slavery, not a vector sum of socio-economic tensions. The same happens in debates about the Spanish-American, Great, Second World and Cold Wars. There is no space for a cold and well-balanced analysis. The “City upon a Hill” mindset pervades the American debate where Washington has always been the virtuous fighter and activist. As a result, the attitude to history spans American patriotism which desperately craves for constant validation of its own assumptions. Such a one-sided approach is never exceptional.

Europeans are different about it. No doubt, we repeatedly stood on the wrong side of history. Constant wars, conflicts, tragedies and changes eventually pushed us into the direction of the post-modern approach. The United Kingdom, France, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Netherlands still remember the unspeakable crimes of colonialism. Austria and Germany live with the memory of the World Wars. Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and Russia have been shaped by the various bloody events from the history of Central Europe.

We don’t create myths of nations, people and factions which have always been morally right. Our patriotism is so unsure of its own actions that we constantly doubt our choices. Those who flex their muscles may call it weak, but isn’t constant self-reflection a thing the modern societies need? Moreover, Europe has learned from history that we are prepared more than anyone not to repeat it. The continent was terrorised by centuries of slaughters, wars and tragedies, which implies that European identity will not make us call for war, intervention or mass-murdering again. This is a genuine exception in the age of the Russian nationalism, Chinese imperialism and American isolationism.

Therefore, we should stop talking about American exceptionalism. We ought to start talking about European exceptionalism. Our dark, cruel and immoral history has left us so hurt, unsure and determined to work for peace and unity that our attitude has evolved into something truly outstanding. While others show off their military power, we show that we can care for those no one stands for. While others regard their religion and culture as superior, we stress it is our diversity which makes us strong. While others believe their history has made them better, we accept ours and learn strong-mindedly not to repeat it again. Isn’t that the kind of patriotism that we should praise?

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