What a Post-American World means for Europe

By Steven Hill, January 18, 2010, Social Europe Journal

In recent months, Europe has learned some hard lessons about its transatlantic partner. President Barack Obama triggered great hope when he replaced George W. Bush at the American helm. But a year later, especially following Obama’s failure to produce anything of substance at Copenhagen, Europeans are realizing that Obama is going to have a difficult time delivering on a new American agenda.

Why is Obama so unable to match his lofty speeches with concrete deeds? There are two major reasons.

First, despite his inspiring rhetoric, Obama is no social democrat or even a Franklin Roosevelt. He is a pragmatic Democrat with some progressive sympathies, but like Bill Clinton he will not allow his progressive leanings to get in the way of his pragmatism. Second, and partly the cause of his pragmatism, he needs votes from 60 out of 100 senators to get any major policy passed – meaning that the 40 Republican senators (who represent only a third of the nation), joined by a single conservative Democrat, can halt everything. It’s the worst form of ‘minority rule’, and as a result America can’t even get right something as basic as health care.

Obama is probably the best leader America can produce; yet even he can’t deliver because the American political system, rooted in its 18th century origins, is too antiquated and backward. This situation will not change anytime soon due to the difficulties of amending the US Constitution.

So the US will remain by far the largest per capita polluter in the world; it will continue to foot drag over re-regulation of the global financial system that it caused to melt down; it will resist badly needed domestic reform that would make it a manufacturing nation again instead of remaining a debtor nation; America’s leaders will continue to refuse to give families and workers the support and security they deserve; and they will continue to spend money the nation can ill afford on military escapades in the Middle East, as Obama prods Europe to join him in his folly. This is Obama’s America.

But Obama’s failures only continue the American slide that began at the start of the decade. A gradual shift in geopolitical power has been occurring, which some have called the ‘post-American world’. Even US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that American primacy is over and the world is suddenly multipolar. The United States is still a strong power, but this shift has been a shock to Americans, some of whom are still in denial.

So what should be Europe’s strategy in this post-American world? First and foremost, Europe must remain the beacon of social democracy, which can be defined as the attempt to harness the dynamic, wealth-creating engine of capitalism so that its prosperity is both broadly shared and ecologically sustainable. I refer to this as the European Way, a development model that is the most humane in history. If the European Way didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.

But as the world stares into the face of the twin challenges of the current economic crisis and global warming, the fate of this European Way hangs in the balance. To defend it, Europe needs to know what is precious about it, and what is worth defending.

First, the European Way is founded on a ‘social capitalism’ that has produced the world’s largest trading bloc, nearly a third of the world’s economy, almost as large as the US and China combined, with more Fortune 500 companies than even the US. Yet unlike America’s ‘Wall Street capitalism,’ Europe’s brand provides real support for families and workers. Hardly a ‘welfare state,’ Europe’s social capitalism is an ingenious ‘workfare’ framework that better supports families and individuals to help them stay healthy and productive in an age of global capitalism that, left to its own devices, would turn us all into internationally disposable workers.

A key to Europe’s harnessing of the capitalist engine has been regulations fostering a measure of economic democracy and control over corporations, resulting in practices like co-determination, works councils, cooperatives, public-private partnerships, and a vibrant small business sector, which provides two-thirds of all jobs in Europe. In addition, the European Way is founded on pluralistic political institutions that have fostered a vibrant multiparty democracy, including proportional representation, public financing of campaigns, free media time for parties, universal voter registration, a robust public broadcasting sector, and other important democratic advances. It has fostered the ‘green economy,’ deploying widespread use of conservation and renewable energy technologies, which has produced an ‘ecological footprint’ that is half that of the United States, even as it has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

These ‘fulcrum institutions’ are the very foundations of the European Way, and I am sometimes struck by how many Europeans take them for granted, apparently unaware of their uniqueness and value. Europe must defend them and not allow anti-democratic forces to wear them down.

Despite all its own imperfections and inconsistencies, and its soul-searching and doubts, Europe must recognize that it is now the key leader among multiple leading nations of the world. Europe now is what Ronald Reagan once called America – ‘the shining City on the Hill’, pointing the way amidst the darkness of the storm.

It is Europe’s time to lead. Europe, are you ready?