You can still buy an American newspaper at the kiosk in Rome’s Piazza Colonna, but you have to ask the lady behind the counter. She turns from the window, paws through a stack on the floor, and produces an International Herald Tribune, holding it at arm’s length like a day-old fish. It’s the same availability and tone in Venice, the Greek islands, and Istanbul. The implicit question in the transaction is always the same: why would you want to read that thing about that place at this time?
And when you read about America in European newspapers, what you are likely to find is a tone bordering on pity. The U.S. is depicted as a fraying empire of obesity, ignorance, debt, gridlock, stagnation, and mindless war. Sure, the iPad is cool, but it is evidence of what America was, not what it will be again. The stories are not angry, accusatory, or even ideological. It’s worse: they are condescendingly elegiac.
European disdain for the United States is centuries old, of course. But over the course of decades of traveling in the U.K. and on the continent, I have never gotten the sense that I got on a recently completed three-week trip to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Black Sea. America is no longer admired, imitated, or feared. We remain—for now—a safe haven for dollars (of which there are too many in the world). But we increasingly are seen less as a model or as an empire than as a cautionary tale of national neglect and decline.
Some Europeans can’t quite hide their schadenfruede. The British—whose publications and personalities are increasingly (and annoyingly) influential in the colony they lost 227 years ago—are global leaders in condescension (think Simon Cowell). But for America they add a special twist of bitter lemon to their analyses. It’s the triumph of the doddering older brother who no longer has to be grateful to his junior. Memories fade, and the Brits no longer feel they have to be kind out of homage to our having saved them from Hitler.
A couple of examples from the genre. Writing in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash sees a Third World shabbiness when he visits the United States. “Every time I come back to the United States,” the Oxford don writes, “the airports, the roads, the public spaces look more tattered, battered, old-fashioned. Modernity is no longer self-evidently here.”
Edward Luce, a brilliant and diligent reporter for the Financial Times, surveyed the American landscape and came up with a mournful portrait that echoes, in equal measure, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, and Robert Altman. Citing incontrovertibly bleak statistics about the struggles of middle-class Americans, and the growing disparity between the really rich and everyone else, he concludes that the U.S. is losing its essential character: it is no longer the land of opportunity and upward mobility; no longer the place where the future will surely be better, and more prosperous, than the past. Luce rues that a middle-class home is crowded—only 700 square feet—and “cluttered with chintzy memorabilia” and heartbreakingly defiant messages on refrigerator magnets. He ends the long piece with the scene of a much-beloved autistic son in a struggling family. The lad loves to sing, and launches into a “flawless rendition” of “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. And that, in the author’s view, is evidently America today: an impossible dream.
And why, you might ask, does much of the rest of the world see us this way? I have a few suggestions:
The post-post-9/11 world. After an initial burst of sympathy, the world has lost patience and stomach for the “war” we launched against Al Qaeda and its allies. It’s cost the U.S. $2 trillion to $3 trillion or more, but Europe doesn’t agree with the premise or, even if it does, doesn’t want to pay for the cost. It would rather look away from our struggle, and, increasingly, would rather blame us than Al Qaeda.
The euro. In spite of all the talk about the euro’s demise, and the problems of Greece and Spain and Italy, the currency is surviving, as is the economic union it represents. The euro is back up.
Asia and Arabs. Turkey is turning east, both for investment money from the Gulf and for construction projects (the Turks are master builders) in Asia. As the U.S., burdened with mounting debt and structural political and economic sclerosis, is facing the possibility of a double-dip recession, most of the BRICs (and I would add Turkey) are moving ahead.
Obama fatigue. I talked to numerous businesspeople and others in Europe who had lost the awe they had—briefly—that we had elected an African-American, and a cool global guy at that. They are aware that he has lost his popularity in the United States, and, even though he managed to enact some massive legislation—on health care, stimulus, and finance services—they increasingly view him as ineffectual. “He’s hollow,” said one leading businessman in Istanbul.
World Cup. Three of the four FIFA finalists were from Europe. Landon Donovan, are you listening?