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America should listen to stirrings abroad


Self-described “punk conservative” P.J. O’Rourke once captured what I suppose many Americans feel about European criticism of the United States. In his essay “Attack of the Euro-weenies,” O’Rourke said he would take complaints about American cultural hegemony seriously when the Europeans stopped lining up around the block to eat at McDonald’s.

While there’s truth to that, it’s probably time to think past such knee-jerk dismissals of European sentiment. With the launch of the euro and the drive toward political and economic unity symbolized by the new currency, a United States of Europe -- in fact if not in name -- may soon be poised to compete with the United States of America for the title of the world’s “indispensable nation.”

Given this, you’d think that U.S.-European relations would be big news these days. They are -- at least in Europe. During the first part of March, three stories played out on front pages across the continent suggest ties between the United States and Europe are suffering critical strains. Some commentators argued that European-American relations are approaching a new low.

We didn’t hear much about this from the American press. Barbara Walters’ interview with the First Intern, which occurred at roughly the same time, seemed to incapacitate our media from paying much attention to anything else. It’s important to take heed, however, because each of these three stories raises questions about the way we conduct ourselves among the family of nations.

The first concerned the executions in Arizona of Karl and Walter LaGrand. These two brothers were German citizens whose family moved to America when they were children. Both were convicted of stabbing a manager to death in a botched bank robbery in 1982 and both were sentenced to death. One chose to die by lethal injection, the other in the gas chamber. Karl was executed Feb. 24, and Walter on March 3.

The executions inflamed anti-American sentiment in Germany and across Europe, and not just because most Europeans regard the death penalty as barbaric. Nor is it simply because the gas chamber stirs dark memories for post-Hitler Germans.

Rather, it’s because Arizona’s rush to kill the LaGrand brothers once again underlined America’s willingness to disregard international law when it suits our purposes. The Vienna Convention -- to which the United States is a signatory -- stipulates that if one nation wants to try another’s citizen, that citizen must be allowed to contact his embassy to request assistance. Arizona authorities concede that the LaGrand brothers were not informed of their right to do so for more than a decade, but argue that the requirements of international treaties have no force under Arizona law.

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took the LaGrand case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, asking it to request a delay in the execution. The court issued such a request, but no dice. The executions went ahead as planned.

The second story was the verdict from a military jury that cleared Marine Capt. Richard Ashby in the cable car accident that killed 20 skiers in Italy last year. Several European papers editorialized that if the situation had been reversed -- had it been a foreign aircraft that killed American citizens -- the Clinton administration would have moved heaven and earth to have the trial take place on American soil under American law, and it would have ended in a conviction. Right or wrong, the argument speaks to how America is perceived, even by some of our closest allies.

The final story concerns a trade dispute. The situation is complex, but it boils down to this: The European Union subsidizes bananas imported from several small Caribbean nations. Many of those nations have a one-crop economy, and the loss of the subsidy would be catastrophic. The United States is insisting that Europe eliminate the subsidy so bananas harvested in Latin America by major American producers such as Chiquita can compete in Europe on an even basis. Europeans argue that they have a historic responsibility to assist former colonial territories and that any damage to multinational giants such as Chiquita is sustainable; the U.S. insists that Europeans follow the letter of international trade agreements.

The United States has opted to impose 100 percent sanctions against imports of several European products, a move that threatens to bankrupt dozens of businesses and throw scores of people out of work. Europeans already see the United States as too rabidly capitalistic, too little interested in fair play and social solidarity. This case has, for many, cemented that perception.

Collectively, these three developments have left many Europeans wondering how the United States can be so oblivious to how it’s perceived in the rest of the world. A commentator in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put it this way: While resentment of the United States has often been driven by Europe’s frustration over its own declining fortunes -- “a mirror to our own impotence,” as this writer put it -- that isn’t the whole story.

The United States seems to have no real foreign policy, he said, just decisions about foreign affairs driven by domestic politics. In other words, recent events have confirmed for many Europeans that the United States doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. The French have coined a new word for what they see as this burst of American arrogance: hyperpuissance, or “hyper-power.”

It is not a perception likely to advance American interests or to help America contribute to the peace and stability the world so desperately craves.

As a postscript, Arizona currently has two other German brothers on death row, Rudy and Michael Apelt, held in the same prision where the LaGrands were incarcerated. It is an amazing coincidence. Whether it represents a second chance remains to be seen.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999