For an American electorate that prefers President Bush's unilateral foreign-policy vision to John Kerry's "global test," a book chronicling Europe's resurgence as a...
For an American electorate that prefers President Bush’s unilateral foreign-policy vision to John Kerry’s “global test,” a book chronicling Europe’s resurgence as a global superpower might seem bothersome and off the mark. But like it or not, an economic and geopolitical powerhouse has emerged across the Atlantic, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril, as Washington Post correspondent T.R. Reid deftly points out in “The United States of Europe.”
The European Union, which expanded to 25 member countries earlier this year, now boasts nearly 500 million people and a $10 trillion-per-year economy. (Figures for the U.S., from the CIA World Factbook, are 293 million people and an $11 trillion economy.)
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The EU’s new currency, the euro, threatens to topple the U.S. dollar in global exchange markets, and its citizens are more determined than ever to act as a “counterweight” to American dominance.
Still, Reid notes that Europe’s rise as an economic juggernaut has largely escaped the notice of the American public. The same Americans who boycotted French wine and ordered “freedom fries” to punish European resistance to the Iraq war may not know that the continent’s companies own a vast portfolio of seemingly all-American products, ranging from Baby Ruth candy bars to Quaker State Motor Oil.
As Reid puts it, “Like one of those heavy, powerful SUVs that Detroit turns out, the United States has been cruising along at a comfortable speed, completely unaware of the well-engineered European sedan coming up fast in the passing lane.”
Overconfident American diplomats and corporate executives have been dealt hard lessons about Europe’s growing clout in recent years. Reid’s poster boy for American arrogance is former General Electric chairman Jack Welch, whose legendary career ended in ignominious fashion when he failed to strong-arm EU antitrust regulators into approving a blockbuster merger with Honeywell.
The EU’s veto killed the $45 billion deal. Reid dubs the episode “Welch’s Waterloo,” observing that it came to symbolize “a fundamental test of Europe’s backbone, its willingness to stand up to American pressure.”
The book’s most convincing arguments about Europe’s revival come in the arena of business. Reid describes how years of government subsidies for Airbus, the European aerospace group, paid off last year when Airbus overtook its main rival, Boeing, in annual airplane deliveries. Other examples of groundbreaking European entrepreneurship include Nokia cellphones and Red Bull energy drinks.
Equally compelling, though perhaps less germane to the book’s thesis, are Reid’s depictions of the European social model. Europeans enjoy better health care and more vacation time (five weeks on average for a first-year worker) than their American counterparts, and they share a rabid love for soccer and Eurovision, an annual pop-song contest akin to “American Idol.” Reid, however, never really makes clear how Europe’s different social policies and pop-culture tastes threaten U.S. dominance.
While Reid forcefully documents the continent’s growing influence over global affairs, he’s no European cheerleader. He asserts that Europe’s rise to economic prominence would not have been possible without the U.S. to shoulder the continent’s military burden through NATO, and he pokes holes in the widespread European caricature of Americans as gun-toting Jerry Springer devotees.
But Reid is unflinching in his central premise: If Americans intend to stay diplomatically relevant and want to cash in on the world’s largest trade market, they must wake up to the “geopolitical earthquake” emanating from Brussels, the EU’s capital.
“We have to do business with Europe, so we have no choice but to respect their law,” Welch told a TV interviewer after the foiled GE-Honeywell merger. “That really is just the way the world works now.”
Welch learned the hard way. But those who read this lively, thought-provoking book won’t have to.
Jake Batsell is a former Seattle Times staff reporter who teaches journalism at the University of North Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.