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Reviewed by:
  • The American Century in Europe
  • Alan S. Milward
R. Laurence Moore and Maurizio Vaudagna, eds., The American Century in Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 286 pp.

An analysis of the "American Century" in Europe has the inherent difficulty that to be convincing it requires some comparisons with the reactions of other parts of the world to the military, economic, political, and cultural dominance of the United States since the 1890s. The effectiveness of such comparisons, furthermore, depends on whether the author persuasively defines and characterizes American dominance and accurately depicts the United States itself as a society. In these areas the line between conviction and mere opinion is a thin one indeed. The fourteen authors of The American Century in Europe try to walk on the academic side of this divide, but some of them do not manage to stay there.

All the authors more or less agree that the political essence of U.S. dominance is based on an idea or set of ideas called "democracy," which the United States defines in its own particular way. Hence, the American century, they all agree, rests on something more fundamental than the relationship between gross national product and weapons. The American definition of democracy, some authors argue, is embedded in America's own history as an immigrant country. The same political ideas that built a centralized nation-state from so many different peoples provided a philosophy for empire, world-power, "regime change," proselytization of political and religious practice, and unilateralism.

The great exemplar of this is President Woodrow Wilson, who, as Walter LaFeber reminds us, in 1917-1918 advocated a peace settlement based on American principles and [End Page 170] values to reorder a world he thought had been ruined by European principles and values. The convoluted links between moral assertiveness and the extension of American power are pursued by several contributors, notably Alan Brinkley, whose interesting discussion of Henry Luce and his magazines implies that Luce came close to believing that American democracy could be summed up in one word—"freedom." Brinkley's essay allows other contributors to imply that one characteristic of the European response to the American Century has been to persist with a more philosophically and politically complex understanding of freedom. Some authors artfully hint at a continuity of language, and thus of over-simplification, in the speeches of Wilson and George W. Bush, implying that the European response to the invasion of Iraq was more complex and hostile. Leaving aside the fact that the European response was far from unified, the more important point is made by Federico Romero—namely, that when U.S. power was directly challenged by Germany and Japan, Franklin Roosevelt used the same Wilsonian language and concepts to reassert American power on a framework of political interdependence, which was reinforced in 1947 by the Marshall Plan. Romero's chapter shows that the origins of ideas and words weigh less in historical analysis than do the later historical circumstances in which they are used. The American concept of an international order, still uttered in Wilsonian vocabulary, would dissolve if a self-reliant Europe were able to defend itself and its nearby periphery. Readers might be well advised, in view of Woodrow Wilson's importance to the whole subject, to begin by reading the thorough analysis of his thought, speech, and actions in the chapter by Massimo Salvadori.

In addition to the essays on European reactions to a century of U.S. foreign policy, the chapters of greatest interest are those on religion, the welfare state, and human rights. Proselytizing Christianity as an aspect of freedom, of democracy, and thus of foreign policy—a recurrent American habit—has not been regarded as helpful in Europe. To borrow the phrase of Laurence Moore, it is seen as "the cultural equivalent of genetically engineered food." Of course, Europe is no more united about genetically modified crops than about Iraq, but when Moore discusses the religious dimension of American exceptionalism he scores some good points that are relevant to the book's purpose. These points also help explain transatlantic differences in attitudes to human rights. On that subject the United States has been and...