While attending a guest lecture given by the US Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission recently, I finally realized just how vast the differences between Americans and Europeans are. In answering a question concerning European and American relations under our current President, the speaker briefly alluded to the relative ignorance many Americans demonstrate about the greater world around them. This aside quickly drew criticism as a member of the audience said “surely you have to expect more from Americans than that. After all, we’re cut from the same mold and share many of the same ideals.” After spending the last six months studying in Ireland, alongside many students from around Europe (including student from France, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, Scotland, England, Italy, and of course Ireland), I’ve come to realize just how off target such an assessment is.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise to everyone (especially those who have a background in International Relations or related fields), but for someone who studied Engineering at West Point, the ideological differences between Americans and Europeans have provided me an eye opening experience. In my pre-European naivety, I thought that, aside from the Iraq War and Climate Change, most students would share my assessments of common problems and possible solutions to current issues. Boy, was I wrong.
In discussions with some of the other scholars, as well as some other American students I’ve bumped into on campus, I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one consistently defending US domestic and foreign policy on a number of fronts. The fact that I often found myself criticizing many US policies while I was in the states made me wonder if I had undergone some sort of transformation, but after some significant self assessment, I’ve come to realize that it’s not me. It is indeed the fact that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. We don’t share the same views of the world and it has nothing to do with what political party you identify yourself with. I’ve come to the conclusion that while many Americans don’t realize that there’s a world outside their home state (for those of you who know someone from Texas, you’ll understand why I neglected to put the country as a whole here), many Europeans can’t seem to understand why the rest of the world isn’t like them. Perhaps you disagree, but when fellow Americans asked me if the Army would send me home to spend Christmas with my family while I was deployed to Iraq (and my wife’s co workers asked her if she could visit me in Baghdad) and the European Union asks the Arabs and Israelis why they can’t get along given France’s and Germany’s willingness to cooperate, it sure makes you wonder.
I’ve always considered myself to be a good step or two to the left when it comes to American politics, but here, I find myself feeling more and more like a rigid conservative with each class. Not to say my classmates and I don’t get along (in fact, I really enjoy their company and I’ve made lifelong friends here), but I think it’s safe to say that they think I’m a little “weird” for my patriotic and nationalist feelings. I tend to think of them as equally “weird” for just the opposite reasons. This assessment recently led me to spark a debate in my European Security class when the lecturer stated that the EU has been unsuccessful in inhibiting nationalist sentiments across Europe (obviously something I certainly disagreed with given my experience thus far). Given these different interpretations, I think it’s safe to say that most Europeans will be disappointed in the long run with whoever is the next American President.
For those who may think I’m presenting a pessimistic or discouraging view, I must tell you that my “exposure” to Europe has provided me an incredibly enlightening experience. It’s shown me the distinct differences between us, but also the similar ideals we share. It’s also given me a new found respect for the difficulties associated with achieving consensus in the international community (if it’s this hard in Europe, what does that say?). On a personal level, this experience has encouraged professional and intellectual growth that I would not have found in a similar experience in the US. Given my experience in Ireland, I often find myself encouraging my classmates to study in the US so they can gain a similar “enlightenment.” That being said, if you ever have the chance, STUDY ABROAD!