Canadians are in the midst of a transatlantic debate: the American Dream of individual fulfilment versus the European Dream of community, writes JEREMY RIFKIN
Worlds apart on the vision thing
Globe and Mail, August 17, 2004
In a partisan America, where virtually every value has become fair game for criticism and controversy, there is one value that remains sacrosanct: the American Dream -- the idea that anyone, regardless of the circumstances to which they're born, can make of their lives as they choose, by dint of diligence, determination and hard work. The American Dream unites Americans across ethnic and class divides and gives shared purpose and direction to the American way of life.
The problem is, one-third of all Americans, according to a recent U.S. national survey, no longer believe in the American Dream. Some have lost faith because they worked hard all their lives only to find hardship and despair at the end of the line. Others question the very dream itself, arguing that its underlying tenets have become less relevant in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. For the first time, the American Dream no longer serves as the rallying point for everyone in America.
A new European Dream, meanwhile, is beginning to capture the world's imagination. That dream has now been codified in the form of a draft European constitution, and Europeans are currently debating whether to ratify its contents and accept its underlying values as the core values of a new Europe. Europe's vision of the future may have greater resonance -- a kind of grand reversal, if you will, of what occurred 200 years ago when millions of Europeans looked to America in search of a new vision.
Twenty-five nations, representing 455 million people, have joined together to create a "United States" of Europe. Like the United States of America, this vast political entity has its own empowering myth. Although still in its adolescence, the European Dream is the first transnational vision, one far better suited to the next stage in the human journey. Europeans are beginning to adopt a new global consciousness that extends beyond, and below, the borders of their nation-states, deeply embedding them in an increasingly interconnected world.
Americans are used to thinking of their country as the most successful on Earth. That's no longer the case: The European Union has grown to become the third-largest governing institution in the world. Though its land mass is half the size of the continental United States, its $10.5-trillion (U.S.) gross domestic product now eclipses the U.S. GDP, making it the world's largest economy. The EU is already the world's leading exporter and largest internal trading market. Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European; only 50 are U.S. companies.
The comparisons are even more revealing when it comes to the quality of life. In the EU, for example, there are 322 physicians per 100,00 people; in the United States, it's 279 physicians per 100,000 people. The United States ranks 26th among the industrial nations in infant mortality, well below the EU average. The average lifespan in the 15 most developed E.U. countries is now 78.2 years, compared to 76.9 years in the United States.
When it comes to wealth distribution -- a crucial measure of a country's ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity -- the United States ranks 24th among the industrial nations. All 18 of the most developed European countries have less income inequality between rich and poor. There are now more poor people living in America than in the 16 European nations for which data are available.
America is also more dangerous: The U.S. homicide rate is four times higher than the EU's. Even more disturbing, the rates of childhood homicides, suicides and firearms-related deaths in the United States exceed those of the other 25 wealthiest nations. Although the United States has only 4 per cent of the world's population, it contains one-quarter of the world's entire prison population.
Europeans often say Americans "live to work," while they "work to live." The average paid vacation time in Europe is now six weeks a year. By contrast, Americans, on the average, receive only two weeks. When one considers what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is beginning to surpass America.
Nowhere is the contrast between the European Dream and the American Dream sharper than when it comes to the definition of personal freedom.
For Americans, freedom has long been associated with autonomy; the more wealth one amasses, the more independent one is in the world. One is free by becoming self-reliant and an island onto oneself. With wealth comes exclusivity, and with exclusivity comes security.
For Europeans, freedom is not found in autonomy but in community. It's about belonging, not belongings.
The American Dream puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence. The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life and interdependence. The American Dream pays homage to the work ethic and religious heritage. The European Dream, more attuned to leisure, is secular to the core. The American Dream depends on assimilation. The European Dream, by contrast, is based on preserving one's cultural identity in a multicultural world.
Americans are more willing to use military force to protect what we perceive to be our vital self-interests. Europeans favour diplomacy, economic assistance to avert conflict, and peacekeeping operations to maintain order. The American Dream is deeply personal and little concerned with the rest of humanity. The European Dream is more systemic in nature and, therefore, more bound to the welfare of the planet.
That isn't to say that Europe is a utopia. Europeans have become increasingly hostile toward newly arrived immigrants and asylum-seekers. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, as is discrimination against Muslims and religious minorities. While Europeans berate America for having a trigger-happy foreign policy, they are more than willing, on occasion, to let the U.S. armed forces safeguard European security interests. And even its supporters say the Brussels-based EU's governing machinery is a maze of bureaucratic red tape, aloof from the European citizens they supposedly serve.
The point, however, is not whether the Europeans are living up to their dream. We Americans have never fully lived up to our own dream. What's important is that a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical new vision for the future -- one better suited to meet the challenges of an increasingly globalizing world in the 21st century.
Canada finds itself caught between these two 21st-century superpowers. Sharing a common border with the most powerful economy in the world makes Canada more vulnerable to U.S. economic and political influence, and some observers even suggest that Canada might be forced eventually to become part of a greater American transnational space. The North American free-trade agreement may be the first step down that road.
On the other hand, Canadians' own deeply felt values are more closely attuned to the emerging European Dream. Could Canada lobby to become part of the European Union? In a world of instant communications, fast transportation and global economic integration, the prospect of Canada's enjoying at least a special associational partnership with the EU is not inconceivable. The EU and Canada laid the foundation for such a possibility in their 1996 joint political declaration on EU-Canada relations, designed to focus on economic, trade, security and other transnational issues. Canada could edge ever closer to its European soulmate in the decades to come.
Jeremy Rifkin, founder and president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, is the author of 14 books, including his latest, The European Dream.