Europe in the Shadow of the US: What Does Paine’s and Our Common Sense Say about American Nature?

“We have boasted the protection of Great-Britain, without considering, that her motive was interest not attachment; that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account. But from her enemies on her own account, from those who had no quarrel with us on any other account, and who will always be our enemies on the same account.”

This part of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense shows us that today we are facing right the opposite situation. Europe is (such as other US “allies”) awaiting protection covering in reality American interests. The problem is, however, that US interest in European affairs and problems is continuously fading, which is also reflected in US approach towards NATO for the lost raison d’état. We are trying to convince ourselves that there is some common ground, shared values and interests between Europe and the US but is it really true? Is interconnected history something that brings the US and European countries closer to each other or has this alliance always been a fiction which both sides of the Atlantic needed?

Some argue that in the last half-century the only elements connecting the USA and Europe were the Soviet threat, economic ties between the US and Europe and generation of political elites, which has built cooperation of the two. These three elements are, however, slowly disappearing. Soviet threat has disappeared, opinion gap concerning international trade is bigger and bigger and generation gap together with growth of American West and South is eliminating the third of elements mentioned.

While evaluating if has common history ever built shared values or brought some gratitude to transatlantic relations, we can go back to Paine saying: “I have heard it asserted by some, that America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great-Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. … I answer roundly, that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which she hath enriched herself, are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.” We can only wonder if there are really no common roots that America would perceive.

Looking at the willingness to protect Europe we can at the same time cite Paine saying long time ago what is that significant for the US today more than before:

“I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to shew, a single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected with Great-Britain [the same it would be presumably for any other European country]. … The injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connexion, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance. Because, any submission to, or dependence on Great-Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels.”

Going deeper this quote reveals, in my opinion, a lot about American nature. First it mentions “duty to mankind” which may already at that time refer to posterior US conviction of being “the world’s indispensable nation” as Bill Clinton called it. Furthermore saying “instruct us” which sounds like if Americans were not making their own choice, doing something only because they feel they have to. This especially reminds me of Robert Kagan’s book “Dangerous Nation” and what Robert Kagan said about deemed US isolationism (here linked to the apparent unwillingness further care about Europe, so up to date). He said: “Most Americans do like to have an image of ourselves as pretty much minding our own business until somebody does something which requires us to go out and act in the world.” But that is really almost a self-constructed myth. The United States has never been a status-quo power, it has always been a revolutionary one and 400 years of territorial and commercial expansion speak clearly for this argument. (For more read interview with Robert Kagan here or the book Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century)

We can say then that with one significant military intervention in approximately every 19 months the United States cannot pretend they are minding their own business. The only understandable argument is that Europe has no longer significant importance for the US and neither has NATO. Another possibility is that the USA is, with its unilateralist vision, constantly lying to itself or not perceiving own behavior correctly as Kagan also claimed in his books. Last Paine’s quote may in allegory summarize both this thesis and previous inferences about the US international behavior: “Men (the US) who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”


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3 Responses to Europe in the Shadow of the US: What Does Paine’s and Our Common Sense Say about American Nature?

  1. manuelgama21 says:

    Hi! I find interesting that you use Paine’s criticism of England to compare it with current USA-EU relation interesting. I think it is interesting how President Trump has disregarded Europe and organizations like EU and NATO seem similar to the abuses committed by England toward the citizens of their colonies. I feel that disregarding your relationship with allies will always create a negative effect in the other side.
    However, I don’t think that Paine argument completely applies to the current situation. Paine tried to make an argument of why the British colonies should become independent of the England. The colonies had a very limited liberty and ability to self-rule, while this is not the case of independent nation-states that form the EU.
    Another point that I want to make is that I don’t necessary see the relationship between USA and Europe in strong decline. I think their perception of themselves as westerners, their economic position of First World countries and their common objectives will, for better or for worse, keep them united.

  2. Daniel Rubio says:

    I think this misunderstands America’s role in the world. For a great deal of time America, outside of the Western Hemisphere was a mostly isolationist nation. Certainly we did take action: When American ships were raided by Barbary pirates, Presidents Jefferson and Madison sent our fleets to shores of Tripoli in the fledgling days of our nation. There was traditionally a great American objection to involvement in the bloody wars of Europe.
    On the notion of our relationship with Europe: Our nation’s founding principles were forged in the fires of the English and French enlightenment movements. Our nation was built in part from the sweat and ideas of the countless groups of European immigrants. The European-American relationship runs long and deep.
    Yes, America has become more involved in the world militarily, and rightly so. We found ourselves in the middle of one of the most expansive and deadliest wars in world history. American blood was spilt on European soil in defense of liberty, fighting the great evil of fascism. We found ourselves in the position of global leader and led the fight against the rise of communism. Together with Europe we have built the western liberal world order from the ruins of a ravaged Europe. It’s a order that has created unparalleled peace and prosperity, and thus the instruments of that order (NATO) must be used by the United States and Europe to prevent a lapse back into the great evils of the 20th century.
    When so much has been sacrificed, protecting an order designed to prevent this is a duty to humankind.

  3. samiomais says:

    America has a long and interesting history of isolationist tendencies. At the start of each of the World Wars, the majority of Americans polled wanted to stay out, many saying that Europe should be left to sort out it’s own problems. Since its inception, the United States has striven to not only distinguish itself from Europe, but to hide whatever ties it had. The immigrants of the late 1800s/early 1900s suffered the consequences of this American exceptionalism, as the Irish were pressured to drop the “Os” from their last names, Jews were made eager to assimilate and become “white,” and the Chinese, who could never pass as “white,” were excluded all together

    You brought up the important economic and political consequences of a distancing between Europe and America, but there is a social history that I feel is also important. One of nativism and racism borne of this American desire to throw off the European connection.

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