American Values = European Values?

In his thought-provoking article, “The Myth of Europe,” (Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2012) Gareth Harding discusses what ails the EU.  One of the big issues, he argues, is that it is difficult to answer the question, “What is a European?”  Part of the problem there, he writes, is that there are not any sort of defined values that Europeans can say, yes, these are European values.  In contrast to Europeans, however, we Americans apparently know what our values are and have even defined them in our founding documents (he gives the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as examples.  It is this part of his essay that I wish to address.

First, the authors of our founding documents (I’m going to add the Declaration of Independence to the two that Harding gives) were heavily influenced by European thinkers and documents.  John Locke argued in Two Treatises of Government (scroll down to Sec. 87) that the natural rights of man are life, liberty, and property.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Another European thinker, Baron de Montesquieu, influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution with his ideas on the separation of powers, from his work, The Spirit of Laws.  Finally, the influence of the English Bill of Rights can be seen in the U.S. Bill of Rights, most notably in the clauses dealing with fines and cruel or unusual punishment.

Second, Harding argues that American values are “clearly and succinctly defined,” yet he never tells us what they are; so, I took it upon myself to see if I could find out what they might be.  In googling the phrase “American values,” I got about 4.5 million results.  Many of the results were organizations claiming to represent and fight for  American values- Institute for American Values; American Values; The American Values Network; Center for American Values.  Interestingly enough, each of these organizations had different values.  Another result was an essay listing eighteen values.  Perhaps the most interesting of the results on the first page, however, was an essay by L. Robert Kohls titled, “Values Americans Live By.”  Kohls opens his essay with the following statement, “Most Americans would have a difficult time telling you, specifically, what the values are that Americans live by.”  Is it safe to conclude then, that even America does not have defined values?  And if that is the case, then does that mean that there quite possibly could be a Myth of America?

If America has values, as Harding states that it does, those values came from Europe, which means that Europe has values.  If Europe has values, then can we say that there is a European identity?  I’ll leave that for a future post.




4 thoughts on “American Values = European Values?

  1. Hi Jason,

    Welcome to blogging and good post! I agree that ultimately America’s founding values are ideologically from Europe (one Euro-American civilization at the time) but we may have drifted a bit since then.

    “Europe” exists regardless of whether they have common values. We (I’m Franco-American and often change hats 😉 ) have often had completely opposing values throughout our history, whether its wars of religion or of ideologies, but it doesn’t make Europe exist any less. We have an identity as co-residents of a tight space, with our economic and security interdependence, with our habits and customs (Europeans cannot name what they have in common, but it is obvious there is a great deal as soon as you compare their nations with those of North America, Latin America, Africa or Asia..).

    I would take the question of U.S./European values from another angle: Do we *actually* have common values? When the U.S. constantly rejects international treaties, laws and engages in war after war (Europeans allegedly believe in peace and law), when you see the Europe-bashing in the Republican primaries (“Socialism” vs. “market fundamentalism”), when you see such marked differences in the area of religion (Creationism vs. non-churchgoing/godless Europe (except Poland/Ireland..)), not to mention the environment, etc.

    Are there really “common values” and interests then? Our leaders repeat so constantly on both sides of the Atlantic but I think it is less and less true. As the rest of the world democratizes, our similarities are less and less striking. On the role of the State and the socialist tradition, Europeans (including British), have more in common with Latin Americans and Indians than the U.S., when it comes to religion, Europeans have more in common with the Russians than the Americans.

    Granted it depends who is governing at the time – the differences are starker when one has Socialist Europeans and Conservative Americans – but those differences are always there.

    Look forward to your thoughts!

    PS: I should mention that I met Gareth last night as he gave a talk on his article. We all debated and he was surprisingly disappointed at our lack of finding “The Answer”. :-/

    • Hi Craig,
      First, thanks for reading my post. I didn’t think anybody but me would be reading this stuff.

      As for current American/European values, I agree that we have drifted apart (which is unfortunate). Somewhere along the way since 1945, both sides have moved further and further away from each other, and I’m having problems trying to come up with a turning point. Perhaps it was before 1945?

      On the issue of foreign relations, the U.S. has shown that we’re okay with unilateralism, whereas the European countries seem to be more inclined to abide by multilateralism. Unfortunately, I see these two different approaches leading to deteriorating relations between the two. Additionally, as the U.S. pivots towards Asia and urges European members of NATO to take on more of a role within that organization, it appears to me that perhaps the U.S. is ready to end the “special relationship” so it can see other people. (It’s not you, it’s us 😉 )

      You also bring up a good point about the “Right” here bashing European-style economic policies. During the presidential election in 2008, it was fashionable for the Right to characterize Obama as a socialist or communist (it still is in some circles). As someone who had taught European history and continues to study it I felt a sense of duty to explain socialism and communism to them, as well as the origins of the welfare state (which in itself is difficult because welfare has a totally different connotation here). As for religion, the U.S. is becoming more secular, much to the chagrin of the Right, and there hasn’t been much said in this realm about how this affects transatlantic relations. Might be something to look into.

      One area that I didn’t mention in my original post was the notion of a common European story (Harding mentions this briefly in his article). I’ve always been perplexed by the argument that Europe does not have a common/shared history. I’m inclined to argue that Europe does have a story, but maybe that’s because I’m an outsider looking in. Sounds like a good topic for my next post.

      I wish I could have been at the talk. Of course, I wish I could have been in Brussels, or even Europe for that matter.



  2. Personally, I completely agree Europe does very clearly have a common history and “story”. I mean, a lot of European conflicts can be understood as “civil wars” for the continent’s soul, whether the Napoleonic Wars, the Second World War or the Cold War (although different parts of that story will be emphasized in different nations).

    Also, to help understand Europeans’ attitude to class/welfarism, here is a great article in the Financial Times on the French super-rich, their ownership of nearly all media and ties with government. Maybe your students would find it interesting? 🙂

  3. I believe American values come as much from leaving Europe, as from Europe. The people who came to the west, came for many reasons, but all the reasons had to do with the failures of Europe. No one came to America looking to earn a name for pioneering and then return to Europe for a book tour!

    The values of America are probably best stated by Americans. First is a belief in God, a Christian God. Not a Catholic God, or an Episcopalian God, but a Christian God. The Bible would rest as the foundation for the documents you sited in your blog post. I refer you to the Christian Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States of America, published in 1864.

    The values of America are about the liberty and freedom of the individual and his effort to escape organized humanity. I dont think man seeks chaos, but would prefer it to dictatorship, or the Euro tendency to regulate every breath.

    The values of America are about potential, how good can someone, anyone be? We do not look for set outcomes, or security, but for opportunity, risk, new ways. Special interests are anthema to the original Americans. Special interests develop after the work is done, after success has been found. They develop to protect what they have, not to rush into the unknown.

    American values have faded somewhat. Only space provides the opportunity to reignite American values, because only there is there a new frontier. Only there can we start again, without the baggage attendant to establshed communities. I beileve one “law” of society is that the higher the population density, the more the laws there will be. Thus the lower the density, the less man made laws there will be, and God’s laws will retain much authority.

    American values are about the absence of man’s laws. Not that there should not be law, just that it should not drift far from God’s laws, and that there should not be so many laws, so contrived by special interests that common sense is no longer the quide.

    Finally, American values rest on the soveriegnty of God passed to the individual, not to the state or a family (divine right). It is passed to each individual,and than a part surrendered to the state to provide only sufficient law for coexistence and the exercise of fair commerce.

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