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How Strong Are Shared Values in The

How Strong Are Shared Values in The

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Published by: api-3701898 on Oct 18, 2008
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How Strong are Shared Values in the
Transatlantic Relationship?1
Alex Danchev

Transatlantic relations are underpinned by common values. So prime ministers and presidents proclaim. This essay argues that they protest too much. It contends that a fog of rhetoric and gen- eralisation obscures the fundamental fact that the \u2018Atlantic community\u2019 has dissipated; and that, surveying the terrain of transatlantic values, there is no prospect of its reconstitution.

The pitch for shared values is long on assertion and strong on tradition, almost as if ritual incantation will make it come true, like prayers, or at least provide some comfort for the bereft. Perhaps it is also a pitch for that elusive spot so coveted by statespersons of every persuasion, the moral high ground. \u2018We are the ally of the US not because they are powerful, but because we share their values\u2019, Tony Blair admonished a gathering of British ambassadors in January 2003. \u2018I am not sur- prised by anti-Americanism\u2019, he continued snappishly, making a familiar move, \u2018but it is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults, and all nations have them, the US are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud\u2019 (Blair 2003).

So fervent and so insistent is this evangelist tendency that the rhetoric of shared values is itself part and parcel of the trappings of transatlanticism. The mobilising notion of an Atlantic community\u2014a community of values\u2014is among other things an exploitation of history for present purposes, deployed by one side or another as circumstances dictate. Appeals to an Atlantic future are all in some measure exhor- tations to live up to an Atlantic past. The future is wish-ful\ufb01lled. The past is mon- umentalised, as Nietzsche says.

As long as the soul of historiography lies in the greatstimuli that a man of power derives from it, as long as the past has to be described as worthy of imitation, as imitable and possible for a second time, it of course incurs the danger of becoming somewhat distorted, beauti\ufb01ed and coming close to free poetic invention; there have been ages, indeed, which were quite incapable of distinguishing between a monumentalised past and a mythical \ufb01ction, because precisely the same stimuli can be derived from the one world as from the other (Nietzsche 1983 [1874], 70, original emphasis).

Public performance\u2014celebration\u2014has always been an important element in the transatlantic relationship, especially among its poets and propagandists, from Irving to Isaiah Berlin, who in this respect whistled very much the same tune, making it peculiarly appropriate that Winston Churchill, the evangelist-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, should get them mixed up.

BJPIR: 2005 VOL 7, 429\u2013436
\u00a9 Political Studies Association, 2005. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road,
Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

My British buddy,
We\u2019re as diff\u2019rent as can be;
He thinks he\u2019s winning the war,
And I think it\u2019s me.
But we\u2019re in there pitching,
And on one thing we agree:
When the job is done
And the war is won,
We\u2019ll be clasping hands across the sea.2

(Berlin 2004, 397)

The evangelist tendency has always been suspect. It was expertly satirised over 50 years ago by the author ofOne-Upmanship, Stephen Potter, who included a helpful section on what he called hands-across-the-seamanship, \u2018this splendid instrument of general dis-ease, gambits, counter-gambits, and the one-up-one-down atmos- phere\u2019. Hands-across-the-seamanship was at the same time subtle and not so subtle:

It is not our policy continuously to try to be one-up, as a nation, on other nations; but it is our aim to rub in the fact that we are not trying to do this, otherwise what is the point of not trying to do this?

First lessons concentrate on the necessity of always using the same phrases, and using them again and again. No harm in the general reader memorising one or two of them now:

We have a lot in common.
After all, we come from the same stock.
We have a lot to learn from each other.3

(Potter 1970, 263)

Potter was echoing the founding fathers. The preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty (1949) af\ufb01rms the determination of the signatories \u2018to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law\u2019. No one now consults the North Atlantic Treaty\u2014in truth, no one now consults NATO\u2014but this sort of talk is indeed the common currency of a certain kind of celebration. It celebrates a vividly imag- ined community of like-minded peoples, kith and kin across the storm-toss\u2019d sea, locked in tight embrace for noble if cloudy purpose. The president himself (or his speechwriters) indulged in it on a state visit to Britain in November 2003, when he extolled the virtues of something \u2018more than an alliance of security and com- merce ... an alliance of values\u2019:

The fellowship of generations is the cause of common beliefs. We believe in open societies ordered by moral conviction. We believe in private markets, humanized by compassionate government. We believe in economies that reward effort, communities that protect the weak, and the duty of nations to respect the dignity and the rights of all. And whether one learns these ideals in County Durham or in West Texas, they instil mutual respect and they inspire common purpose ...


The deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy. We value our own civil rights, so we stand for the human rights of others. We af\ufb01rm the God-given dignity of every person, so we are moved to action by poverty and oppression and famine and disease. The United States and Great Britain share a mission in a world beyond the balance of power or the simple pursuit of interest. We seek the advance of freedom and the peace that freedom brings. Together our nations are standing and sacri\ufb01cing for this high goal in a distant land at this very hour (Bush 2003).

Many found this hard to swallow at the time. In retrospect, the issue of the hol- lowness of the rhetoric is unavoidable, given what is now known of the degrad- ing practices at Abu Ghraib and other facilities around the globe. The God-given dignity of every person in American custody has not been respected, to put it mildly. The damage is uncontained and perhaps uncontainable. Its poisonous effect will surely be long-lasting, especially in the Muslim world\u2014as indicated by the multiplication and reproduction of the images, everywhere from street murals to Internet sites\u2014a disastrous outcome (Danner 2004; Sontag, New York Times

Magazine, 23 May 2004).4Moral capital is an asset of immeasurable worth and
distinctive properties. It evaporates before your very eyes, but it takes the wisdom
of ages to accrue.

For an alliance of values, moral ruination is a particular hardship. Such an obser- vation is not anti-Americanism. (Argumentative space is also part of the transat- lantic tradition.) Nor is it a gambit, in Stephen Potter\u2019s terms, a smuggled claim to be one-up. There is no scope for self-exculpation. Regrettably, Britain appears to have been complicit in the system of abuse from the outset. Virtually every member of the European comity of nations has fallen into similar temptation in the recent past. Europe, not Africa, is \u2018the dark continent\u2019 of the 20thcentury, as Mark Mazower has powerfully demonstrated (Mazower 1998). International (or internecine) point-scoring is fruitless. As Walt Whitman knew, the damage is indivisible:

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
(Whitman 1998, 48)

The harder question is how far a global war on terror is compatible with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, at home and abroad, and to what extent the inevitable contradictions will expose and exacerbate transatlantic tensions in an era when Europe has lost salience for many Americans and America has lost cre- dence for many Europeans\u2014when the very idea of an alliance of values seems either quaint or oppressive. A Pew Center poll of July 2004 found that 43 per cent of all Americans, 48 per cent of American men, 54 per cent of American men under 50, and 58 per cent of those intending to vote for George W. Bush in the presi- dential election believed that torture of suspected terrorists can \u2018often\u2019 or \u2018some- times\u2019 be justi\ufb01ed.5There seems to be no directly comparable data for Europeans. Any guesswork in this \ufb01eld is fraught with dif\ufb01culty\u2014there has been altogether too much self-congratulation in the matter of European civilisation\u2014but it would

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