The Continental Divide Isn’t So Wide

In most of Europe, the days when cigarette smoke was part of every dining experience are gone. Smoking bans are spreading all over the continent; on January 1, even France and Germany will join the crowd, banning tobacco in virtually all public entertainment facilities. Britain, Ireland, Italy and a score of other countries have already done so over the past few years, and the few remaining smoker havens — which unfortunately includes my home country of Austria — are expected to give way soon.

That trend is not only good news for the health of Europeans, smokers and non-smokers alike. It also tells us something about the state of transatlantic relations: In key cultural and social areas, America and Europe are not — contrary to common wisdom — drifting apart.

Banning cigarettes in the public sphere is very much an American invention. For years, Europeans pooh-poohed the strict American anti-smoking laws as just another sign of puritanism gone awry. Europeans, myself included, drew bitter comparisons to the Prohibition era in the 1920s and 1930s and the various restrictions on nudity — remember Janet Jackson’s “Nipplegate”? — and lascivious behavior.

Sure, many of us argued here, smoking is harmful, but isn’t it also a sign of a free society that people are free to hurt themselves? And isn’t it enough to provide smoke-free areas to those who want to avoid passive smoke? Why stop everyone from smoking everywhere?

As it turned out, Americans won the argument hands down. Within the course of just a few years, the European approach to smoking has moved from tolerance to rigidity. Rules vary from country to country, but smoking is banned in most work places and public buildings, as well as on airplanes and trains. The last battlefields are cafes, pubs and restaurants, and even there, the argument that employees have to be protected from the harms associated with second-hand smoke is carrying the day.

So what does this have to do with international politics? A lot.

Starting in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and friction grew between the United States and its European partners, it became fashionable to offer pessimistic commentary on the future of transatlantic relations. Europeans and Americans not only differ on specific questions like Middle East policy or international trade, it was heard often, they no longer share the same values and basic concepts of what a good society should look like.

Europeans care about the environment and climate change, while Americans are committed to religion and public morality but will do nothing to save the planet. Europeans regard capital punishment as murder, many Americans say the same about abortion. Europeans are afraid of war, Americans are aggressors who go unchecked. Europeans restrict handguns, Americans cling to the Second Amendment. Europeans would not touch genetically modified food and hormone-treated beef, while Americans go berserk because of a bit of cigarette smoke.

All these trends, said the pundits, would alienate Europeans and Americans from each other and make it much harder to reach agreement on global problems, be they fighting against climate change of preventing nuclear proliferation. Other experts pointed to demographic trends: Thanks to immigration, fewer Americans identify with Europe as the land of their ancestors, while diverging birth rates would make the United States a young and dynamic society compared to aging Europe.

All these tendencies do indeed exist, but it’s become clear that transatlantic relations in the 21st century are more about convergence than about divergence. As Europeans enforce smoking bans, they are adopting a very modern aspect of the American way of life — one that interferes much more with personal habits than watching American soap operas or munching popcorn in the movie theaters.

Families are moving from the cities to the suburbs, just like their American counterparts have done for a generation or two. While climate change is all the rage in Europe, the sale of gas-guzzling SUVs is booming, forcing the European Commission to adopt fuel-efficiency standards similar to America’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules.

Meanwhile, Americans are becoming more European, or at least so it appears. Even outside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California, the commitment to fight climate change is strengthening (though perhaps not in the White House). Americans are rediscovering their cities. More and more pedestrian zones and bike paths, things quintessentially European, are being demarcated.

Religion remains a major force in the United States, but social tolerance is also growing. Gay marriage is debated pretty much the same way on both sides of the Atlantic. And large swaths of American society are turning away from capital punishment and the free availability of guns.

The real fissure, it seems, runs not across the Atlantic, but across America — between urban and rural spheres, between the red and blue states. Sure, there will still be plenty of political disagreements and cultural misunderstandings between Europeans and Americans, but those who argue that the transatlantic alliance is irreversibly drifting apart are doing little more than blowing smoke. Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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Eric Frey

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