[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:20 GMT
Transatlantic divisions run deep

By Justin Webb
BBC Washington correspondent

President Bush is about to launch himself into the most ambitious piece of diplomacy he has ever attempted. He will become the first American President in history to visit the core institutions of the European Union, in an effort to patch up relations with the Europeans.

US President George W Bush with French President Jacques Chirac
President Bush will try to patch up relations with France

Six strangers were suspended the other day high above the Colorado Rockies, in a skiing gondola, a rather intimate six seater.

I was the only Englishman, and with customary politeness, the Americans questioned me gently on matters royal.

Amid the stunning snow-capped mountains, a far more open vista than in the Alps, we talked of Camilla and Charles, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

I am ashamed to say that I used the old line about the castle being built too close to Heathrow Airport and they all nodded sagely and agreed it had been a mistake.

But then, unusually, a note of controversy was injected, and not by me.

Prince Harry, one of the skiers opined, had been very, very badly advised to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party. The others all knew of the incident and nodded in pained agreement.

America is strait-laced and earnest, and is getting more so with every passing day

Then they abruptly changed the subject to American concerns, where they lived and what they did, as if suddenly my corner of the cabin had developed a bit of a smell.

The Harry kerfuffle was utterly incomprehensible to Americans. They simply could not imagine how such a thing could ever be seen, in any circumstances, by anyone, to be funny or forgivable.

They do not use the word decadent, but that view of their cousins over the seas seeps into almost every area of life.


America is strait-laced and earnest, and is getting more so with every passing day.

A recent example which caught my eye, I thought at first it was a joke, that several television stations refused to allow the screening of Steven Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, is not pornographic, nor is it grotesquely violent. It is a war film with some shooting and some swearing.

America is fast becoming a nation of faith not fact

Although it would be shown on any television station anywhere in Europe, with no comment and no censorship, the swearing is too much for America.

At least they say it is the swearing, but I wonder if there is a more profound difficulty here.

My memory of the film is that it is occasionally grittily realistic. In the battle scenes, soldiers are scared and their deaths are not always terribly glorious.

It is in other words true to life, and that is another area where Europe and America increasingly diverge.

America is fast becoming a nation of faith not fact. A nation where the unpleasant aspects of human existence are simply airbrushed away.

Television coverage of the Asian Tsunami was a case in point. In Europe it was covered as an unrelenting tragedy, in America, one television network promised "incredible stories of lives saved in near miraculous fashion".


President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas
Despite pressure from Europe, Bush has not signed the Kyoto treaty

Americans want to believe in miracles, their heads are in the clouds.

While Europeans fret about what they regard as real life, about poverty and social justice and about combating AIDS, Americans find it easier to rally round a vision, however otherworldly it might be.

Millions of Americans, 17% according to a recent survey, seriously believe that the end of the world is coming in their lifetimes and that they will be sucked up through the clouds to heaven.

Of course, we all know how much more religious Americans are, but the crucial point, it seems to me, is that the kind of religious beliefs on the march in America tend to be those stressed in the book of revelation rather than the sermon on the mount.

No wonder then, that in international affairs America is so willing to smite its enemies.

Or to hold firm to a principle even when practicalities get in the way.

It has been happening for years.

'Atlantic chasm'

Witness President Reagan's arms build up in the 1980s, which helped to destroy the Soviet Union, or the first President Bush's decision to press for German re-unification, when even Mrs Thatcher was nervous.

On the big issues, issues governing proper human conduct, the two continents are utterly divided

The fact is that Americans have long regarded Europeans as weak-willed, lily-livered, morally degenerate moaners, incapable of clear thinking or resolute action.

My point is that this tendency is accelerating.

All the handshakes we are about to see and all the warm words cannot do any more than paper over a growing Atlantic chasm.

The talk of common values is increasingly just talk.

On the big issues, issues governing proper human conduct, the two continents are utterly divided.

At the end of my skiing holiday, I drove my family home in a hired car larger than most tanks and as fuel efficient as the Queen Mary.

On the journey to Denver airport, dozens of similar vehicles passed us.

At the very moment that the Kyoto treaty was coming into force, to the sound of great European fanfares, America, to paraphrase its greatest poet, opted to take the road less travelled and did not regret it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 February, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Bush resists pressure on Kyoto
16 Feb 05 |  Americas
US reaches out to 'old Europe'
08 Feb 05 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific