It is a telling exemplification of the American intellectual heritage that the expression “that’s history” is commonly understood not merely in the sense of something being “in the past.” Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford historian, once noted that to the American, “that’s history” implies that whatever is in the past is consequently of no import in the present. Though comprising only two words, this uniquely American expression speaks volumes to the yawning intellectual gulf between the American and her European sister.

The continuing endeavor to draw the states of Europe into an “ever closer union” has indeed been, as Robert Kagan avers, nothing short of a miracle of international politics. The significance of the truly historic achievement constituted by the European Union is certainly not lost on the citizens of Europe. Rather, its monumentality is continually emphasized by European leaders in order to underscore the importance of deepening the EU in respect of political unity.

Though self-evident to the European, it is all too often neglected by the American that the European Union is not merely a single economic market. The origins of European integration lay as deeply within the political and moral convictions of its proponents as in the economic imperatives of post-war reconstruction. It was not of secondary importance to Jean Monnet and his coterie to ensure that 1,000 years of war on the European continent came to a definitive end. Indeed, it is perhaps difficult to underestimate the weight of the moral burden borne by Europeans, including even the ambivalently European British at the conclusion of the Second World War. To a greater extent that forward-looking ambition and historical reflection animated the architects of the great European project.

More than fifty years hence the moral undergirding of European integration has not been forgotten. On the contrary, it continues to propel the European Union toward its Kantian paradise of perpetual peace. More than a few observers even contend that a European utopia has already been realized. If it has, this accomplishment appears to have left many on the other side of the Atlantic scratching their heads: do Europeans not acknowledge the necessity of going to war to repel a rampaging tyrant? Do they not understand what it means to live in constant fear of attack? Why do they insist on a multilateral solution to a uni-faceted problem? Don’t they remember Munich, 1938?

Despite the historical references, it is precisely this ignorant and disingenuous question-posing which moves the European to dismiss the history of the American as hopelessly remote from any meaningful conception of history and its implications for the present and future. It appears beyond the ken of the American that residual anxiety derived of a war which ended almost 60 years ago should today shape the moral convictions of the European. By the American, the `German problem’ is likely understood to be double-digit unemployment; a reason for further integration indeed, but certainly not cause to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Such is not a demonstration of invincible ignorance as much as of a fundamentally different way of conceiving her role in the world: the American is exceptional among the citizens of the globe, unencumbered and undeterred by what she perceives to be the immaterial lessons of history.

To be sure, the American and the European have much in common. As is often affirmed by concerned diplomats, Europeans and Americans share a political heritage rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment and evidenced in comparable systems of liberal democratic values comprising lofty notions of liberty, justice and equality. This is all very well, and rendered no less true by any number of political fallouts across the Atlantic. It is instructive to recall, however, that Freud defined our mortal enemy as she who would be deeply similar to us but for the narcissism of small differences. Indeed, the history of European warfare does not read like a 1,000-year clash of civilizations.

It is, then, her unique conception of the role of history in shaping her ideas that distinguishes the American from the European. Rather than keep it close at hand, the American moves inexorably away from her own history, ever toward a future which is undoubtedly brighter than the past. It is this teleological notion of history which informs the United States as it seeks not merely to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past in Iraq, Europe and elsewhere, but to render practically irrelevant all that has gone before.

The Peace of Westphalia? Versailles, 1919? Nov. 9, 1989? That’s history.

Murray Gregorson is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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