Barack Obama’s seemingly inexplicable winning of the Nobel Peace Prize says less about him than about the current mentality of Europe’s leadership class. Lacking any strong, compelling voices of their own, the Europeans are now trying to hijack our president as their spokesman.
There’s a catch, of course. In their mind, Obama deserves the award because he seems to think, and sound, like a European. In everything from global warming to anti-suburbanism to pacifism, Obama reflects the basic agenda of the continent’s leading citizens–in sharp contrast to former President George W. Bush.
Indeed it’s likely that if Obama wanted to run for presidency of the E.U., he could mail it in. Unfortunately for him, he presides over a country that faces a very different future from that of Europe.
This is not to say we cannot learn from Europe in certain areas–namely fuel economy and health care. Republicans dropped the ball on both of these issues, and as a result both our health care system and automobile efficiency pale next to those of the continent.
Still, the reality is that America and Europe are very different, which would necessitate disparate policy approaches. Our growing divergence with Europe spans everything from demographics to economic needs and basic values. In all these areas, the gap is likely to increase over time.
This is why the Obama Administration’s Europhilia, now likely to become more pronounced, represents a dangerous temptation. For one thing, Europe’s generally ultra low birth rates–compared with those in the U.S.–imposes structural limits on how their economies can grow and even if they even need growth.
If our core problems come from over-consumption and irrational financial-sector exuberance, Europe’s sluggishness stems from the lack of an expanding workforce and consumer base. This means Germany–by far the most important E.U. country in terms population and gross domestic product–must rely on exports to maintain its generally slow growth rate. More important, as the current generation in their 50s retire, the workforce is likely to shrink dramatically in almost all European countries, making even modest growth difficult.
In a rapidly aging society like Germany’s and those of other E.U. countries you can make a case for slow growth, limited work hours, early retirement and a strict regulatory regime. But for America, with its growing workforce and population, slow economic growth simply is not socially sustainable.
More broadly, we are talking about two different mindsets. As one writer puts it, Europeans “emphasize quality of life over accumulation” and “play over unrelenting toil.” In contrast, most Americans seem ill-disposed to relax their work ethic, which has been central to the national character from its earliest days.
Of course, the European approach is celebrated by some Americans, particularly those who already have achieved a high level of affluence. It plays very well in “little Europes” of America, cities like San Francisco, Portland and Boston, places with relatively few children and generally slow-growing populations.
But most Americans do not seem ready for a lifestyle buffeted by regulations and limitations. Still attached to their aspirations, they seem no less satisfied with their way life than do Europeans. Even amid the recession, 70% Americans still embrace the idea that they can get ahead through hard work.
There are other critical differences. Americans remain more religiously minded. One analyst, David Hart, has spoken of Europe’s “metaphysical boredom.” Half or more of Europeans never attend church, compared with barely 20% in the U.S.
Among younger Europeans, the loss of traditional Christian identity–with its focus on long-term commitments, sacrifice and responsibility–is virtually complete: According to one Belgian demographer, barely one in 10 young adults in the E.U. maintains any link to an organized religion. In contrast roughly 60% of Americans, according to a Pew Global Attitudes survey, believe religion is “very important,” twice the rate of Canadians, Britons, Koreans or Italians and six times the rate of French or Japanese.
Some observers, both in America and abroad, see this spiritualism, particularly among evangelical Christians, as reflecting a kind of social retardation. Yet belief in America is remarkably varied, extending beyond groups that are easily classified as liberal or conservative. In America, a broad “spiritual” focus–dating from the earliest founders and continuing through the transcendentalists and Walt Whitman–persists as a vital force. Even President Obama, whose base tends to be secular, has made much of his religious ties.
In Europe, the only truly rising faith appears to be the secular religion of the environmental zealots. Often almost theocratic in its passion, the green movement tends to be hostile to even modest population growth and economic progress. It’s no coincidence that the last American to win the Nobel Prize was the climate change high priest himself, former Vice President Al Gore.
To be sure, Americans also care about the planet, but they seem more disposed to see technological innovation, not abstinence, as the best way to confront ecological problems. The kind of highly restrictive regulatory environment common in Europe–and sadly in such places as California—simply is not well-suited for a country that must produce much more wealth and millions more jobs in order to sustain itself.
Even though they may espouse secular ideals, this more growth oriented mentality also attracts a sizable number of talented and ambitious young Europeans to the U.S., as well as Australia and Canada. Although influential social commentator Richard Florida has claimed that the bright lights and “tolerance” of Europe are luring large numbers of skilled Americans, actual migration trends tell quite the opposite story. By 2004 some 400,000 E.U. science and technology graduates were residing in the U.S. Barely one in seven, according to a recent European Commission poll, intends to return.
Perhaps the president should speak to these young Europeans. They still buy the notion of America as a country open to innovation and striving for upward mobility. Europe, in contrast, perhaps as the result of two debilitating wars in the last century, understandably craves peacefulness and social stability over all else.
When he goes to Oslo next month, Obama should remember that America’s future is not to become a bigger version of Norway, a tiny country fat with fossil fuels that can afford its air of moral superiority. We are also not latter day versions of Britain, France, Germany or Russia–all of them worn empires exhausted by history.
Ultimately America is about hope and aspiration. It is, if you will, a country based on an ideal, not a race or cultural legacy. As the British writer G. K. Chesterton once put it, the U.S. is “the only nation … that is founded on a creed.” That creed is not so much religious as aspirational, and it will become more important as we attempt to cope with our own growing diversity as well as the rising powers from the developing world.
So even as he enjoys his popularity on the continent, Obama must be careful not succumb to those who urge him to reshape America in Europe’s image. Take this prize, Mr. President, and then shelve it.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.