There is an interesting essay in Sunday's New York Times about the strain between the US and Europe. It asks the questions: why is Europe so fixated on America? and why does it hold particular stereotypes about America?
The conventional story is that America is the 800lb gorilla of the world. We have the largest economy, the largest military, and the largest ego in the world. When America sneezes, it is the rest of the world that catches cold. Moreover, America's cultural exports--movies, tv shows--provide the raw material for carciatures about American individualism.
This essay offers an explanation rooted in a human tendency to dichotomize categories. Since the post-Cold War period, Europe has increasingly defined itself against America. Whereas Europeans and Americans once viewed themselves as structurally, culturally, and politically equivalent when compared against the Soviet Union,today they see each other as vastly different. This is a profound transformation. Relatively small differences in social policies are interpreted as vast differences in ideologies; small differences in attitudes about the role of the market in society become bifuricated into differences over the role of private actors in society. Moreover, whereas as the "state" has become weaker, Europe's orientation is to replace the source of social order with community, not the market. In America, the market has taken the primary role.
I believe that one additional factor accounting for Europe's obsession with America is that what happens in the US is a harbinger for what will happen in Europe. Think about it--privatization; deregulation; reforming the welfare state--are changes that happened in the US over 10 years ago. These are changes that are just now occuring in Europe.
The money quote is Joe Jaffe's quote about the source of Europe's obsession with America:
There is, in other words, a fear in Europe of a country that has no global counterweight, says Josef Joffe, editor of the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit. But most of that fear, perhaps 70 percent of it, Mr. Joffe estimates, is irrational.
"The irrational part is as old as anti-Americanism," he says. "America is the steamroller of modernity, and its forcing the Europeans to adapt." Europe's inability to recover from recession contrasts with a relatively quick rebound in the United States, Mr. Joffe says, "so there's envy of America and resentment of it, too."
I've met Mr. Joffe, and needless to say, he doesn't mince words.