You can still buy an American newspaper at the kiosk in Rome’s Piazza Colonna, but you have to ask the lady behind the counter. She turns from the window, paws through a stack on the floor, and produces an International Herald Tribune, holding it at arm’s length like a day-old fish. It’s the same availability and tone in Venice, the Greek islands, and Istanbul. The implicit question in the transaction is always the same: why would you want to read that thing about that place at this time?
And when you read about America in European newspapers, what you are likely to find is a tone bordering on pity. The U.S. is depicted as a fraying empire of obesity, ignorance, debt, gridlock, stagnation, and mindless war. Sure, the iPad is cool, but it is evidence of what America was, not what it will be again. The stories are not angry, accusatory, or even ideological. It’s worse: they are condescendingly elegiac.
European disdain for the United States is centuries old, of course. But over the course of decades of traveling in the U.K. and on the continent, I have never gotten the sense that I got on a recently completed three-week trip to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Black Sea. America is no longer admired, imitated, or feared. We remain—for now—a safe haven for dollars (of which there are too many in the world). But we increasingly are seen less as a model or as an empire than as a cautionary tale of national neglect and decline.
Some Europeans can’t quite hide their schadenfruede. The British—whose publications and personalities are increasingly (and annoyingly) influential in the colony they lost 227 years ago—are global leaders in condescension (think Simon Cowell). But for America they add a special twist of bitter lemon to their analyses. It’s the triumph of the doddering older brother who no longer has to be grateful to his junior. Memories fade, and the Brits no longer feel they have to be kind out of homage to our having saved them from Hitler.
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