The city of Venice may not be the obvious place for a call for the moral revival of Europe. This is where Lord Byron used to swim naked down the Grand Canal between pink palaces and swaying gondolas in the early morning hours after nights of carousing. This is where Thomas Mann a century later celebrated the beauty of decline in "Death in Venice."
For the past four years, however, Venice has also been home to the "Venice Colloquium," sponsored by the Fondazione Liberal, an Italian free-market group, headed by member of parliament Ferdinando Adornato. The purpose of the event is to bring like-minded Europeans and Americans together in an effort to bridge the transatlantic divide. It is a call to common values, mostly perhaps directed at Europeans, for whom values these days seem like archaic encumbrances.
Americans are therefore a great puzzle to many Europeans. So are President Bush and his newly nominated secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Many Europeans cannot get over the fact that 22 percent of American voters in the presidential election stated that they considered "moral values" their most important issue, and the reaction here has greatly resembled the hysterical hyperventilating of the Hollywood-New York elite after the U.S. election.
"In Europe, people are embarrassed to talk about moral values," says Tessa Keswick of the Center for Policy Studies in London. Or if they do, it is a new kind of moral value, closely identified with political correctness, which can be "frighteningly intolerant." The need for Europe to re-establish its moral identity is becoming evident to people here, even if this is still a minority view. While 40 percent of Americans attend church at least once a week, on average 4 percent of Europeans do. Outbreaks of anti-Semitism and xenophobia keep cropping up in large part because of growing Muslim immigrant populations that have not been socially integrated.
And there is an overall reluctance to accept the global war on terror as an actual war. Europe's resident troublemaker, French President Jacques Chirac, speaks of the European Union as a multilateral model for the world, yet this model is incapable of defeating terrorism. Therefore, politicians here, with the exception of Britain's Tony Blair, like to pretend that police action is all we need to take care of al Qaeda.
But not all Europeans are resigned to the decline in values and vigor that they see around them. If 70 percent of Frenchmen, for instance, would have preferred Sen. John Kerry to win the 2004 election, then 30 percent supported George Bush.
What kind of values are we talking about? More than family values per se, many are worried about the fundamental values of the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition, from which spring our concepts of human, political and religious rights.
"Unless Europe remembers the values of its own traditions, it is bound to be neglected," says Mr. Adornato, and Islam will prevail. "If we have no values and behave only in a relativistic way, we will lose because the other side believes more in their values than we do in ours." Hoping to inspire renewed cooperation between the United States and Europe, Fondazione Liberal has proposed a New Common Charter for Europe and the United States. In some ways resembling President Bush's recent speeches on the promotion of freedom and democracy, this New Common Charter focuses on the rather ambitious goal of "global liberty" and is yet a work in progress. Significantly, though, it is one among several recent efforts at rewriting the Atlantic Charter to put the U.S.-European relationship back on a more solid footing.
The fact is that Europe needs the United States, more than the other way around, to exert global influence. And while the French love to talk about counterbalancing the United States on the world stage, the Italian government has no such desire.
The response to comments made in London last week by Mr. Chirac about the multipolar world including an American pole, a European pole, a Chinese pole and a Russian pole could not be stronger. "Europe cannot and should not be a counterweight to the United States," says Franco Frattini, who recently stepped down as Italy's foreign minister to become its representative on the EU Commission. "We have never been on opposite sides and I cannot imagine Europe siding with anyone else." Important here to note are the pronounced divisions within Europe itself, divisions that Americans have not provoked or created. Europeans will have to decide what kind of continent they want, and they still disagree deeply about the future.
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .
First appeared in The Washington Times