BRUSSELS—One can certainly understand why Europeans are further along in the conversation about governments’ mounting debt loads than Americans are. Sovereign-debt crises in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal (with several other countries not far behind) have dominated the news in Europe for more than a year.
In the United States, we are used to deficit scolds holding forth on the op-ed pages and on the cable food-fight shows. But in Europe, the genuine prospect of having to bail out nearby countries or, conversely, needing your neighbors to bail out your nation’s economy has a way of focusing the mind.
David Cameron, who has been the United Kingdom’s prime minister for less than a year, has embarked on an austerity program that Americans can’t even imagine. The impact, which Britons are just starting to feel, is prompting massive demonstrations and, in some cases, rioting in the streets.
Needless to say, no one is rioting in Washington. Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the White House have long avoided making the tough decisions on the nation’s deficit. One hears a lot of talk about proposals to address budget deficits, entitlements, the spiraling national debt, and our unsustainable financial path. But policymakers have taken no actions that have sent people to the barricades, save in Madison, Wis. Europe’s economic woes warrant only a 1- or 2-inch brief in an American newspaper, but Europeans are getting a steady stream of front-page and top-of-the-news stories about the perilous economic situation there.
The financial crises, along with the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa, were the dominant subjects at the sixth Brussels Forum, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The just-concluded conference brought together current and former prime ministers and presidents; foreign, finance, and trade ministers; and other senior government officials; along with leading think-tankers and journalists from Europe and around the world.
This year’s conference featured one panel with Gordon Brown, former British prime minister; Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization; Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank; and Michel Pébereau, chairman of European banking giant BNP Pariabas. Other panels featured senior officials of the Russian and Chinese governments, not something that many other gatherings can match.
The heads of the European Union’s member countries were also meeting in Brussels to discuss the impending bailout of Portugal, plus events in Libya and elsewhere in the Mideast. Those topics likewise led the conversation in the sessions and the hallways at the Brussels Forum.
One takeaway is that although democracy movements are driving much of what has happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries with oppressive regimes, economic factors are a powerful force, as well. Poverty, income inequality, rising food prices, and, in some cases, extraordinary levels of youth unemployment have created enormous and highly combustible reservoirs of popular resentment. Add the fuse of the Internet and social media, which enable ordinary people to become acutely aware of the lifestyles and opportunities that exist in other countries or among their own countries’ elites—and explosions occur.
Without growth in economic opportunities, particularly jobs for teenagers and young adults, the region will become even more vulnerable to political instability and revolution. These events are highly relevant for Americans because even if some of the nations in upheaval are not of great strategic value to the United States, the region as a whole is vitally important as an energy source. The prospect of $4-dollar-a-gallon gasoline for a sustained period should grab every American’s attention.
Moreover, these uprisings could generate millions of political and economic refugees, a situation that could easily spread cultural and political tension further afield. Listening to a Moroccan law professor at the conference protesting the second-class treatment of North Africans, many of whom are Muslims, in European countries reminded this American of similar complaints in the United States from Hispanics and other immigrants.
Nickolay Mladenov, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, compared the ongoing Arab Spring to the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern and Central Europe two decades ago. Yves Leterme, Belgium’s prime minister, warned participants not to expect Western-style democracies to emerge. Democracy is not a flower that can be easily transported to all soils, he said. Nations where dictators have ruled with scorched-earth policies will have trouble building anything like the kind of democracy found in Europe, North America, and some Asian countries.
These revolutions and uprisings are near enough to the Continent that Europeans see them—just as they do with the looming government defaults even closer to home—as real events with real consequences. Although the consequences might seem less obvious to Americans, these global events are just as critical for us.
This article appears in the April 2, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.