Earlier this week, the Financial Times profiled a prominent telecoms/media entrepreneur. “Within three years,” gushed the world’s solemnest newspaper, “he transformed the bulky and insular conglomerate into a successful international business.” He “likes nothing better than a head-on challenge,” the FT elaborated further, not neglecting to mention his “cut and thrust tactics,” his “high-flying” education, his talent at networking, and his relative youth.
Surely, then, this person is someone we’ve heard of? Not likely: Jean-Marie Messier, subject of this unusually glowing profile, is French. He runs a company called Vivendi, which we’d also never heard of—until it announced, to much raising of eyebrows and harrumphing about the French and their anti-Hollywood bias, that it had taken over Seagram, together with Universal Pictures, a few days ago. Coincidentally, this happened in the same week that another body we normally know and care very little about also put itself in the path of an American new-economy giant: the European Commission’s Competition Directorate-General, that is, which decided to block the merger of Sprint and WorldCom on the grounds that the merged company would control too much of the world’s Internet traffic. “It’s over,” a senior official of the Competition Directorate-General told the Washington Post using surprisingly satisfied language: “This deal is finished. Possibly, the parties will withdraw.”
In fact, in a world in which the big trade “story” is China, and the big economic “story” is Russia, and the big regulatory “story” is Microsoft, how easy it is to forget boring old Western Europe. Looked at as a half-continent, our trade with Western Europe is at a higher volume than with any other single country in the world, including Canada: In fact, it is nearly five times as high as our trade with China. But even some individual country statistics are surprising. Among other things, the answer to the trick question about volumes of trade and levels of GDP is always Holland. Did you know that our trade with Holland is nearly three times that of our trade with Russia, even though there are only 16 million Dutch and nearly 150 million Russians? Did you know that we export twice as much to Holland as we do to China, even though there are only 16 million Dutch and 1.2 billion Chinese?
Likewise, decisions made by anonymously quoted Eurocrats working for obscure divisions of the European Commission are likely to affect us more and more. Not only has the EU blocked WorldCom’s takeover of Sprint, it has also launched an inquiry into AOL’s purchase of Time Warner. While everyone involved in these investigations insists heartily that there is no ill will intended, there isn’t any anti-Americanism around here, and the Justice Department was just about to do the same thing anyway, it is becoming clear that European regulators have enormous powers to affect those American companies that have global ambitions and fully intend to use them. Yet the foibles of EU regulatory bodies are hardly everyday editorial page fodder in America, just as aggressive challenges from European businessmen rarely spark the sort of thinly disguised xenophobia that large Japanese purchases of movie studios or Manhattan real estate once did (back in the days when the Japanese had money).
In part, Americans share some elements of this myopia with the British, who go on feeling vaguely superior to the Germans (and other continentals) even though a continuous stream of German purchases of major British car manufacturers and banks: It seems to be an Anglophone trait, this general belief that otherwise familiar-looking people who don’t speak our language aren’t to be taken seriously. Anglophone provincialism has also worsened in the computer age. It is now generally taken for granted, in places like Washington and New York and London, that everything important that happens, happens in English. Who knows from French media companies? Who knows from German banks? An extremely close relative of mine once refused to take an aspirin while abroad, on the grounds that the package had German writing on it: Only when it was pointed out to her that aspirin was a German invention, and that Bayer is a German company, did she give in.
But there is also a deeper, more atavistic element at work: The real challenges, we seem to feel, must come from people who are genuinely Alien. The Chinese are Alien. The Dutch are not. How could they be? Van Gogh’s sunflowers are virtually an American icon, clogs are a fashionable item in downtown Manhattan: It is hard to see the Netherlands as anything like the equivalent of the Yellow Peril. It is true, as I wrote in this space recently that a small but significant handful of Americans are beginning to see a threat in the EU’s vague defense strategy, but very few have perceived either the economic challenge, which is admittedly dwarfish but has potential, or the far more serious regulatory challenge, which is already here. Maybe it isn’t too late to work up some animus. Think about it: Do we really want our movies made by the French?