It has been fashionable in the last decade, among the American right, to comment on the ongoing decline and fall of the European civilisation. Europe's economy was supposed to be stifled by the welfare state and a despairingly progressive culture. Its cultural identity was described as waning with the decline of Christianity and a rising Muslim presence. Its morality was denounced as lost in cynicism, resentment and cowardice. Finally, Europe's very will to live was cast in doubt as Europe was engulfed in demographic decline, refusing to spend any significant amount of money on its own defence and bashing the very Amerincan power on which Europe's security depends.
Like most caricatures, this schadenfreude-inspired outlook on Europe includes some elements of the truth. What it does not include is a balanced view of Europe's remaining strengths and of the weaknesses of competing cultural zones - America very much included. Weakness and strength are, after all, purely relative matters. Before one can affirm that Europe is on the way out, it is not enough to say that the Old continent has weaknesses ; it is necessary to confront these weaknesses with the supposed strengths of competitors. When this comparison is done, Europe appears bound to remain what it is : a wealthy part of the world, with societies mostly animated by tolerant and civilised values, less dynamic indeed than the United States, but not threatened in its existence in the foreseeable future.
Take the economy, for instance. The aggregate GNP of the European Union is slightly larger than that of the United States ; its average growth rate has been smaller in the past decade (2.0% a year on average from 1999 to 2007, against 2.9% for the United States) but it is still positive, ensuring a yearly increase of the average European's well-being. Europe has lost less manufacturing to Asia than has the US. It has not managed, like the US did, to excel in software and biotechnologies - but it has world-leading technologies with mammoth global companies in the fields of oil and nuclear energy, banking, environment, construction, electronics, airplane and train constructions, insurance... European universities do lack behind American ones on average, but keep significant niches of worldwide excellence in engineering, maths, physics and finance.
Demography is also more of a moot point than is sometimes assumed in the US. Europe's demography is dire, but less so than Russia's, Japan's or indeed China's, in spite of all the talk of China as tomorrow's global giant. The demographically weakest parts of Europe - Germany and Italy - also have the most crowded cities, leaving no room for the future invaders of American fantasies. France is now bucking the trend and has started a new phase of demographic expansion - which (if anecdotal evidence is allowed, since no statistics are available on this point) seems to include the traditional white population just as much as African and Muslim newcomers. Only the future will say if other countries follow suit, but France has proven that a reversal is fully possible.
On defence, it is perfectly true that Europe is underspending and free-riding on the US. Why this is a problem to the United States is not clear, since it ensures that Europe must remain an American ally for the foreseeable future. Exactly no one is talking about joining forces militarily with any other nation or group of nations, and it is well known that the threats to Europe would come from either Russia or Iran : the US alliance is therefore a vital necessity, and our very stinginess in spending ensures that this alliance will go on.
The Muslim issue has also been much exaggerated. Yes, a walk in the suburbs of Paris or in Central Brussels or Malmo can be an impressing sight of ongoing Islamization - but it does not show the whole picture ; no more than would an author who declared that the United States is an African country after visiting Harlem. Europe has approximately 5% Muslims on its soil. The largest parts of the continent - about all of the countryside and all the North-Eastern quarter of the European Union - are largely Muslim-free. The political balance of the continent as a whole gives far less weight to Muslims than that of Israel, where Muslims are 18% of the population and which has been surprisingly spared by the American prophets of doom affirming that Europe would soon be lost.
More importantly, Europe is influencing its Muslims just as much as they are influencing it. France now has a practicing Muslim justice minister - but before howls of doom start to rise, it may be noted that Ms Rachida Dati is also an open admirer of Israel and a proud mother-to-be to the child of a man she refuses to marry in order to keep control of her life. Ms Dati recently upheld the recent decision of a court denying French citizenship to a woman who insisted on living purely by sharia standards. For every creepy example of Muslim agression on European values, Europe can show a shining counter-example of successful Westernization such as Ms Dati's. Some of these examples can be shown at the level of entire countries, as a walk through the young nation of Kosovo - Muslim for sure, but Western-dressed, partying and wine-drinking - would prove to anyone who cared to visit.
This points out to another factor, which is the remaining cultural strengths of Europe. Democracy is as strongly entrenched here as in the United States, and we have known nothing comparable to hanging chads or ACORN voter fraud for quite a while. Freedom of speech is indeed imperfect in the mainstream press, but large-scale use of Internet makes this far less of a problem than it may seem. Even in newspapers, that freedom is far from dead. It was instructive, to put it mildly, to discover that when the Danish cartoons became a global crisis three years ago, it was in the US that no one dared to publish them, while several European newspapers had the courage to do so.
All this is not to say that Europe has not its problems ; but a more balanced view of these problems, and acknowledgement of the strengths that counterbalance them, could only help improve the understanding of the Old Continent.