Reinhold Wagnleitner - "The Very Idea of America Is a European Invention"

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Mar 20, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Reinhold Wagnleitner - "The Very Idea of America Is a European Invention"

Reinhold Wagnleitner discusses how attitudes to globalization and the GCP have changed in 60 sessions Wagnleitner delivers his lecture on the meaning of globalization to the participants of GCP 60 from Miami Dade.

Reinhold Wagnleitner, long-term faculty member of the Salzburg Global Seminar's Global Citizenship Program delivers his lecture on “The United States of America and the World: Views From a Distance” to the participants of GCP 60 from Miami Dade College.

“[Globalization] is a very, very complicated term and what we are doing is trying to find a way of untangling this web of meanings and of sometimes not very meaningful expressions,” he intones.

I ask Wagnleitner, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Salzburg, for a short description of globalization, but for the seasoned professor this would be akin to asking a politician to simply solve the recession overnight. “We cannot talk for 30 hours,” he jokes.

He tries to summate the key points that participants of the Global Citizenship Program should take away. “Globalization is a term that has been used predominately from the end of the Cold War in describing first of all an economic and financial shrinking of the world with loss of the Soviet zone of influence. The world seemed to become one market more or less, and the financial flows have become dramatically stronger. Globalization is also the movement of people: refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, which are influenced by the wars, revolution, anti-revolution, so we have in a sense a global flow of people or at least many people try to get into this flow because they have to get out of horrible situations. Then we have cultural globalization where one could argue, pessimistically, that the whole world becomes a homogenous place but globalization has to be understood as both global and local, so ‘glocalization’ is coming in.”

Wagnleitner, who has also taught at numerous college institutions across the United States, first gave presentations to the participants of the Global Citizenship Program, then International Study Program, a decade ago. He explained how his talk had developed organically alongside an idea he had for a presentation at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, focusing on converging and diverging views of the United States.

Reflecting on a decade of preparing for this unique educational experience, Wagnleitner sees a significant shift in the attitudes of the participants. “The reaction of the students and faculty and administrators with whom we have been working has evolved from being a mostly defensive viewpoint, as if they were responsible for these growing negative views outside, into more understanding and the understanding of politics and elections and the influence of Presidents Bush and Obama. So I do think that the GCP participants in a sense reflect the changes of the US itself, of the mood in the country itself, and in the mood of others looking towards the United States. It is a very good reflection of that I think.”

In a decade that is bookended by 9/11 and the death of Bin Laden, Americans of all ages have had to come to terms with the idea that the US is not this beacon and bastion of liberty that they hold so dear. War has shot a hole in the belief of American justice and increased access to media coverage, thanks to 24 hour news channels, mobiles and the internet has led to a proliferation of sources by which students have reassessed their position in the world.

“The last ten years have definitely made more US Americans, and people of other countries, aware that they have to be more cooperative and we can’t do this just by war because, as we know, not that much has been achieved as was the plan. If the richest countries in the world are unable to solve their problems by war, maybe there needs to be a plan B.”

Yet, Wagnleitner, the chair of the Society of Modern History, is careful not to make grand or blasé statements. In a decade that has seen a lot of negative reaction, he insists that learning from mistakes is equally important. “We may make mistakes but not everything that we are doing is wrong.

“I do see these young US Americans who come to these programs here being able to go back and have a better understanding of the way things are done here and that there is not only one way to do things, and learn from that.”

As a recipient of the Tolerance and Diversity Prize from the Embassy of the United States in Vienna, Wagnleitner has long since believed in the need to be considerate and empathetic of alternative views from other cultures. Weighing in on topical issues, Reinhold puts his philosophy to practice in discussing Ukraine. “What has to be seen in the West is Russian feelings of security. NATO has gone eastwards and the Soviet Union was promised that NATO would not go eastwards. So whilst not supporting Russian imperialism in Ukraine, from a Russian viewpoint, and that is the empathy one has to have for an opponent, the actions are understandable from their side.”

More, Wagnleitner warns that discussions such as those at Salzburg need continue to provide fruitful outcomes because the media lacks total clarity on these big issues. “The biggest problem is not that they are bad or anything sinister like that, but it is that they are not informed. They are leaving out certain things, because they themselves do not know what is going on.”

There have been different ways of channeling this communication throughout history. Wagnleitner points to music, religion and the adoption of the English language as a lingua franca. “The spread of English to become at least the second language of many people who have the privilege of being schooled is potentially a force for understanding. Some people see it as a force of imperialism, cultural imperialism, but I would rather speak two or three languages, and thereby get deeper insights into another culture, into another way of speaking, into another literature and into another media usage, into another way of running a government, than being bound to only my language.

“Each language acquisition opens up a completely new world for the learner: how to do things, how to think.”

This is the very ethos of the GCP at Salzburg: to foster a new approach to cultural acquisition and understanding in students and the institutions that they attend. It is important that the study of this trend should occur in Europe, in order to better understand the history of relationships between much of the developed world. “America was not just discovered, it was conquered and it was also invented by Europeans; the very idea of America is a European invention," says Wagnleitner. 

“Globalization, which now people think is ‘Americanization’ – a term I only use in quotes because it doesn’t make much sense – was already begun by the Europeanization of the world, by European imperialism, by European colonialism,” he adds.