This category contains 11 posts

Best ‘American’ Film: How America Lacks International Perspective with its Movies and Awards Shows

Movies are a very impactful and influential tool towards gaining a perspective of a culture, situation, norm, and/or environment, which is why PAOs acknowledge films as a legitimate form of cultural diplomacy. An American watching a movie taking place in Pakistan will notice norms that differ greatly from American culture, as would a Pakistani watching a film taking place in America. And through that simplistic cultural exchange, each viewer would have a better understanding of the other country. As Rhonda Zaharna mentions in her article The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy, culture determines values, and movies represent culture.

So with this emphasis on movies and their impact, it’s hard to determine which film would be considered an all-encompassing “Best” film in the world. Film festivals that take place in Europe such as the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival allow movies from all over the world to win the deserving “Best” film, actor, etc. category. The U.S., however, has only one category devoted to international films (Best Foreign Language Film) in their only film award show: The Academy Awards, or “Oscars”. The lack of international focus in film entries is representative of America’s overall lack of international perspective and interest in comparison to Europe’s.

In his article You Talkin’ to Me?, Begleiter states that Americans express an ignorance of the world by being ill informed about international politics and events, while not even caring enough to learn about them. He sees this lack of perspective as a lack of freedom, even though we pride ourselves on being the ‘freest country in the world.’

oscars website photo

Oscars website presentation: Best (American) Film carrying more weight than Best Foreign Language Film

The U.S.’s nationalism is even represented on the Oscars website by presenting the Best Film, Actor/Actress, and Animated Film awards (all American-directed and starred, in addition to being spoken in English with no subtitles) at the top with large photos of each winner, while presenting every other category in small boxes below. In terms of placement, the Best Foreign Language Film award is given the same amount of importance as the Best Sound Editing award.

In the European film festivals, on the other hand, that is not the case. For this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the first three most prominent awards were given to people of completely different countries. The film festival also makes a point to award movies on categories such as the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a feature film that opens new perspectives. The Golden Bear for Best Film is the most notable award a film can receive, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize is right below that in terms of importance.

berlin film festival photo

From left to right: The Golden Bear for Best Film: Fuocoammare (Italy); Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize: Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Philippines/Singapore); Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Smrt u Sarajevu/Mort a Sarajevo (France/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

This festival makes a conscious decision to establish the importance of exposing oneself to new perspectives by specifically rewarding movies that make an obvious effort to do so.

In order to overcome our inherent ethnocentric bias, some embassies consciously make an effort to put on events that combine differing cultures. For example, the Embassies of the Czech Republic and the United States of America created a film festival specifically targeting the exchanging of American and Czech cultures by exposing those from Nicosia and Cyprus to American films but directed by Czech director Milos Forman. It was called the Milos Forman Film Festival and through the combined Embassy efforts, the Czechs were able to be exposed to American culture, while still feeling prideful in their own culture since Forman is from the Czech Republic and, and, subconsciously added Czech cultural references within these American films.

milos forman film festival photo

Milos Forman Film Festival poster posted on the United States Embassy of Nicosia and Cyprus website

Since movies are such an impactful way to develop a better understanding of a culture different than your own, this type of film festival can be organized in the States as well. French, Japanese, Syrian, Hungarian, etc. embassies in the United States can create film festivals that are directed by people of those descent and represent the cultures of those from those foreign countries as well. There can also be an implementation of film festivals that represent American directors who live abroad and create abroad films in order to create a potential incentive or connection for American audiences to attend these film festivals. One example can be creating a film festival that highlights the work of French director Roman Polanski. Even though he was born in Paris, he has made movies in Poland, Britain, France, and the U.S., marking him the epitome of the quintessential international filmmaker. By hosting a Roman Polanski Film Festival in the states with the Polish, French, and British embassies involved, all four countries can experience and appreciate one another’s cultures, while giving American audiences an incentive to come since Polanski has made popular films in the states as well.

Through this cultural program, American audiences will become more informed about the culture that was represented in the movie he or she saw. And by becoming more informed about a culture, it will allow Americans to not only be less ill-informed, but also more inclined to learn more about said foreign country, it’s politics, international relations, and other foreign countries alike. By acknowledging these different cultures and learning that both your culture and another culture can coexist, it will allow you (American readers specifically) to base future decisions on this knowledge that people, places, and things can be different, and that’s okay.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

Event Recap: U.S. Ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun Discusses Networks & Engagement in Public Diplomacy

In an insightful and entertaining session on March 24th, U.S. Ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun discussed the importance of engagement and networks in public diplomacy. Ambassador Barzun described how since almost all phones sold nowadays are mobile phones, the term itself has become an oxymoron. Barzun believed that the term public diplomacy was following the same trend line as the importance of public engagement increases.   

To illustrate his point, Barzun asked the audience to describe which 130-year old company produced the first digital encyclopedia. The answer was Encarta, which was backed by the world’s most powerful and rich software company Microsoft. Yet this multi-billion dollar company was driven out of business by a ‘kid from Alabama,’ Jimmy Wales, who developed a bottom up model called Wikipedia, ‘the largest knowledge transfer engine in history.’

Barzun then asked the audience to imagine four squares along the following lines:

Digital Hierarchy
Analogue Network

According to Ambassador Barzun, the magic was not going digital but going network and digital.  But one could have very effective combinations of analogue and network such as conference calls. The key Barzun emphasized is to engage. Inside an organization one can be surprised what one can accomplish if rather than task people, one asks people for help. In public events the key is to listen, seeking not so much to be understood as to understand. “Outreach” or “reaching out” is not nearly as effective as engagement, which involves understanding and listening.  

“If you listen, people will hear you differently,” he said. “If you repeat the pattern, good stuff happens.”

Answering a question about socio-media analytics, Ambassador Barzun noted that “things can be very precise without being accurate.”  Judge the effectiveness of what is happening in the digital world by comparing the same to the analogue or real world. Computer or digital tools can be misused or overused. Twitter can allow an overuse of a broadcasting approach or power point can be overused to bombard audiences with information: “If power corrupts, Power Points corrupt absolutely.”

Ambassador Barzun stated that public diplomacy can build a reservoir of good will. You can fill the reservoir ‘a cup at a time’ or sometimes with a ‘hose’ and refill it when it gets punctured and fill it again. A positive example was President Obama’s dancing the tango in Argentina, which he said demonstrated humility and an interest in the local culture.  

Ambassador Barzun closed by describing the image of the hierarchy, which could be described as triangles, with, for example, a Minister of Foreign Affairs at the top of the pyramid, and the circle of influences such as journalists to the wider public, which could be imagined as a cloud encircling the other two. We are living more and more or our lives online but engagement remains paramount. If one approaches challenges in a hierarchy mindset, one will fail just like Encarta.  


The US-German Relationship at a Critical Public Diplomacy Moment

The U.S. and German flags. Credit:

The U.S. and German flags. Credit:

I just returned from a week in Berlin—a lively city teeming with people. There is a whiff of spring in the air and the outdoor cafes have begun to crowd the sidewalks with the European buzz that Berliners uniquely create.

But along with good cheer is a damp residue from this past year’s revelations by Mr. Snowden that the American government has been eavesdropping on conversations between German officials including listening to the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A post-NSA hangover has left German intellectuals reeling and ordinary citizens confused and angry.  Even the biggest supporters of Atlantic relations have found themselves challenged to defend a kind of surveillance and intrusion so antithetical to modern day Germany.

My trip was an opportunity to practice public diplomacy, which involved meeting with national security experts, academics, and a large contingent of students from multiple countries spending a semester in Berlin. It reinforced for me the importance of face-to-face contact and person-to-person dialogue to listen to the point of view of others.

Virtual diplomacy is great; E-exchanges are useful. But nothing beats sitting around a table, handing a physical business card to a new colleague, and chatting at coffee breaks about family and friends. Emotional setbacks in relationships have real consequences and they are best dealt with in human settings as opposed to on line.

The U.S.-German relationship is at a critical inflection point.  We need one another to confront the situation in Ukraine and to find common ground so that American-European-Russian relations do not lead all of us down a dangerous path.

In addition to Ukraine, our countries face common challenges around energy, finance, trade and the growing influence of China.  We have multinational trade deals at stake, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and monetary policies with impact on one another’s fiscal stability.  Not to mention climate change, terrorism, and the problems posed by failing states around the globe.

In the end, I think US-German relations can weather the storm.  Pragmatism tends to prevail in both countries.  A crisis often brings partners closer together, and for us, decades of close relations. But this relationship, like all relationships, takes commitment on both sides and a willingness to meet, talk, debate, discuss and disclose on the public side to deepen diplomacy.

Ukraine and the War of Words

In public diplomacy, words matters.  The situation in Ukraine is not only a battle involving troops – it is a battle over language.  All sides in the conflict will choose words that reflect their version of events on the ground.  Words can have legal meaning, political weight, and public diplomacy implications.

Key words and phrases for public diplomacy watchers following this crisis:


For the United States, the key public diplomacy challenge will be consistency of language to build a strong public case for a “United Ukraine.” US policymakers will need to be careful to stay on message and avoid veering into dubious terrain by either invoking old Cold War language or creating moral equivalency arguments over “self determination”. For example, Chechens want to determine their own future.  Some pro-Russian Crimeans want to determine their own future. Ukrainians want to decide their own future.

In the world of 2014, words travel as fast as technology.  My best advice for the Administration: Whichever words President Obama uses should set the script for other policymakers to use. If not, conflicts over words will drive the story.

A Crucial Time for Diplomacy in Ukraine

Map of Ukraine, with the autonomous area of Crimea in red. On Feb. 28, Russian military occupied the area following the political crisis in Kyiv. Many view the move as an act of war. Credit: Wikipedia Common

Map of Ukraine, with the autonomous area of Crimea in red. On Feb. 28, Russian military occupied the area following the political crisis in Kyiv. Many view the move as an act of war. Credit: Wikipedia Common

Ukraine will need good public diplomacy from the U.S.

Secretary Kerry is wise to be heading to Ukraine on Tuesday for both formal and symbolic diplomacy to signal to the ordinary citizen in Ukraine that the U.S. respects its territorial sovereignty and its human dignity. These are the moments when visits really matter.

With Russian troops on the move in Crimea, ethnic Russians also need to know that their rights will be protected. This conflict cannot afford to spiral out of control. Leaving aside the human toll that conflict could take, and the wider war this episode might evoke, there are public diplomacy and economic reasons for all actors in this drama to want a peaceful ending.

Crimea is a major tourism spot for Ukrainians, Russians and Western visitors. Even National Geographic has written about the seaside beauty, the vineyards and orchards of this Black Sea resort. Russia just emerged from a tourism boom in Sochi. It shouldn’t risk sending a message to the world that tourists should stay away from Russia and the Black Sea resorts of Ukraine. Moreover, economic issues like oil prices — which would spike as a result of any sanctions against Russia — should motivate all sides to calm down.

In 1782, Catherine the Great’s military general, Prince Grigory Potemkin wrote of Crimea saying “Russia needs its paradise.” But today, times have changed. This is 2014. Russia should not risk it all. Let’s hope public diplomacy and diplomatic talks result in a win-win for everyone.

Reflections From Kyiv: One Year Later

Sonenshine delivers remarks at the "Women's Forum: Women's Role In A Changing Ukraine's Future" in Kyiv, April 12, 2013. Credit:

Sonenshine delivers remarks at the “Women’s Forum: Women’s Role In A Changing Ukraine’s Future” in Kyiv, April 12, 2013. Credit:

On April 12, 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv hosted a day-long conference for Ukrainian women entrepreneurs focusing on business owners of small and medium enterprises. The goal of the event was to promote the importance of Ukrainian women in fostering economic growth, build the confidence of women entrepreneurs to take on leading roles in business and society, provide practical tools for further empowerment, and serve as a platform for networking.

It was less than one year ago when I visited Kyiv as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Today, seeing the unrest, I am reminded of the importance of US-Ukrainian cultural ties. While in Kyiv, I helped launch the construction of the new American Center to build ties between our two nations. Former US Ambassador John Teft and I knocked down a wall as contractors worked to create a convening place to keep Ukrainians and Americans connecting with one another. I also met with bloggers and media, and was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Forum.

Sonenshine and Ambassador Teft help to launch the construction of the new American Center in Kyiv, April 2013. Credit:

Sonenshine and Ambassador Teft help to launch the construction of the new American Center in Kyiv, April 2013. Credit:

Meeting with bloggers in Kyiv. Credit:

Meeting with bloggers in Kyiv. Credit:

I visited school no. 168 in Kyiv where they are providing mainstream education to students with cognitive and physical disabilities. I met with children learning English through a State Department funded program. I was moved to tears at Babyn Yar, the site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union.

Visit to Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv and a site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union, April 11, 2013. Credit: U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Visit to Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv and a site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union, April 11, 2013. Credit: U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

As events unfold, let’s focus on the people as well as the politics. There are beautiful cultural sites throughout the country that must be preserved. Artists, journalists, young people, the LGBT community, and women must have their rights and freedoms.

Tara Sonenshine to give testimony to British Committee on Soft Power

Tara Sonenshine, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs will address the United Kingdom’s House of Lords “Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence” via videotape on Monday, December 16 at 5:15 p.m. London time (12:15 p.m. Washington time).

The live testimony will take place at the British Embassy in Washington. The evidence session is public and a verbatim transcript will be posted on the British Parliamentary website shortly after the oral evidence session at this link: The Select Committee was formed May 16, 2013 to examine how soft power reflects national interest.

Ms. Sonenshine will be addressing issues related to the use of “soft power,” “hard power” and “smart power” and how public diplomacy is utilized with respect to international policy. Questions will be posed by the Chairman and other members of the Committee who are all Member of the House of Lords.

Ms. Sonenshine has high level experience in both government and the media, having served in the White House, State Department, and as Executive Vice President at the United States Institute of Peace. In earlier years, she was Editorial Producer of ABC News Nightline and a Contributing Editor at Newsweek. At her current position at George Washington University, she writes on a variety of topics related to public diplomacy and international relations.

Routine Health Care in Europe: Superior—and Much Less Expensive

This is the fifth in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

During our year in three different European countries, my wife or I had occasion to obtain medical care in each.  Of course I didn’t do a systematic study but I saw no evidence that the taxpayer-funded and government-administrated European health care systems resembles the nightmare of many Americans’ imagination. From everything I saw, Europeans don’t experience nasty old clinics with long lines of miserable patients endlessly hassled by bureaucrats so they can get access to nameless overworked and under-trained doctors using outdated technology and drugs. Instead the experience of visiting a doctor is much like it is in America, only better and cheaper.

In our experience with routine medical care in Germany, France and Spain, care was competent, wait times and lines were shorter than in the US, and doctors paid close personal attention. For instance, on every visit, doctors left their desks and personally called out the name of the next patient and escorted him or her into the exam room. That’s never happened to us in the US, where clerks or nurses usher you around until the doctor comes into the exam room. It’s not a crucial difference, but it does illustrate the distance between stereotypes and reality.

Here’s one case study: I had a chronic problem that the doctors I’d seen in DC and North Carolina hadn’t been able to help much, so I thought I’d seek a Euro-perspective. Berlin’s Charité Hospital is one of the leading medical research and teaching centers in Germany. By searching on the internet, I found the name of a doctor who specialized in my malady and had given papers at conferences in the US and participated in international research grants—he was obviously plugged into the latest developments in the field. Like so much else, medicine, at least in affluent countries, is globalized.

It happened that this particular G-I specialist was also Chief of the Internal Medicine division. I contacted his office for an appointment and got one within a couple weeks, without needing any referral. Try getting an appointment with the head of Internal Medicine at a major American teaching hospital and see if you get seen, without a referral, within two weeks.

Subsequently, I had two long office visits with him and three multi-hour tests. These yielded useful information that helped control my symptoms a little better.  Here’s the key point: At my final visit, I had to ask my doctor’s secretary to please send me a bill. There was no upfront demand for my insurance papers or co-pay as is inevitable in the US. During my total of five visits, nobody had asked me to pay anything, or even raised the issue of billing.

The day after my fifth visit, I was leaving Berlin for Paris. The secretary was saying goodbye and even after telling her I was moving to Paris I had to remind her that I needed to pay. She said they’d figure it out and send a bill to my Paris address.

The total cost of the two doctor visits—with the chief of internal medicine at one of Germany’s leading medical institutions, no less—and three lengthy test procedures was 104 Euros, or about $130. In the US the cost would easily be 10 or 15 times greater.

Finally, the doctor at Charité wrote me a prescription for a particularly expensive drug that I take every day (a PPI if you must know). In the US, I had to make a special appeal to my insurance company to cover this drug and still had to pay a $40/month co-pay. For 90 pills (three months worth) I pay $120, and the insurance company paid about $1000, or $9.33 per pill. In Berlin, the total cost of 98 pills (three months plus one week’s worth)—with no payment by an insurance company—was $135, or $1.38 per pill. In other words this same drug cost nearly seven times more in the US than in Germany.

The cost differential arises because the US is the only affluent country that allows drug companies to charge individual patients whatever they can get away. This functionally results in American consumers and taxpayers subsidizing drug company profits (and, to be sure, drug research) for the entire world. Recognizing the serious market failures in the pharmaceutical industry, most every country regulates drug prices. US policy is one of my pet peeves, and one of many reasons Americans pay so much more for medical care.

Most importantly, US spending doesn’t yield better medical care or—and this is the bottom line—longer life. Below are life expectancies in some of the top countries in lifespan that are most comparable to US in affluence. The US ranks about 33rd among all countries, according to the World Health Organization (2011), tied with Denmark, Chile, Bahrain and Costa Rica at 79 years and just ahead of Cuba, Czech Republic, Colombia and Barbados at 78:

World Bank, 2012

RANK COUNTRY (YEARS) GDP per capita (equivalent purchasing power)*










Hong Kong



























The US spends hugely more as a percentage of GDP on health care:


Beyond paying way more for prescriptions:


These aggregate data don’t deny that in certain respects Americans might be getting their money’s worth. For instance it’s often assumed that US spending enables more advanced medical treatments and higher survival rates for diseases like cancer. However, it turns out to be extremely difficult to compare survival rates while controlling for the many differences among countries’ populations, including their getting cancer in the first place (US ranks seventh in cancer incidence).

There isn’t much empirical basis for assuming that Americans benefit in any way from their higher spending. But there is quite a bit of evidence that the excess spending is the cost of having a political system so uniquely and thoroughly dominated by wealthy organized interests, such as the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, whose lobbies heavily influence public policy agendas, options and decisions. The Rube Goldberg-like Affordable Care Act, though a step in the right (European) direction, reflects above all the less democratic nature of the US political process when compared to the governments of Western Europe.

Americans pay for their inferior democracy thrice over: their health care system costs more yet delivers inferior care and shorter lifespans. The health of democracy reflects and shapes the physical and fiscal health of its citizens.

Policy Makes History Present (Or, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – Faulkner)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

Naturally Berlin, Madrid and Paris have more history than any US city. It’s not fair to compare them to DC, Philadelphia, New York or Boston, our most history-conscious cities. Still, the reverence for the old expresses itself in public life and policymaking in Europe.

Policy provides more resources for preservation of historical memory while also supporting modern culture. Two examples:

1. Wine
The integration of wine into typically more relaxed and lengthier meals, offers one illustration of Europeans’ ability to live in closer continuity with the past. And like so many other things, the production of wine is heavily regulated, in part because of Europeans’ insistence on honoring that continuity.

Example: In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold issued regulations governing wine quality in Burgundy. It might strike Americans as oppressive, but winemakers in, say, Puligny Montrachet with rare exceptions must specialize in the chardonnay grape, and must follow many detailed government mandates on how the grapes must be handled to be certified as genuine Puligny. The French know that this grape reaches its apogee in the soil and microclimates of the Burgundy region, where vineyards go back at least to the fourth century AD. When you drink a bottle of Puligny you know you will get a chardonnay that to some degree reflects its particular terroir now as it did back when knights and dukes ran things.

Small differences in the way the three cities typically present wine in restaurants further express historical and cultural differences. In Berlin and generally in Germany, wine lists are heavy on German wines; this limits choices of reds since white riesling is the grape that makes the best wines in the cold climate there. If you order a glass of wine, it will come with an etched line marking 10 or 12 ml, and waiters pour to that precise line. Never saw a glass with a line in Spain or France.

One historical quirk of Berlin: when you go out to eat you essentially have to pay for bottled water. Nobody drinks tap water. Supposedly Berliners got used to drinking bottled water after WWII when the infrastructure was in ruins and tap water was dangerous. Some might see this as an example of hidebound Europeans sticking with a dumb and expensive tradition for no good reason. Most restaurants have a deal with one or another brand of bottled water; presumably the water sales add significantly to profit margins. Given the generally reasonable cost of the food, that seemed fair to me.

In Paris on the other hand, asking for tap water is typical, and they usually bring it to the table in a decanter or bottle. On restaurant wine lists and in wine stores too, the French focus is on lesser French chateaux and off-year vintages, presumably because these establishments can’t compete with the astronomical costs of the most famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, for which prices are set on an international market. These days, for instance, even a young bottle of Chateau Lafite can set you back over $1,000 at the store. Thank globalization.  A little bit of historical continuity is lost to all but the wealthiest French folks and tourists.

2. Memorialization
Reminders of the Nazi past are omnipresent in Berlin. As one among many examples, there are small brass stumbling blocks throughout Berlin. Slightly raised from other cobblestones, they are designed to ever-so-slightly trip pedestrians, who then look down and can see the name, dates and fate of a Jew who once lived or had a business at the building where they’re standing.

Consider also the striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial is located in the heart of the new Berlin, bordering the American embassy and the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), near the Brandenburg Gate. So Berliners will frequently see it, register it if only unconsciously and thus potentially think about its meaning. The location and design of the Memorial engendered decades of public debate and controversy, a process that itself exemplified healthy democracy. Although much smaller than the Holocaust museums in DC and Jerusalem, I found the museum that’s integrated into the Memorial as thought-provoking and powerful.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Compare what the Germans have done to ensure accurate and persistent memories of their past misdeeds with US actions to commemorate and keep alive memories of the US’s own holocausts involving Native Americans and African Americans, not to Vietnam and Indochina.  As far as I know, there is no public reminder in DC that might cause a typical citizen to reflect on how the American government’s policies and, arguably, war crimes in Vietnam caused untold and indefensible suffering there, not just among Americans. Our Vietnam War memorial is a great and justly popular tourist site, but it focuses memories only on our losses.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Yet, policies that make history a daily presence for citizens—including the bad or horrific history, not just the glories like France’s wine—might just make for a better future.

Life is Better Without a Car

A lot of homeless people sleep in Paris metro stations. Our stop was St. Ambroise.

A lot of homeless people sleep in Paris metro stations. Our stop was St. Ambroise.

This is the third in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

After spending a year in Europe, it seems to me the number one bad thing about America is the automobile.

Our over-investments and huge tax subsidies to private autos with roots in economic and geological conditions of 100 years ago is the most powerful force for what’s bad in America: its eagerness to go to war; its disproportionate contribution to the climate change crisis; the outsize political power of reactionary oil moguls; the ugly suburban sprawl; and the domination of the chain stores and malls that largely destroy town centers and smaller business.

Living a year in Europe without a car was a financial blessing and a pleasure on many dimensions. When mass transit is taken as a natural component of a civilized infrastructure, people live better. This was especially on display in Berlin. Subway trains reliably come every 3-6 minutes; the average wait was 3-4 minutes, and the longest wait times off-peak were perhaps 8-12 minutes. If I’m not mistaken, that’s closer to the average wait time on the DC Metro outside rush hour.

Trains are clean, reliable and rarely crowded (unlike in Paris where the frequent trains seem almost always crowded and uncomfortable). The bus service is similarly superb. One of the things that made Berlin pleasant and in some ways village-like to live in, despite being a large city, was the paucity of car traffic even downtown. I saw traffic jams on the freeway at times, but on the major city streets traffic generally flowed well and just wasn’t heavy at any time of day.  It’s got to be due in substantial part to the mass transit.

And let’s not forget intercity train service. Here’s a comparison: DC to Durham, NC, about 260 miles, and a roughly similar distance from Cologne, Germany to Paris. The Amtrak train is scheduled for 6.5 hours but is routinely two hours late:  8.5 hours. There’s one train a day. It is pretty cheap, about $45. Driving a car takes 4.5 hours, costs maybe $100. But hardly anyone who can afford to avoid the train will subject himself to 6.5-8.5 (or more) hours on a dirty, noisy, bumpy, uncertain train ride rather than a 4.5 hour car ride (or a roughly 3 hour door-to-door airplane+taxi trip @ maybe $300). There is also an intercity bus service that’s cheap, but not always reliable or safe, and nowhere near as comfortable as a good train.

I think most people who’ve been to Europe agree that taking the train there is basically fun. As I recall, there are at least 12 fast trains a day between Cologne and Paris, and it takes about 3.3 hours. Cost varies a lot but can be as low as $60. Second class areas are quieter and more comfortable than first class on Amtrak, in my opinion. Certainly the ride is smoother and the ambient noise level must be 50% lower.

The 60% on-time train rate between DC and NC arises because freight trains have the right of way, forcing Amtrak trains to pull to the side and wait, and wait, and wait. That’s because the US refuses to invest seriously in train infrastructure—i.e. constructing a track just for passenger trains—while enormously subsidizing auto infrastructure.

Yes, the US is much more thinly populated than Europe and that makes all the difference to the economics of intercity trains. US metro areas that sprawl out endlessly compared to relatively dense, compact European urban areas have similar implications for the accounting of obvious, direct costs. But has anyone actually tried to estimate all the costs of maintaining our commitment to automobiles? Including the greenhouse emissions, the trillions of dollars on oil-driven military policies, the value of time spent daily by Americans on frustrating, heart-attack-inducing stop and go commuting?

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