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America's Stake In A United Europe

President Obama salutes service members from both sides of the Atlantic as he walks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the G-20 summit in Cannes, France, last week. i i

hide captionPresident Obama salutes service members from both sides of the Atlantic as he walks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the G-20 summit in Cannes, France, last week.

Markus Schreiber/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama salutes service members from both sides of the Atlantic as he walks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the G-20 summit in Cannes, France, last week.

President Obama salutes service members from both sides of the Atlantic as he walks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the G-20 summit in Cannes, France, last week.

Markus Schreiber/AFP/Getty Images

It is always tempting for Americans to look at problems in Europe and ask, "What does that have to do with me?"

Well, U.S. banks hold almost $17 billion in Greek debt and billions more bought through European banks. Billions of dollars that Americans have saved for retirement, college — or the rainy days that may be — are now invested in Greece.

But we also might remind ourselves why the euro and the European Union were created.

The problems of Europe led to two world wars in the 20th century, and America got involved in each.

In August 1943, Jean Monnet, a young French economist who advised Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle warned, "There will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty ... The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation."

Monnet hoped that scores of countries with different languages, legal systems and historic rivalries would be too busy making money to make war. This delighted Americans, who had sent millions into those wars.

Jean Monnet used to point out that the notion of a European union had been around since Roman times. But Europe had also seen millions flee for new lives in the United States, and the U.S. used its industrial might and human treasure to resolve wars in Europe. Europeans knew how Americans moved around their country. They saw that, while Americans can have sharp differences, since the U.S. Civil War, regional rivalries there flare mostly at football games.

So in the 1950s, six western European countries formed a common market for coal and steel so that historic enemies would find it hard to unilaterally produce bombs and bullets. The European Union was formed in 1993, when the Balkan wars reminded European leaders how old rivalries in the heart of Europe could turn treacherous. New states in Eastern Europe were eager to jump onto the economic engine of a modern Europe, and EU leaders thought giving them shares in a prosperous, democratic entity would help them from slipping back into tyranny.

So the euro was minted in 2002 in hopes that a common currency and free travel would send people as well as money across borders. Germans, French, Greeks, Spaniards and Poles might begin to think of themselves as Europeans. They hoped the euro could help instill a new nationalism: not based on ethnicity, blood or religion, but diversity, liberty and history.

What many people in Europe are trying to shore up isn't only a currency, but an idea that Americans might have a stake in, too.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small
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