June 07, 2004

Atlantic Ties

Brad recently wrote in a comment:

We need to make sure that the good we do outstrips the bad. That means calculating in the damage we've done to our relationships with European states, the credibility we've lost because of the "hide the ball" game the Administration has played in justifying what it's done, the opportunities we've created (and arguably encouraged, if you buy the agitprop that radical left-wing outlets like the New Yorker and NPR are selling — for disasters like Abu Ghraib.

I agree 100% and that's why I've always been open to criticism of the execution of the war. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that criticism ends up being knee-jerk, Bush-hating criticism that overlooks the complexities of the situation and dismisses the real accomplishments.

Abu Ghraib is definitely awful and I'll try to have more on the subject at some point. But I'll make the assertion now that "Our Response Is Us" is a better guide than Susan Sontag's "The Pictures Are Us".

But the question of "the damage we've done to our relationships with European states" caught my attention, and I want to focus on it now. This concern is as old as the US, and has been a growing refrain since World War II – from the Suez crisis to Reagan's cruise missile deployment to Clinton's efforts in Kosovo.

The underlying assumption behind this concern is that the tension is somehow unnatural and caused by someone's actions, in this case Bush's. If the Americans weren't belligerent cowboys, we would share common interests and all just get along.

In his excellent (but long) 2002 essay, Power and Weakness, Robert Kagan argues that the structure of power in today's world makes these tensions inevitable. He opens:

It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. On the all-important question of power — the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power — American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.” The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory — the product of one American election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.

It's important to realize that these tensions did not start with Iraq. There is a fundamental difference, a divide that has been growing for 60 years, in the way the US and Europe approach foreign policy. The Suez crisis was the first major postwar transatlantic spat and it was somewhat unique as an attempted reassertion of European power. But the US would have none of it, partially because of anti-colonialism and the principle of self-determination, but partially because we were starting to become aware in 1956 that we would get called in to clean up any mess. Subsequent conflicts reflected the waning power of Europe and the shouldering of the resulting burden by the US.
Today’s transatlantic problem, in short, is not a George Bush problem. It is a power problem. American military strength has produced a propensity to use that strength. Europe’s military weakness has produced a perfectly understandable aversion to the exercise of military power. Indeed, it has produced a powerful European interest in inhabiting a world where strength doesn’t matter, where international law and international institutions predominate, where unilateral action by powerful nations is forbidden, where all nations regardless of their strength have equal rights and are equally protected by commonly agreed-upon international rules of behavior. Europeans have a deep interest in devaluing and eventually eradicating the brutal laws of an anarchic, Hobbesian world where power is the ultimate determinant of national security and success.

This is no reproach. It is what weaker powers have wanted from time immemorial. It was what Americans wanted in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the brutality of a European system of power politics run by the global giants of France, Britain, and Russia left Americans constantly vulnerable to imperial thrashing. It was what the other small powers of Europe wanted in those years, too, only to be sneered at by Bourbon kings and other powerful monarchs, who spoke instead of raison d’état. The great proponent of international law on the high seas in the eighteenth century was the United States; the great opponent was Britain’s navy, the “Mistress of the Seas.” In an anarchic world, small powers always fear they will be victims. Great powers, on the other hand, often fear rules that may constrain them more than they fear the anarchy in which their power brings security and prosperity.

But the difference in power does not just change one's desire to use it, it actually changes the likelihood that one will be required to.
The differing threat perceptions in the United States and Europe are not just matters of psychology, however. They are also grounded in a practical reality that is another product of the disparity of power. For Iraq and other “rogue” states objectively do not pose the same level of threat to Europeans as they do to the United States. There is, first of all, the American security guarantee that Europeans enjoy and have enjoyed for six decades, ever since the United States took upon itself the burden of maintaining order in far-flung regions of the world — from the Korean Peninsula to the Persian Gulf — from which European power had largely withdrawn. Europeans generally believe, whether or not they admit it to themselves, that were Iraq ever to emerge as a real and present danger, as opposed to merely a potential danger, then the United States would do something about it — as it did in 1991. If during the Cold War Europe by necessity made a major contribution to its own defense, today Europeans enjoy an unparalleled measure of “free security” because most of the likely threats are in regions outside Europe, where only the United States can project effective force. In a very practical sense — that is, when it comes to actual strategic planning — neither Iraq nor Iran nor North Korea nor any other “rogue” state in the world is primarily a European problem. Nor, certainly, is China. Both Europeans and Americans agree that these are primarily American problems.

This is why Saddam Hussein is not as great a threat to Europe as he is to the United States. He would be a greater threat to the United States even were the Americans and Europeans in complete agreement on Iraq policy, because it is the logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power. The task of containing Saddam Hussein belongs primarily to the United States, not to Europe, and everyone agrees on this6 — including Saddam, which is why he considers the United States, not Europe, his principal adversary. In the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, and in most other regions of the world (including Europe), the United States plays the role of ultimate enforcer. “You are so powerful,” Europeans often say to Americans. “So why do you feel so threatened?” But it is precisely America’s great power that makes it the primary target, and often the only target. Europeans are understandably content that it should remain so.

For Europe, the security required to support the calls for restraint can only be achieved through lack of restraint, or at least the willingness to throw off restraint when necessary – this they have in common with the entire peace movement. But further, this ugly external power is necessary for Europe as we know it to exist, because Europe depends on its own weakness to achieve its unity because, in that weakness, it no longer must fear itself.
The United States, in short, solved the Kantian paradox for the Europeans. Kant had argued that the only solution to the immoral horrors of the Hobbesian world was the creation of a world government. But he also feared that the “state of universal peace” made possible by world government would be an even greater threat to human freedom than the Hobbesian international order, inasmuch as such a government, with its monopoly of power, would become “the most horrible despotism.”11 How nations could achieve perpetual peace without destroying human freedom was a problem Kant could not solve. But for Europe the problem was solved by the United States. By providing security from outside, the United States has rendered it unnecessary for Europe’s supranational government to provide it. Europeans did not need power to achieve peace and they do not need power to preserve it.

The current situation abounds in ironies. Europe’s rejection of power politics, its devaluing of military force as a tool of international relations, have depended on the presence of American military forces on European soil. Europe’s new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that United States military power has solved the European problem, especially the “German problem,” allows Europeans today to believe that American military power, and the “strategic culture” that has created and sustained it, are outmoded and dangerous.

Most Europeans do not see the great paradox: that their passage into post-history has depended on the United States not making the same passage. Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of “moral consciousness,” it has become dependent on America’s willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics.

These are the kind of dynamics that must be examined when criticizing the damage to the relationship with our allies. This is, of course, not to say that their is no room on the margins for good diplomacy or feather deruffling, something in seemingly short supply in this administration. But any critique is missing something without a recognition of the divergence in strategic interests.

I would go further than Kagan, however, and argue, as I have before, that there are more fundamental philosophical differences driving some of the divergence. A conflict between Continental rationalist liberalism and "Scottish" liberalism – which helps to explain, to some extent, the continued "special relationship" between Britain and the United States (and perhaps the resurgence of the Anglosphere).

As such, I disagree somewhat with Kagan's assertion that "Americans, as good children of the Enlightenment, still believe in the perfectibility of man, and they retain hope for the perfectibility of the world." I believe American institutions and policies are more grounded in the fact that men are, and will remain, flawed, and thus self-interest must be harnassed towards the public good through institutions – a point too often ignored, or rather taken advantage of, by the transnationalists and their technocrats.

Posted by richard at June 7, 2004 01:22 AM

One thing that Kagan does not discuss — but which I think is important — is the fact that European nations have a more intimate and miserable relationship with war than we do. They spent the twentieth century getting the crap bombed out of them. Their cities occupied and burned, soldiers overrunning their fields, etc.

War, to Americans, is breaking some eggs overseas to make an omelet. It used to come with sacrifice — masses of troops dying to take a beachhead, some commandeering of the economy toward the war effort. I don't mean to detract from the sacrifices we made in the 20th century to fix problems other people created, but I don't think anyone will disagree that our experience of the two World Wars was nothing like the Europeans'. And I would venture to say that as a result, Europeans have a greater understanding of the magnitude of what it means to host a war — particularly when you didn't ask to host it.

In accounting for the war-willingness gap between the Yanks and the Continentals, I don't think you can elide European empathy from the analysis: You don't know what war means for people on the ground. We know what war means. And it REALLY sucks.

Otherwise, I would be willing to buy quite a bit of what Kagan is saying. It sort of jibes with our discussion of "reason" vs. "justification." Under a pure Realpolitik system, the two roll together: you do what makes strategic sense, and you need no additional "moral" element to justify what you do. Or you at least incorporate moral considerations into your strategic analysis, e.g., "are people going to hate us for doing this, and what does that mean for us?"

It is easier for America to adopt a purely strategic view — that is, to play the game of Realpolitik — because the currency is power, and it has a heck of a lot of it. And certainly Europe and the rest of the international community, comparatively disempowered, are going to try to propagate and rely on international law/norm structures — if not to rein in America completely, then at least to channel the actions of an unchecked U.S. military as best they can.

My question is this: if we accept that the U.S. is going to act strategically and that the prime mover of international action is power, why do we care so much about being the "good guy?" Because America does seem to care about what the rest of the world thinks on the question of Iraq. Is it then submitting voluntarily to select international norms, compromising its otherwise go-screw realist position (ICC, Kyoto)? Or have we just integrated PR into the analysis and concluded that being the good guy affords us some strategic benefits — like McDonald's finally caving on the styrofoam burger-carton issue?

We're the hyperpower after all. If we want the oil, we can just take it. And we could, of course, be building an empire right now. Wait a minute — maybe we are . . .

One issue that may bear on all this is the fact that these days a nation can have overwhelming military power, but that doesn't stop Joe Wacko from walking through the back door with a suitcase nuke. That consideration adjusts the analysis a bit. Maybe we want to be the good guy so that no one tries that.

I dunno. I'm raising more issues than I'm settling. But what do you think?

Posted by: Brad A. at June 7, 2004 01:43 PM