Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
By Robert Kagan, Knopf, 112 pages, $18.00
France and Germany's refusal to accept the Bush administration's definition of the Iraqi threat has made shockingly visible the decade-long weakening of the Atlantic alliance. Robert Kagan looks behind such wars of words to discover why, after the end of the Cold War, Europeans and Americans "understand each other less and less." Unbelievable as it may sound, his thesis is that Europeans and Americans have trouble coordinating their foreign policies because Europeans are utopian and deluded and Americans are tough-minded and unafraid to look reality in the face. He first advanced this unusual claim in an essay published in the summer of 2002, which he has now updated and expanded into a book. That essay quickly became a sensation among European diplomats and policy-makers. But how did a conservative American polemicist such as Kagan manage to provoke such storms of soul searching among Europeans? He did so partly by suggesting that European nations, despite their endless squabbles, share more values with one another than they share with the United States, an idea that some Europeans, at least, devoutly wish to be true. He also attracted attention by implying that Europe's own foreign-policy disarray has contributed fatally to the United States' dangerous unilateralism.
While mentioning that "the crisis over Iraq has cast the transatlantic problem in the harshest possible light," Kagan seeks the roots of U.S.-European tensions in the different military postures of the world's two great economic powers. In his view, "The key difference is less a matter of culture and philosophy than of capability." The premise of his argument here is intriguing: Rather than searching for tools to achieve their pre-established goals, both individuals and states, Kagan believes, unconsciously adapt their desired objectives to their available resources. In short, capabilities create intentions. Because the United States is a military colossus and Europe is a military pygmy, they will never agree about the shape of the dangers they face. Kagan drives his point home with the following folktale:
The psychology of weakness is easy enough to understand. A man armed only with a knife may decide that a bear prowling the forest is a tolerable danger, inasmuch as the alternative -- hunting the bear armed only with a knife -- is actually riskier than lying low and hoping the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle, however, will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn't need to? This perfectly normal human psychology has driven a wedge between the United States and Europe.
This little passage contains the gist of Kagan's argument. It is not simply that Americans, being armed to the teeth, are willing to venture forth in search of monsters to slay while Europeans, being military weaklings, pusillanimously shun confrontations. It is rather that weak powers routinely fail to take the full measure of actual threats, indulging in the fantasy that looming dangers can be allayed by diplomatic finesse and international law, while strong powers are able to see the floodlit world as a frighteningly dangerous place where freedom will perish if not defended by force.
For their part, Europeans want us to interpret a devotion to multilateralism, diplomacy and international law as a sign of superior morality. But Kagan sees the European fondness for multilateral solutions as a symptom of helplessness, or perhaps as an expression of resentment. Tacitly drawing on Nietzsche's genealogy of morals, the author argues that Europeans are slyly trying to unman their American allies by employing "strategies of weakness." They hope to hobble the United States by slow-walking it into diplomatic negotiations and international legal regimes. "In what may be the ultimate feat of subtlety and indirection," Kagan writes, "they want to control the behemoth by appealing to its conscience." And, he warns, these devilishly crafty Europeans may even succeed in derailing the United States from sober realism into the pursuit of pacifist illusions, presumably with some help from homegrown Wilsonian idealists and Vietnam-era liberals.
This Euro-liberal attempt to charm the United States into abandoning war as an instrument of foreign policy, Kagan maintains, is a self-defeating folly. Even today, more than a half-century after the destruction of Nazi Germany, Europe's pampered civilians remain "dependent on the United States' willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics." European leaders, therefore, should simply admit "the vital necessity of having a strong, even predominant America." If Europeans would learn to defer politely to the United States, Kagan expects or hopes that American officials would return the courtesy by avoiding gratuitous put-downs that serve no purpose other than deflating European self-importance.
America as Mars, Europe as Venus
Kagan's intellectual framework may seem rather unsophisticated, but it does boast a philosophical foundation. Its premise is that a domestic realm built along liberal lines, where force and fraud are repressed and the rule of law prevails, can be stabilized and defended only by a vigorous foreign policy -- where force and even fraud are deployed ruthlessly against unscrupulous adversaries and where laws are respected only when convenient. Kantian dreamers of peace and reason may not know it, but their hyperliberal utopia always depends on a Hobbesian willingness to apply organized violence, without regard to rules, to fend off barbarians at the gate. It is naive to believe that a dangerously turbulent world can be managed by United Nations resolutions, foreign aid, diplomatic negotiations and a deepening of commercial ties.
That Kagan's argument here has some force will be recognized even by those who strenuously disagree with it. The same cannot be said for the emotionally charged mythology with which he decorates it. Just as prewar German nationalists loved to oppose Helden to Händler (Teutonic "heroes" to English "merchants"), so Kagan enjoys contrasting masculine Americans with effeminate Europeans: "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Gun-shy Europeans are able to putter around their Kantian garden only because lethally armed Americans are out there patrolling the Hobbesian jungle to prevent the "post-historical paradise" from being destroyed by various ayatollahs, Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong Ils. Kagan brings his gendered interpretation of United States-European Union relations to a surprising culmination when, in his final paragraphs, he reinvents himself as a marriage counselor, urging the quarreling couple to kiss and make up, for their own sake and the world's.
This is amusing, in its way, all the more so because it is basically unserious. Unfortunately, Kagan's more sober attempt to trace trans-Atlantic discord to differences in military capacity founders on the experience of the Cold War, when Americans and Europeans agreed on a definition of a common threat even though their military capacities were just as asymmetrical as they are today. Countries that are militarily weak will sometimes defer quietly to allies that are militarily strong. At other times they will strenuously dissent. Capabilities alone, therefore, do not bear the explanatory burden that Kagan places upon them. Moreover, a much simpler explanation suggests itself. Europeans no longer feel that the United States is protecting them from a dangerous threat because the likelihood of a military invasion from the East has disappeared. Without U.S. help, Kagan claims, Europe will be unable to prevent itself from "being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of 'moral consciousness.'" But who, exactly, is about to overrun Europe "spiritually as well as physically"? There may be a good answer to this question, but if Kagan knows, he isn't telling. Lack of a clear and convincing answer to the "What military threat?" question explains tensions in the alliance more economically than differences in military capacity.
The European Enigma
But even if Kagan were right that different levels of military preparedness necessarily give rise in Europe and the United States to differing assessments of threats, how does he explain the vastly different levels of military preparedness? Europe is rich enough to be a military superpower, so why have European nations been so reluctant to increase their defense spending or even to assemble on schedule their much-discussed rapid-reaction force?
Kagan's answer to this critical question is a blur, partly because he cannot consistently invoke the objective disappearance of a shared military threat. Perhaps the United States after World War II successfully retired Europe from world history, reprogramming the once-militaristic Germans into harmless merchants and civilians. Perhaps bitter memories of Machtpolitik and chauvinistic militarism have dampened the European appetite for war. Perhaps other Europeans continue to fear that Germany's homicidal impulses could be reawakened in a remilitarized Europe. Perhaps the successful experience of building the European Union has given the Europeans an illusion that similarly legalistic methods could be used to fashion a new global order. Perhaps Europeans are simply free riders, smartly purchasing domestic tranquility by generous social spending in the expectation that American taxpayers will foot the bill for European security. Perhaps they are simply unable to switch quickly from the posture of territorial defense to which the United States assigned them during the Cold War to a policy of force projection, which is what it would take to compete militarily with the United States today. Or perhaps the European population is simply aging, its animal spirits waning, a process of decay witnessed in zero or even negative population growth. Kagan rehearses these various factors but provides little guidance about how to interrelate or weigh them.
But the real weakness of his argument is something else. However we may explain European criticisms of American policy, it is unreasonable to suggest that the French, say, disagree with U.S. foreign policy because they are pacifists. The French are not busy watering tulips in their walled gardens; they are out there in the "jungles" of the Côte d'Ivoire. Kagan even admits that French and British (and even German) militaries are willing to absorb more casualties than their American counterparts, suggesting again that his contrast between American "men" and European "women" is eye-catching but bogus.
Kagan informs us repeatedly that "the new Europe really has emerged as a paradise ... freed from the laws and even the mentality of power politics." But what Europe is he talking about? Algerian youth in the banlieues of Paris have little experience with the humanitarian softness of the French police. Elected officials in Poland or Hungary will not agree that the new Europe is a realm rinsed free of power asymmetries where all peoples are treated equally under law. One source of Kagan's comprehensive confusions is his odd tendency to treat law and force as antonyms. He knows that law is useless without enforcement, but he does not think through the implications of this simple truth. Contrary to his repeated claims, moreover, law does not erase asymmetries of power. The pervasive favoritism of every known rule-of-law system suggests that law expresses and stabilizes asymmetries of power. (Because no party is strong enough to rule without a degree of voluntary cooperation, law often stabilizes asymmetries of power by moderating them to some extent.)
This tendency of law to look favorably on the interests of the powerful explains why, from Nuremberg to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, the United States, as the world's leading power, has been the champion of international law. That would be incomprehensible if law were simply a shackle placed by the weak on the strong. The United States created the current international legal regime and has used it for half a century to its own and its allies' advantage. The current crisis over Iraq came about not because the Europeans were trying to hobble U.S. sovereignty by imposing international law but rather for the opposite reason. Americans could not persuade Europeans in the 1990s to take international law (in the form of UN resolutions) seriously. In other words, the Iraqi crisis itself reveals the hopelessness of a stylized contrast between Europeans living in a Kantian world of reason and rules and Americans living in a Hobbesian world of force and fraud.
The Military Lens
The book's basic argument keeps crumbling under inspection because it rests on a sleight of hand. Its elementary fallacy lies in a selective application of its theoretical premise. A country's foreign policy can become unrealistic if specially favored instruments prevent policy-makers from facing up to threats that must be addressed by other means. From this true premise, however, we cannot infer, as Kagan does, that Europe's meager military capacities make European assessment of threats unrealistic while the United States' formidable military capacities make American assessment of threats realistic. The illusions of the jungle are no less pernicious than the illusions of the garden. Kagan touches on this point when he allows, "The stronger may, in fact, rely on force more than they should." But he does not integrate this insight into his basic argument. Indeed, he devotes no attention at all to the role of irrationality in the making of American foreign policy, even though he knows full well that a missionary impulse pervades Washington's understanding of the United States' global role, spoiling his clean contrast between realistic Americans and utopian Europeans.
A militarily weak society will typically underestimate problems that cannot be solved by civilian means alone. Just so, a militarily powerful society will typically underestimate problems that cannot be solved by military means alone. Both mistakes are possible and both can be fatal, but Kagan pays attention only to the former. This is why, despite the occasional justice of his remarks about European self-delusion, he comes across more as a Bush-administration apologist than as a foreign-policy analyst. Are Paris and Berlin really more "in denial" than Washington? Do Europeans have a more distorted view of the contemporary security environment than Americans? Kagan thinks so, but he is wrong.
The United States' unrivaled military power is not just a "tool." It is also a warped lens distorting the way the Bush administration defines the direst threats facing the country. Acute problems that cannot be addressed by a unilateral deployment of American military power (such as North Korea's horrifying slide toward becoming a serial proliferator of nuclear weapons) get much less sustained attention than problems (such as Iraqi noncompliance with UN resolutions) that can be addressed unilaterally and militarily. Oil dependency, underinvestment in foreign-language skills and global warming are three disparate examples of neglected national-security threats that are not made any less acute simply because they cannot be managed by unilateral military force.
Kagan's talk of American heroes patrolling the Hobbesian world obscures these and other irrationalities that afflict George W. Bush's foreign policy. An ideological conviction that government is the problem and that laxly regulated private exchanges are the answer, for instance, has seduced the administration into thinking that rogue states are invariably more dangerous than failed states. As a consequence, Washington seems even now to be underestimating the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction entering the clandestine arms market after Baghdad's centralized control is destroyed by an American attack and before our forces secure an Iraqi territory "the size of California" crisscrossed by well-developed smuggling routes. Deeply held Christian beliefs prevent the administration from grasping the fatal threat posed to the United States by religious certainty. Myopic domestic lobbies, interagency rivalries and Cold War habits of mind all distort the administration's understanding of the current security environment. And so forth.
But the most striking and by far the most dangerous misperception afflicting Bush's approach to foreign affairs concerns the war against transnational terrorism. Kagan asserts that Europe "has had little to offer the United States in strategic military terms since the end of the Cold War." Widely shared inside the administration, this view is based on the premise that the "end of the Cold War did not reduce the salience of military power." Military power is just as central to American security today as it was during the Cold War -- that is what Kagan would have us believe. And after the Cold War, "European military incapacity" means that our former allies have become almost wholly irrelevant to U.S. security. That is the assumption behind this book and, presumably, behind the unfathomably cavalier attitude of the Bush administration toward our European allies.
That this assumption is fallacious is the very least that might be said. The September 11 attacks were partly planned, organized and financed in Europe. The Muslim diaspora communities into which terrorist cells can invisibly blend remain the likeliest staging grounds for future al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. In other words, Europe remains a frontline region in the war against terrorism just as it was in the war against communism. As daily press reports also reveal, the European police have been acting in a perfectly Hobbesian manner, arresting scores of suspected terrorists. In other words, despite his pose as a no-nonsense realist, Kagan has apparently failed to realize the degree to which the contours of American national security have been redrawn since 9-11. The home front and the foreign front have now been disconcertingly blurred. National-security strategy must now operate in a domain where soldiering and policing have become of coequal importance. This profound change helps us understand the erroneous premise of Bush's foreign policy. In our new security environment, despite the prevailing cliché, the United States is not the world's only superpower.
The war on transnational terrorism depends essentially on information gathering and policing, and in these respects the Europeans are anything but security pygmies. Their capacities to respond effectively to today's greatest security threats easily rival those of the United States. Europeans' linguistic skills and cultural knowledge alone ensure that they can make indispensable contributions to U.S. security. They can perform essential tasks of monitoring, infiltration, disruption and apprehension for which our own unrivaled military machine is patently inadequate. Dismissing the "platitude" that the United States cannot protect itself without European help, Kagan announces that "the United States can 'go it alone.'" This is apparently the thinking (if you can call it that) behind the administration's mindlessly denigrating remarks about Europe. True, European leaders can sometimes be hypocritical and foolishly condescending. But let it pass. We cannot afford, for the sake of a frisson, to undermine American security by further poisoning relations with capable allies in a time of unprecedented national peril.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)