Weasel words, cowboy deeds

Paradise amd Power
June 6, 2003

Gary McDowell pinpoints the High Noon of US-Europe relations

During the march of Great Britain and the US towards the war to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein's oppression, most Americans found the reactions of the Europeans to be utterly baffling. Having been pushed by Tony Blair into seeking the approval of the United Nations, America suddenly found itself confronted by the thinly veiled anti-Americanism that is all too common in what US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld would call "Old Europe".

Soon, even those thin veils were whipped off completely, leaving the anti-Americanism of the French and the Germans (and, to Blair's embarrassment, no small number of his fellow Britons) both naked and unashamed. Such high-minded moralism and political condescension towards President George W. Bush's campaign against those nations he had called the "axis of evil" - not least Iraq - led the Americans to see France and Germany as nothing less than the "axis of weasels".

With splendid predictability, that pugnacious tabloid the New York Post ran on St Valentine's Day the headline "UN meets: weasels to hear new Iraqi evidence" over a front-page picture of the UN Security Council with the French and German ambassadors hilariously replaced by two handsomely suited weasels about to cast their votes. In the view of many irritated Americans, journalism had never been better. Certainly it had never been more accurate.

That was not all. America's leading comedians such as Jay Leno and David Letterman had a grand time with anti-French and anti-German jokes. More worrying to the likes of Jacques Chirac, Americans launched a ground-up protest by boycotting French products. And a couple of congressmen went so far as to suggest that "French fries" in the Capitol lunchrooms be replaced by "Freedom fries". The expression of American patriotism has undoubtedly had finer hours but, one suspects, none more sincere.

Moreover, it will not be surprising if there are far fewer of those dollar-dropping, big-tipping, loud American tourists wandering the streets of Paris and Berlin this summer, imposing by their absence a kind of populist programme of economic sanctions. But perhaps the most ominous sign of all was the recent pronouncement by secretary of state Colin Powell, that those who had stood in the way of America's march to war would have to pay a price. There was no confusion as to whom he referred.

That the relationship between such allies of long standing would or could come to such a pass surely surprised many; but, as Robert Kagan demonstrates in this superb book, it should have surprised no one. The passions and resentments that eventually led to the breach were long in coming, with signs aplenty along the way that all was not well. In a sense, Kagan points out, in the post-cold war world this confrontation was simply inevitable. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America and Europe had been following paths that took them in opposite strategic directions - only to find their paths circling around until they faced off, standing nose-to-nose in the Security Council. When the Europeans would not budge, America simply stepped over them and had its way. Such is the virtue - or, as the Europeans would insist, the vice - of power.

It is precisely power in world affairs, how it is conceived and how it is used, that is the focus of Paradise and Power . As the author makes clear, Europe and the US have been set on something of a collision course for far longer than simply the years that have passed since the end of the cold war. The trajectories are in fact plotted along nothing less than opposing lines of Enlightenment thinking, with the Americans rooted in a Hobbesian and, by extension, Lockean view of the world where life can be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" and where the two things enemies understand are power and sanctions. Europeans, on the other hand, have taken their bearings from the quest for perpetual peace that emerged from the writings of Immanuel Kant. The Americans want peace and will wield power to have it; the Europeans seek peace through "the transcendence of power". The result of these conflicting philosophies has been the generation of a "psychological gulf" across the Atlantic when it comes to addressing world problems and international relations.

Americans are not wrongly viewed by the Europeans as somewhat like cowboys when it comes to maintaining peace in the world. They bring to the situation a belief that they can and should fix problems. Not infrequently, such American confidence appears to the more sophisticated, not to say effete, Europeans as rather "ham-fisted diplomacy" more inclined to the use of the whack of the stick than to the lure of the carrot. The Europeans see the world as a place characterised not so much by concrete problems to be corrected as by complex issues to be discussed and resolved. For them it is the fine art of persuasion and encouragement through often-protracted dialogue over a long period of perhaps years that is needed to secure the peace they crave. In the language of old-time American cowboy movies, the Americans are the strong and silent sheriff (Gary Cooper in High Noon comes to mind) while the Europeans are the preacher, Bible in hand, moral suasion at the ready.

No small part of what has made Europe what it is when it comes to power has been its history of aggressive nationalism, blood feuds and long wars.

Their quest for perpetual peace is not just a theoretical puzzle; it has been a practical problem. Kagan gives credit where it is due: "The new Europe is indeed a blessed miracle and a reason for enormous celebration - on both sides of the Atlantic. For Europeans, it is the realisation of a long and improbable dream; a continent free from nationalist strife and blood feuds, from military competition and arms races. War between the major European powers is almost unimaginable. After centuries of misery, not only for Europeans but also for those pulled into the conflicts - as Americans were twice in the past century - the new Europe really has emerged as a paradise."

But it is a paradise not without irony. The new Europe, which has had remarkable success in its quest for the structures that may provide something approximating a perpetual peace, has been possible only because of the continuing strength - and the willingness to use that strength - of the US. Cowboys or not, there are problems that must be confronted, ugly situations that often require a big stick, and continuing evidence that there are permanent attributes of human nature that will continue to issue in tyranny and oppression. Talk is one thing; a 2,000lb bunker-buster bomb is quite another. Moreover, American willingness through many administrations of both parties to put its money, its men and its technology on the line in linking its own security with that of Europe has meant its transatlantic allies have been able to benefit greatly from American generosity and its firm will to do right as it understands it.

Two things have now occurred that threaten the relationship that was understood by all to be simply the defence and security of "the West". The first was the end of the cold war and the absence of the Soviet Union, the behemoth that had helped to pull the otherwise-disparate interests of Europe and the US together in a common cause. The second was the creation of the European Union. By Kagan's accounting, these two seminal events unhitched the US from Europe so that each started thinking, primarily if not only, of its own self-interest. The result has been an inevitable tendency in the US towards greater unilateralism accompanied by more-or-less constant concern and criticism of that unilateralism among the European states - concern and criticism that are unlikely to achieve much.

While Europe may have a vision of military as well as economic development that will make it a counterweight to the US, the fact is, according to Kagan, that the disparity of power is just too great for Europe ever to be really "capable of constraining the US".

At the deepest level, Kagan argues, there is something else about America and its view of its power and its place in the world that the Europeans would be well advised to take seriously. While it is usually enough to occasion nothing more than the odd guffaw among academics, or a snide sneer in the pages of the European press, the fact is the US is guided by an abiding faith in its own exceptionalism. This is not the result of its power or its riches or anything else so tangible. Indeed, those manifest aspects of American greatness are themselves seen as the result of something deeper. That which sets Americans apart and inspires their self-confidence is the belief that the fundamental principles of liberal democracy that serve as the foundation of their nation are indeed of universal applicability and worthy of the greatest regard. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, America has, at some level, always seen itself as "a shining city upon a hill", a model for the rest of the world. Most Americans believe - if they had to think about it, which they do not, the belief being nearly instinctive - without blushing, that America is indeed nothing less than "the last, best hope of earth" for the cause of freedom, as Abraham Lincoln once put it.

Unless America's principled patriotism - a devotion to ideas more than to any notion of a fatherland - is appreciated, Europeans will never fully understand the US. They will never fully appreciate how intertwined are American ideals and American interests. And they will never grasp why American foreign policy can be so rough and unrefined, by their estimation.

In the end, it remains as true today as it was for the founding generation that, as Benjamin Franklin put it, America understands that its "cause is the cause of all mankind". That idea has no small effect on America's use of power in today's world.

Paradise and Power is a book worthy of every thinking person on both sides of the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine so complex a subject being explained so clearly and so compellingly in such a small compass. What makes this brief book - an extended essay, in fact - so important is that the author judiciously endeavours to see the problem from both sides. In an age characterised more by ideological axe-grinding than by intellectual fairness, that is no small achievement. Kagan is to be congratulated for a contribution unlikely to be equalled.

Gary L. McDowell was director, Institute of United States Studies, University of London, and is now professor of leadership studies and political science, University of Richmond, Virginia, US.

Paradise amd Power: America and Europe in the New World Order

Author - Robert Kagan
ISBN - 1 84354 177 7
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Price - £10.00
Pages - 103

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