Neocon Robert Kagan is itching to let narcissistic, wimpy pacifists know just how much they rely on American muscle. Stephen Phillips talks to him
Robert Kagan suspects that much of the stir caused by his 2003 bestselling geopolitical treatise, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order , stemmed from the "erroneous belief that it (represented) the thinking of the Bush Administration".
Despite being a key member of the neo-conservative clique of foreign-policy hawks behind the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes espoused by the White House, Kagan is quick to discount any idea that he has a hotline to senior US government officials.
He admits, though, that reaction to the book, published amid an unprecedented rupture in transatlantic relations, may have owed something to its provocative thesis.
Kagan, resident foreign-policy sage at Washington DC think-tank the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and world affairs columnist for The Washington Post , posited that America and Europe aren't merely an ocean apart, they're on different planets.
Europeans inhabit a "post-historical paradise", extolling international law and "moral" foreign policy, and decrying "atavistic power politics".
America, on the other hand, "remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic world where international laws are unreliable and true security and the defence and promotion of the liberal order still depend on military might".
The diplomatic impasse between America and much of Europe isn't the product of President George W. Bush's no-prisoners, my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy (though Kagan chides the administration's "ham-fisted" statesmanship) - the writing was on the wall far earlier.
Europe and America have plotted radically divergent post-1945 paths, Kagan argues. While Europe has sought to transcend a history disfigured by bellicose nationalism and militarism, prioritising social welfare over defence spending and retreating from international embroilment, America has had no such past to live down. Instead, the US has maintained far higher military budgets and a willingness to follow a policy of military intervention to bring so-called rogue states to heel.
Kagan believes these fundamental differences were stripped bare at the end of the Cold War and the removal of old imperatives for Europe and America to bury their disagreements and find common ground before the looming Soviet menace.
While Europe has embraced feminine pacific virtues, macho America is distinguished by its "propensity to use military force", Kagan contends.
Borrowing an analogy from a pop psychology bestseller about the battle of the sexes, he declares in his book: "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Or, as the irreverent headline to a 2003 New York Times interview of him put it: "Europeans are sissies".
Kagan is the son of a Yale University classicist and dean. He spent his formative years as a precocious policy-maker fresh from Yale and Harvard University in President Ronald Reagan's State Department, where he helped direct America's highly controversial support of the Contra guerrillas against Nicaragua's leftist Sandanista Government.
Kagan said at the time that the attention from Of Paradise and Power made him feel like a "pop star", a comment he regrets for its brashness. These days he just says he's "taken aback" by the reception received by the book, which was based on a 2002 essay in the US journal Policy Review that quickly garnered a cult following online.
"Reaction wasn't exactly uniformly positive," Kagan notes, "which led me to think that if people didn't like it, they didn't have to read it."
The slim volume's pithy style, controversial thesis and unflattering depiction of Europe might explain the reaction. He accuses European nations of being narcissistically besotted with their own unification as a model for international cooperation to the extent that they have overlooked the extent to which their "postmodern paradise" rests on "America's security guarantee". Because of this, they have a deluded reverence for toothless supranational bodies such as the United Nations and believe in ineffectual diplomatic initiatives for restraining tyrants such as Saddam Hussein.
"American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important," he countered, noting that American troops were mobilised multiple times during the 1990s in conflicts ranging from the first Persian Gulf war to Haiti.
American unilateralism might represent an affront to the principles of international consensus-building on which the European Union is based, but Europe's carping about overweening US power is blinding it to the risk from without of the deadly nexus of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Kagan adds.
Kagan likens a weak Europe, unable to "project effective force" in the world's troublespots to a man armed only with a knife confronted with a marauding bear. "Lying low and hoping the bear never attacks" is less risky than "hunting the bear armed only with a knife", he says. "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 have to? This perfectly normal human psychology has driven a wedge between the US and Europe."
Elevating his analysis from a crude "might is right" stance, Kagan and fellow neocons call for an "expansive", "idealistic" vision of US foreign policy as a vehicle for spreading liberal democracy.
Kagan concedes that his analysis caricatures reality, lumping Britain in with France and Germany for instance, but 18 months and one still-raging war later, it has proved an accurate predictor for how transatlantic relations have played out, he says. Tony Blair is the only leader who grasps both mindsets, straddling "Europe's Kantian world of perpetual peace" and "America's Hobbesian world of anarchy". But Kagan laments that US sceptics Paris and Berlin are more typical of "new" Europe than London, which cleaves to the old "special relationship". "To say (US-European relations) are at a nadir is to imply that they can't get any worse - I want to believe that," he says.
Rapprochement might come through America ceding greater influence to Europe in return for it taking US views of the threats posed by rogue states more seriously, he suggests. But Europe is showing scant sign of coming round to America's way of thinking if reaction to al-Qaeda's devastating March 11 bombing of Madrid is anything to go by, Kagan says.
Of Paradise and Power held that another reason for Europe and America's difference of opinion on the "war on terror" was that Europe had not had an attack of the magnitude of September 11 2001 visited on it. Now he is puzzled by "Europe's non-response to March 11". "It is rather stunning from an American perspective," he says.
Kagan denies that the spectacle of his "global hegemon" bogged down amid mounting insurgency in Iraq vindicates European arguments that measured foreign policy-making is better than gross force.
Attacking Saddam, "a serial aggressor", was inevitable because containment strategies failed, Kagan says, adding that although the current situation in Iraq carries the "possibility of disaster", he believes it is retrievable and he argues against basing an overall judgement of US foreign policy on the state of play in Iraq. "Look at where everyone was in 1942," before the Allies turned the tide against Hitler, he says.
Invading Iraq always entailed protracted occupation - ten years isn't out of the question, he says. What would be catastrophic is premature withdrawal "without establishing a stable, democratic Iraq".
Kagan faults the Bush administration for mistakes in the operation's post-invasion phase, chiefly Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's "amazing intellectual arrogance" in skimping on troops under his vision of lean, mechanised 21st-century warfare.
But he says it was this comparatively innocuous failure to deploy sufficient forces, rather than reported trickledown from sinister Pentagon directives, that led to the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Kagan also regrets the conflation of Iraq with America's vaunted war on terror. But he counters that using another pretext to cloak "legitimate self-interest" is grounded in historical precedent. He cites President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic at the height of the Cold War.
"September 11 led to a paradigmatic shift in the nation's tolerance level for people such as Saddam Hussein," he explains.
But he rejects "wild conspiracy" theories that the Iraq War was fomented by a cabal of neocons, including Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, "on September 12, 2001". Mobilisation was just another step in escalating sanctions against Baghdad that can be traced to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 when President Bill Clinton scrambled fighter jets to bomb Iraqi targets, he says.
Ironically, he says, Bush had been set to preside over a quietist foreign policy before events forced his hand.
Looking forward to November's presidential election, Kagan warns that, while Europe might view a more conciliatory John Kerry presidency as a tonic, the Democratic candidate is likely to be goaded as a wimp by Republicans unless he flexes US muscle abroad. "Like JFK, he'll want to prove (how tough) he is." He will also have to deal with the possibility that his foreign policy will be hijacked by events. "Iran is going to hit crisis point in the next Administration," Kagan warns. "How (whoever is in power) handles that is the big question."
Of Paradise and Power is published by Atlantic Books, £7.99.