“For a Strong Europe Against the American Evil,” ran the slogan in heavy black type on a poster recently plastered over Italian walls. With the exception of Britain, polls indicate a majority in the other countries of Europe agreeing rather enthusiastically with this sentiment. As Operation Iraqi Freedom has revealed, the relationship between the United States and Europe is not the solid and mutually advantageous thing it once seemed to be but a sham, with every potential for turning ugly.
In the run-up to the war, even Arab and Muslim countries by and large swallowed their pride and accepted that Saddam Hussein was indefensible. Opposition to the United States arose instead from France, Germany, and Russia. All three owe their independence and their democratic freedoms to the United States, which has saved them from themselves more than once. Russia, still inchoate in its post-Soviet incarnation, may be a special case, but both France and Germany clearly saw the Iraq campaign as an opportunity for asserting the interests of Europe against those of the United States. Under the cover of arguments about principles and legality, they made a calculated power play. At an earlier turning point in history, the diplomat and Soviet specialist George Kennan warned in a famous article that the democracies would have to resist the Soviet Union in its post-1945 expansion. He pointed the way ahead—to NATO, and the ultimately successful waging of the cold war. Robert Kagan, a foremost strategist and geopolitical thinker in a later generation, has had an insight comparable to Kennan’s, and one that likewise outlines the shape of the future.
The common front maintained for 50 years by democratic states against totalitarianism has, of course, been eroding for a long time; but until recently, the process was all but imperceptible. September 11, 2001 and the Iraq campaign marked the breach, splintering the “West” (always something of a catch-all term) into two main components. Condemning military action against Saddam Hussein in principle, and raising alarm about its likely outcome, President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany provoked a furious anti-Americanism in their own countries and a corresponding sense of European solidarity. They then tried to extend their appeal over the heads of other governments. Britain under Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most prominent European country to support the United States, but members of his own Labor party rebelled against him in a vote that challenged his majority in parliament. The Spanish prime minister, José Maria Aznar, also supported the United States, but according to opinion polls nine in ten Spaniards did not agree with him.
In the end, France and Germany failed to mobilize other European governments behind them, and their efforts to recruit allies in the Third World also came to nothing. But, as intended, they had exposed for all to see the parting of the ways between the United States and Europe. And that is where Kagan’s book comes in, published in the midst of these momentous events and based on an essay that appeared last year in the journal Policy Review.
In a strikingly elegant formulation, Kagan considers that the United States and Europe have come to reflect the incompatible views of the world held by two great philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant. The former lived through the English civil war of the 1640’s, whose horrors impressed on him that the law of the jungle is the natural order of mankind and that the sole resource available to tame the general beastliness is the state’s possession of superior power, coupled with the resolve to wield it. Kant, on the other hand, living in the relative calm of the 18th century, maintained that reason is the tool for perfecting society and ensuring perpetual peace.
For Kagan, where exactly one stands on this continuum between the law of the jungle and the laws of reason is a profound philosophical, even metaphysical, question. He himself is in no doubt that Hobbes is the realist, and Kant the dreamer. As for the division between Europeans and Americans, the former prefer to subdue the jungle by spawning committees and paperwork; the latter turn heroic. Kagan encapsulates his central idea in an aphorism that immediately and quotably seizes the imagination: “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”
A world-historical process is thus coming to fruition. As Kagan writes, the history of the United States since its founding has been one of accumulating strength. To its early leaders, the nation appeared “a Hercules in the cradle,” and the ambition of this Hercules to play a grand role on the world stage was, Kagan believes, something deeply rooted in the national character. Often but wrongly labeled isolationists, Americans are actually idealists, convinced that their interests and the world’s coincide. Successful promotion of their ideals means the exercise of power. The United States presently has the power to do as it pleases, without fear or favor, and both economics and demography suggest a protracted era of American hegemony. From this perspective, what happened after September 11 and through the Iraq campaign is that the United States has become more itself.
During the years when the United States was rising toward this preeminence of power, Europe was declining. Between the world wars, Kagan reminds us, Europe first attempted to make a virtue out of weakness by means of the League of Nations and the concept of collective security. Worse than ineffective, this framework encouraged the fatal appeasement of Hitler. As others before him have done, Kagan refers to a notorious speech by Josef Goebbels in 1940 explaining that, as Hitler’s threat to France had long been obvious, the French premier should have met it much earlier with a declaration of war: “Either [Hitler] disappears or we march!” Once Germany was fully armed, it was too late: the Nazis marched and the French premier disappeared.
The war to defeat Hitler destroyed the European powers and their empires. Afterward, the continent was divided between the Soviet satellite states to the east and the democracies to the west, all of whom were dependent for their defense upon the United States. Throughout the ensuing cold war, what ought to have been an enjoyable European free ride turned sour. French Gaullism and German Ostpolitik expressed an accumulating sense of inferiority and resentment. Tactful to a fault, Kagan does not mention that the intellectual elites on the continent were prepared to collaborate with the Soviet Union as they had done with Hitler’s Germany.
Today, the UN Security Council has turned into a forum in which Europeans have once again made a virtue out of weakness: in its promise a few months ago to veto a second resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein, France was deploying the only stratagem available to it for curbing the United States. But there is also another forum in which to pursue the same purpose: the European Union (EU). The original impetus behind the EU derived from the heartfelt aspiration that France and Germany would never again go to war with each other. Although Kagan at one point calls today’s European Union a “miracle of world-historical importance” and at another point a “blessed miracle,” it is not clear, consistent tactfulness aside, why he should deploy such high-flown language. At its inner core, where emotions turn into policy decisions, the EU for some decades has primarily defined itself as a counterweight to America.
Elements of wish-fulfillment, even fantasy, collide with EU ambitions. Although locked into irreconcilable confrontation over the campaign against Saddam Hussein, France and Britain are supposed to provide the nucleus of a European military force. One Belgian luminary has proposed that Europe need not actually build any such force, but merely pretend that it exists. In plain fact, military budgets are shrinking throughout the EU. Kagan notes that EU foreign policy is either “anemic,” or mischievous as in the cases of North Korea and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or frankly disastrous as in the former Yugoslavia.
Unable or unwilling to recapture greatness through power, Europe has no choice but to resort to the tools of the weak, reflexively preferring compromise to confrontation, resorting to inducements rather than sanctions, and establishing the primacy of unenforceable laws and treaties over the use of military power. Transnational institutions like the UN and the EU are the means to these Kantian ends.
Is anything to be done about it? Little or nothing, Kagan concludes. Americans have only to realize that they have nothing to fear from Europeans. The likes of President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder are in no position to constrain them in any way, and the successors to these men are certain to be even more Venusian. At this point, Kagan succumbs to the last of his spasms of tact. He asks the United States to “show more understanding for the sensibilities of others” and “to believe that a little common understanding could still go a long way.” Such pieties bring this far-reaching essay to an unexpectedly banal ending.
Europeans are not going to alter course, or become less shrill in their accusations that the United States is a rogue colossus. Like the frog in Aesop’s fable, the EU puffs itself up and makes ever more grandiose claims about its identity and reach, but it is incapable of providing democracy, unity, or strength. The conjoined outward guise of these member states may be novel, but their separate national interests are constant, pursued as hard as ever. One day, Americans are likely to have to help Europeans to save themselves—yet again.
Book Review from Commentary, by David Pryce-Jones
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