European Paradise and American Power

Imagine a person armed with only knife alone in the woods with a dangerous bear, prone to attack, lurking somewhere nearby. This person’s wisest option would be to remain silent and hope for the best. Certainly, to go preemptively after the bear with only a knife entails an even greater risk. Imagine another person in a similar situation except armed with a high-powered rifle. It may prove to be less risky for this second individual to actually go after the bear to eliminate the threat. Waiting for a surprise attack may make the rifle less useful. Whatever decision either individual ultimately makes, it is clear that the level of personal power and armament affects the assessment of risk and strategy.

This metaphor is how Robert Kagan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the central thesis of his short book Of Paradise and Power. The large and growing disparity between the United States and Europe in their ability to project military power drives the growing fracture between the American and European views of the world. What makes these differences more difficult is the fact that both views are also animated by a myth or story that persuades both Americans and Europeans that they are setting a moral example for the world.

The United States began over two hundred years ago as a consciously different state designed to avoid the tyranny and impoverishment of Europeans. American avoidance of European politics was rooted both in an abhorrence of power politics as conducted by the corrupt monarchies of Europe and the fact that America was so militarily impotent that its situation represented that of a lone person in a woods armed with only a knife. Nonetheless, the American political model has spread. Americans can justifiable claim that successful adoption of capitalistic constitutional democracies serves as a global model for freedom and affluence. In addition, over the past century, especially during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, America saw its military power as necessary and decisive in the protection of freedom and democracy.

The recent European experience is quite different. Chastened by over a half a century of power politics and nationalism that resulted in the death of millions of Europeans, they have adopted an abiding belief that security can only be attained through multi-national agreements and negotiations. The way to deal with adversaries is to negotiate and negotiate, building larger agreements on the foundations of trust nurtured from previous smaller agreements. Europeans are justly proud of the application of this approach and the astonishing emergence of the European Union. Once implacable adversaries like France and Germany can now share a common currency. According to Kagan, the qualities that comprise the contemporary European strategic culture are an “emphasis on negotiation, diplomacy, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion, on multilateralism over unilateralism.”

Europeans believe that they have mastered an important model for conflict resolution that might be applicable to other intractable conflicts like the one between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. This is why Europeans, from the American perspective, seem irrationally wedded to process and engagement. The European hope is that process and engagement substitute for military conflict and, in perhaps unforeseen ways, possibly decades in the future, will ultimately lead to some sort of reasonable resolution.

The situation is filled with ironies. In truth, Americans would also prefer a world governed by the rule of law between liberal democracies linked by the cordial bonds of free trade. However, because the United States is the dominant superpower, it has duties it believes requires the occasional application of force and doesn’t much like being overly criticized by those unwilling to make the economic and political commitment to a military large enough to deal with threats. “Americans, as good children of the Enlightenment … retain hope for the perfectibility of the World. But remain realists in the limited sense that they still believe in the necessity of power in a world that remains far from perfection.”

On the other side, the “paradise” of law, reason, agreements, and trade that exist in Europe was made possible during the Cold War because of the protection afforded by American power. Even after the Cold War, Europeans have embarrassingly realized that they needed American power to deal with the ethnic cleansing by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic within the European continent. Europeans are hardly likely to project power around the world, when they cannot manage to do so even locally. Without US power, European negotiation would not have significantly abated the cruelty in the Balkans.

Moreover, it was nudging by the United States that persuaded England and France to acquiesce to German unification at the end of the Cold War, an event that contributed to the current success of the European Union.

The divergence of American and European perspectives is likely to grow larger. Given economic difficulties, Europe is not likely to significantly increase military spending. The US feels more threatened by international terrorism and will continue to increase military spending in real terms. Even more ominous for the Europeans, their populations are rapidly aging. According to Kagan, by the middle of this century the median age of a European with rise to 52.7 from 37.7 years, while immigration will keep the US’s median age in the mid 30’s, at 36.2 from its current 35.5 years. European economies will consequently be struggling under a much greater relative burden to care for their elderly. Also by mid century, disparate economic growth rates will result in an American economy twice as large as Europe’s. In the latter half of this century, the odds are Europe will unfortunately be economically, militarily and consequently politically far less relevant.

This is not a cause for smugness or joy, as tempting as the French sometimes make it to indulge in such emotions. The West including the US and Europe will face a much more populous and more powerful China later this century. If we are fortunate, economic liberalization will attenuate any Chinese threat, but this scenario is not a certainty. Kagan hopes that an understanding of the political, economic, and military dynamics that are driving America and Europe apart will serve to increase empathy on both sides. America may be getting large and powerful enough to “go it alone,” but it is not in its best interest to do so.

Kagan concludes that the United States should not be overly concerned with pulling Europeans into international decisions. “Rather than viewing the United States as a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputian threads, American leaders should realize that they are hardly constrained at all, that Europe is not really capable of constraining the United States.” This “generosity of spirit” would assuage European sentiment. Kagan, in essence, is arguing for international leadership through psychotherapy. Voluntarily engage Europeans so that they continue to feel good about themselves and will consequently be predisposed to think well of us.

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