Seeing Things: Over There and Over Here

The long lead times of a monthly magazine make predictions perilous. Especially so, gentle reader, when there is growing likelihood of war at the moment I write. But let me gaze into the crystal ball: As you read this, our forces have overrun Iraq, probably without many Western, or even Iraqi casualties (Deo volente). The Arab street is outraged but will calm down, as it did post-Afghanistan. Islamic Fundamentalism is still a long-term worry. But the biggest surprise in the run up to war was another stubborn challenge: Europe.

France, Germany, and Belgium are obviously not “Europe,” much as they and homegrown antiwar activists would like them to be. Nor is the Iraq war “unilateralist.” Yet our media tended to characterize the debates at the United Nations and NATO as Europe versus the United States. It would be more accurate to say Europe was divided (Britain, Southern and Eastern Europe—a considerable number of countries—making up another side) about U.S.-led action. But there is something instinctively right in this biased journalistic perspective that deserves careful study.

Happily, a quite brilliant new book does just that—Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf). It’s usually a good idea to resist the enthusiasm of the moment (Kagan is being extravagantly lionized across the political spectrum) and wait for time to separate wheat from chaff. But this brief (only 103 pages) and lucid analysis changes the way you see the world. Kagan can tartly sum up the whole landscape: “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” But he is after bigger game than beating up on wimpy Europeans. He wants to understand, and in some ways the underlying problems are even more troubling than the Continental drift.

Kagan identifies two main “gaps” between America and Europe. First, there is the difference in power. When the young United States was still weak, it deplored power politics. Then, we too advocated recourse to international law and institutions; the great European states practiced Machtpolitik (“power politics”) because they were strong and realistic about history. With the reversal of positions after World War II, the United States, with obvious reluctance, was forced to become an international—today the sole international—power. And our weapons are so far beyond any rival’s that there is almost no historical precedent for our position. This situation is not likely to change any time soon.

But a second “gap,” divergent American and European ideologies, may be even larger and more long-lasting. For more than half a century, the Europeans have been trying to prevent the internecine warfare within their continent that wreaked havoc twice in the 20th century (Roosevelt made it a postwar aim that Europe would not be a world-class player again). But Europeans who invested themselves for 50 years in international law to ward off new disasters find it difficult to change gears to deal with the very different threats from outside Europe (e.g., Iraq).

Kagan justly reminds us that there are Europeans with an “American” view, and Americans, mostly liberal Democrats, with a “European” view. But even Bill Clinton had more in common with current Bush policies than does the average European leader. Europeans were happy enough during the Cold War to have American muscle behind them. Indeed, one of Europe’s greatest fears was that America would withdraw from its NATO commitments to stop the Soviets. When the Cold War ended, the Europeans could have made the investment to become a military as well as an economic power. But they had long tailored their defense posture to local needs—while the United States was developing truly global capability. And they chose to spend the peace dividend on social programs, so even small-scale conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo were impossible for Europe to handle on its own.

One result of all this, in Kagan’s view, is that what appears to Americans as sheer appeasement and incompetence appears to the Europeans as “sophisticated” foreign policy. And what appears to Europeans to be reckless and abrupt appears to us as realistic and long overdue. Some Europeans deplore American power with the old observation that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Kagan responds that when you don’t have a hammer, nothing looks like a nail. America, he says, may be a cowboy sheriff forced to keep order, as the Europeans fear, but the Europeans are like a wild-West saloon-keeper who doesn’t want trouble because it will be bad for business.

And even though the Europeans may think of America as on the whole a nonthreatening ally—no sane European worries about an American threat to Europe itself—they cannot help being nervous about unilateral acts: “Those who cannot act unilaterally themselves naturally want to have a mechanism for controlling those who can…. For Europeans the U.N. Security Council is a substitute for the power they lack.” The Europeans have not even chosen to use their economic power to pressure America and have been wary of forging alliances with emerging nations like China. They have put all their energies into the channels of international law: “They want to control the behemoth by appealing to its conscience.” A tacit acknowledgment that the behemoth—us—does have a conscience.

Kagan’s entire analysis merits careful study for the clarity and balance he brings to a difficult subject. But it raises several questions. First, is it really true that Europeans have embraced the warless paradise of Kant’s “perpetual peace”? The French, to take the most notorious example, have had no qualms about using force in their old African colonies, conflicts better suited to France’s relatively small military. Absent the Iraq controversy, would an objective observer have said that the French have taken the lead in substituting international law for war? Within Europe, of course, that is every country’s desire. And absent September 11, it is hard to believe that the United States would be quite so ready to pay any price to defend itself. (We forget that the Bush administration arrived in Washington hoping to conduct a less active foreign policy.) Finally, there is a radical anti-American sentiment in a few European circles that falls outside this calm analysis.

But Kagan is absolutely right that, on the whole the Europeans can afford to be idealists because they have been sheltered by an ally willing to stand up to those who still live by the law of the jungle, whether they call themselves Nazis or Islamic Fundamentalists. It remains to be seen whether the Iraq war will be the first step toward a renewed understanding between old allies or toward even deeper division.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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