Frail Europe, Brawny America: A Mismatch With Consequences

Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order , by Robert Kagan. Alfred A. Knopf, 103 pages, $18.

“Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” writes Robert Kagan in the first paragraph of his new book, Of Paradise and Power . No one can accuse him of burying the lead: That’s probably the best one-liner any foreign-policy intellectual has offered to explain perennial transatlantic disputes over the exercise of power in international relations.

Mr. Kagan’s well-argued thesis is twofold. First, Europeans and Americans look at the world through a completely different philosophical lens. For Americans, world politics is based on some hard truths about human nature, namely the Hobbesian notion that life is “nasty, brutish and short.” Europeans, meanwhile, live in a world ruled by law, diplomacy and compromise-the paradise of perpetual peace envisioned by Immanuel Kant. After hundreds of years of war culminating in the mass destruction and holocaust of World War II, Europe learned its lesson, created the European Community, and pursued policies and practices that Europeans believe will make a return to past horrors unthinkable.

It’s Mr. Kagan’s second point that’s truly insightful. He believes that Europe has only achieved this Kantian paradise because it lives under the American umbrella. Whether it’s containing the communist menace during the Cold War, protecting Europe’s oil supply in the Gulf War, or leading the effort to stop ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Europeans learned they could count on American power to protect them if real threats emerged. The existence of brawny Mars allows Europe to play frail Venus.

The premise of Mr. Kagan’s book-America’s policies are a function of American power and European policies are a result of their weakness-has stung the European elite like no other argument in recent years. For the last year, his article in Policy Review , on which this book is based, has been the talk of the London, Paris, Brussels and Washington moveable feast. It has stung because much of it is true. But it has also stung because so many believe that Mr. Kagan is saying publicly what the top players in the Bush administration are saying in private.

Which is probably true. Robert Kagan is a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard , the must-read magazine of the neoconservative movement. For years, his policy views have tracked those of Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, not to mention a cadre of other top Pentagon officials, most of the Vice President’s staff and a handful of political appointees at the State Department.

It’s no accident, then, that Mr. Kagan’s one-liner suggests that European weakness makes them the females of the foreign policy trade, and Americans the alpha males. My guess is that when the doors are closed, these officials really think of themselves as modern-day Winston Churchills fighting a battle of ideas with a European leadership of namby-pamby Neville Chamberlains.

Which, sadly, is often true. As Mr. Kagan explains, “the purpose of appeasement” was “to buy time and hope that Hitler could be satisfied.” And buying time has too often been the lowest-common-denominator view in Europe of how to deal with tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

This book is likely to be a hit in policy circles. It comes out at a time when the American political elite is tripping over themselves to show their post–Sept. 11 patriotism by belittling the Europeans. Perhaps the most graphic example of this is one pundit’s recent attack on the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”

But there’s a problem with Mr. Kagan’s model, and it’s the problem with most models: It doesn’t quite fit the complexities of the real world.

Today, there are key European leaders who clearly hail from Mars. Of all those in power today, Tony Blair has the unique distinction of having recognized the evil of Milosevic, Al Qaeda and Iraq. And last week, the leaders of Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Italy and Hungary have joined with Mr. Blair in supporting America politically and militarily against Iraq. No Venuses there.

Presumably Mr. Kagan is targeting the European public, where sentiment is uniformly against war in Iraq, at least on the timetable laid out by President Bush and based on the evidence the British and American government have so far presented. But it was only a few years ago that the public in most European countries-and every European government-did support what could reasonably be called an American attack on Serbia. At the time, the American people were no more hawkish than their European counterparts, and most of those who would later become top officials in the Bush administration were scornful of a war based on morality-that is, stopping Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing and genocide.

What’s really striking about European opposition to war in Iraq right now is the extent to which it reflects distrust of the United States. Indeed, last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos was a watershed for anti-Americanism; even the much-loved Secretary of State, Colin Powell, couldn’t overcome it. Having spent most of my professional life defending the United States against misguided attacks, conspiracy theories and resentment, I have to say that the feelings toward America expressed hour after hour at the Davos meeting by a normally reserved and mainstream group of businessmen and intellectuals were worse than they’ve ever been before. The contrast between last year’s meeting, held in New York just a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when sympathy was strong and the war in Afghanistan was going well, could not have been more stark.

Is all this because Europeans are weak? Or is it because of the way in which American leaders have been exercising their power? The truth is that if Mr. Powell were the only top official speaking for the United States day after day, much of the resentment we’re now enduring would never have been roused. It’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld-surely the most powerful man in that post since Robert McNamara-who excites the bitter reaction of the European public. Because he exudes so much disdain for the rest of the world, because he insulted the offer of help from NATO after Sept. 11 and, most recently, because he labeled France and Germany “old Europe,” Mr. Rumsfeld has needlessly stirred up virulent anger in America’s closest allies. Mr. Powell spends a lot of his time cleaning up messes created by Pentagon officials who speak out daily on foreign policy-rather than defense policy. President Bush has done nothing to put a stop to this sad state of affairs. More often than not, he seems to share Mr. Rumsfeld’s view and attitude.

To his credit, Mr. Kagan acknowledges some of this at the end of this book. Given that he’s a charter member of the Pax Americana club, it’s a remarkable admission and ought to be read very carefully in the halls of the Pentagon and the Vice President’s office: Mr. Kagan explains that the Bush administration has seen Europe “not so much as an ally but an albatross.” He says the United States should “begin to show more understanding for the sensibilities of others, a little more of the generosity of spirit that characterized American foreign policy during the Cold War. It could pay its respects to multilateralism and the rule of law, and try to build some international political capital for those moments when multilateralism is impossible and unilateral action unavoidable.” Some of Mr. Kagan’s friends in Washington may read those words and conclude that he’s been living in Brussels too long.

The anger we’re seeing today is the product of two years of gratuitous unilateralism. After the attacks on NATO, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol and the Geneva Convention, just to name a few, the administration has no political capital to call on when an issue like Iraq comes up.

And for Europeans, Iraq is a much closer call than it is for Americans. Not because they’re wimps, or from Venus, or Neville Chamberlains, but because they’ve learned to tolerate a higher level of insecurity than post–Sept. 11 Americans. As President Bush himself said just days ago, prior to Sept. 11 he was pursuing a policy of smart sanctions towards Iraq. But after those terrible attacks, his administration, and much of the Congress and the American people, are not prepared to accept the inherent risk that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction may someday fall into the hands of terrorists. Europeans are fond of saying they have been living with terrorism for years. That’s true. They’ve lived with insecurity for many years. But what’s also true is that Sept. 11 was an attack on America that has made the U.S. far more willing to risk American lives to prevent the possibility-however remote-that Saddam Hussein might ever allow such weapons to fall into the hands of a group like Al Qaeda.

Which brings us to the question of American power. Mr. Kagan’s book is all about hard power, the power of America to field the most fearsome military machine in the history of the world. Mr. Kagan believes America’s economy and global mission will allow us to maintain this military advantage for the indefinite future. And he’s surely right that the European public is unwilling to spend as much of their wealth on the military as Americans, precisely because they see war between European countries as unthinkable and rely on America to handle any other problems. But what happens after we use our hard power? Is America prepared to spend the money on peacekeeping that the Europeans are? Is it fair to say that hardened British peacekeepers who have worked in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan are from Venus? And what about the foreign assistance that’s needed after a war in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq? Who will be the big spender then? Why does the United States spend less per capita on foreign aid than any other developed country? (I suspect Mr. Kagan himself wishes that weren’t true.)

Mr. Kagan gives short shrift to real threats that have nothing to do with military power. The threat of international crime, global warming, infectious disease and even terrorism cannot be solved by military power alone. In the jargon of international affairs, to relegate these issues to planet Venus, as Mr. Kagan does, is to denigrate them. Indeed, a strong case can be made that prior to Sept. 11, the Bush administration was so focused on hard power in the form of building a national missile defense that it regarded the issue of Al Qaeda and terrorism as a second-order priority. Yes, we must be prepared to use military force to root out terrorist groups. But we also need strong and determined allies to do the intelligence and law-enforcement work that will be just as important to protecting our security. And if we put all our efforts into hard power, and in the process lose our ability to persuade Europeans, Asians and Middle East countries to join us in intelligence and law-enforcement efforts, we cannot win the war against Al Qaeda.

And, on occasion, the Europeans may even have their priorities right. Mr. Kagan quotes a French official who points out that the “problem is failed states, not rogue states” like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It’s worth remembering that it was a failed state-Afghanistan-that provided a base for the most devastating attack on American soil in 200 years.

But even while America is pressing for an immediate war in Iraq, Afghanistan is not a mission accomplished. The Bush administration’s promise of security and reconstruction there is unfulfilled. And that’s the problem with always playing Mars. America’s soft power-the power to persuade and attract others-has been squandered. When we promote democracy and human rights, when we respect civil rights and the rule of law, when we’re generous to Europe and Asia, as we were after World War II, when we show respect for the little guy all over the world, that’s when our power differs from that of the British and the Romans before us. American power doesn’t just come out of the barrel of the gun. We need not only the toughness of Mars, but also the compassion of Venus-and the wisdom of Minerva, too.

James Rubin was Assistant Secretary of State from 1997 to 2000. He lives in London.