A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World , by Will Hutton. W.W. Norton, 319 pages, $27.95.
What’s wrong with Venus? That’s the question Will Hutton proposes in response to Robert Kagan’s now-famous formulation that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” In fact, Mr. Hutton argues, Americans ought to consider a change of scene.
It’s an unspoken retort, given that Mr. Hutton’s book, A Declaration of Interdependence , was published last year in Britain (as The World We’re In ), well before Mr. Kagan invoked Venus and Mars in Of Paradise and Power . And Mr. Hutton’s book can’t be seen as a rebuttal of Mr. Kagan’s notion that the United States and Europe have begun to diverge in important ways. “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world,” wrote Mr. Kagan. Mr. Hutton, a columnist for London’s Observer (where he was once editor in chief), concurs: “The West is at odds as never before,” he writes. Unlike Mr. Kagan, though, Mr. Hutton hopes the divide can be bridged.
Mr. Hutton is clear about who needs to do the bridging. His book, which was a best-seller in Britain, was obviously an attempt to convince the British to support European integration. In its slightly adapted American form, A Declaration of Interdependence takes that appeal a step further: Basically, Mr. Hutton wants the U.S. to join the E.U.-or at least to adopt its economic system.
“Interdependence” turns out to be a term that Mr. Hutton applies more to economic policy than to foreign policy. To a large extent, his book is a brief against self-interest, against Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the idea that the larger public interest is served when atomized individuals are allowed to act selfishly. That’s not to say that Mr. Hutton is anti-capitalist. But he believes in the moral superiority of European capitalism: highly regulated, with generous unemployment and welfare benefits-what might be called capitalism with a human face.
This is a book about values-“how to construct a just international society and a just capitalism”-and Mr. Hutton is right that policymakers should make normative judgments (essentially, moral judgments) about economic policy that transcend mere analyses of what is most economically efficient (though he disputes as “laissez-faire nostrums” the idea that social spending hampers an economy’s performance). Unfortunately, he’s not clear about what should replace a technocratic notion of efficiency to inform policy decisions. He says “interdependence” is “the overriding value that I believe should inform domestic and foreign policy.” But what is it? How do we define it? How does it guide our decisions? Who decides what is in the fuzzy “public interest” that Mr. Hutton seeks to elevate over self-interest? Why can’t Americans make their own decisions about what values should inform policy? Is “extremism in the defense of liberty,” to borrow Barry Goldwater’s phrase, a vice after all?
Mr. Hutton thinks so, and he implies that his book is part of a project of “de-conservatization” (think de-Baathification, but for Americans), writing that the “strengthening of the American liberal tradition” is a “global concern.” But if he wants Americans to reconsider the morality of their economic decisions, he might try a better approach than insulting them. What American wouldn’t rally around the flag after reading that American democracy is “a reproach to democratic ideals,” that American inequality is “almost medieval in its scope,” or that the American dream is “hogwash”? Most Americans will be as befuddled as Texans were by Al Gore’s dystopian descriptions of the Lone Star State during the 2000 campaign. You won’t recognize the country Mr. Hutton describes. (American conservatism bears “only a tenuous relationship to the core values of Western civilization”?)
Mr. Hutton says that he’s not anti-American, only anti-“conservative.” But Americans to the right of Ralph Nader will find at least some part of themselves tarred by Mr. Hutton’s label. You may nod sympathetically when he says the current political mood in the United States “prevents self-knowledge and intelligent self-criticism,” but you’ll likely be horrified by the notion that property rights are nothing more than a “concession granted by the state”; or when he pooh-poohs the notion that “the rationale of the state is to protect individual liberties.” He derides the “American conservative tradition”-which Americans may think of more broadly as the American tradition-“which holds that America’s exceptionalism and economic and social successes are built around independence, individualism, and a ruthless assertion of self-interest.” (At one point, Mr. Hutton mysteriously lumps “belief in private property and free enterprise” in with a litany of conservative sins that include “religious fundamentalism, nationalism, prejudice against blacks” and “sexual and social reaction.”)
Even those who agree that the state ought to intervene to correct market failures and to protect those who are hurt by the excesses of capitalism will be disappointed with Mr. Hutton’s argument. And if you don’t already believe that there’s a “moral crisis posed by the inequities of income, wealth, and power created by capitalism,” Mr. Hutton’s book won’t do much to convince you otherwise. Instead, you’ll find yourself dubbed a racist for supporting welfare reform (placed in quotes as “reform”). Conservatives are the “fanatical” sponsors of “economic degeneration,” and their irrational ideas have had a “malevolent impact.” Furthermore: “Any rational calculation of the overall costs and benefits of the conservative experiment must give a negative result.” Later, Mr. Hutton suggests that the whole of Britain is in the grips of a false consciousness because of conservative ideas, which are “preventing the British from understanding who they are and how they work.”
By the end of his book, Mr. Hutton’s claims to European moral superiority fall apart. Someone so concerned with the economic status of the downtrodden ought to consider the moral implications of rooting for an American economic collapse: If America’s economy gets worse, Mr. Hutton writes, the nation might abandon its “profound cultural attachment to a very particular idea of liberty.”
Furthermore, Mr. Hutton’s attacks on American unilateralism are weakened by his book’s conclusion, in which he virtually argues for a second Cold War: Europe must become an “alternative pole” to the United States, “around which a more enlightened and liberal global order can be formed.” The E.U. should go ahead and set up multilateral and international institutions without the United States’ approval. Mr. Hutton also argues for greater European defense spending to offset U.S. power.
This endorsement of power through military might, as well as the vigorous promotion of your values in the face of allied opposition and a general sentiment of “Who needs ‘em?”, sounds remarkably similar to the sentiments that Mr. Hutton criticizes when the speaker’s accent is American. But Mr. Hutton’s willingness to embrace those sentiments in order to promote his ends provides an unexpectedly hopeful ending: Maybe he and Mr. Kagan are wrong about Americans and Europeans. Perhaps we’re from the same planet after all.
Chris Suellentrop is the deputy Washington bureau chief of Slate.