“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.” With that statement Robert Kagan opens Of Paradise and Power, his controversial June/July 2002 Policy Review essay-turned-book (Knopf, 103 pages, $18). As recent events have shown, European and American political leaders have come to the sudden realization that an ideological gap may have irreversibly changed the nature of their decades-old alliance.
It is Kagan’s contention that Europe’s domination of global politics took a severe blow after the Second World War. Already battered by war, European power was further eroded by a guarantee of security provided by the might of the United States. While that provided a sense of cohesion, Kagan argues, it also prompted Europeans to begin reevaluating how power should be used. Adopting a post-modernist Kantian approach, European politicians began to argue with the zeal of a missionary that the belief that force could solve problems was immoral.
Instead of invading a nation like Iraq, their current line of thinking goes, carrots should be dangled in front of Saddam Hussein. The seductive lure of commercial trade, diplomatic entreaties and promised legitimacy should be used to bring Hussein in line. The use of American force in Iraq presents a greater danger to the world, even with a successful resolution, than anything that Hussein could do.
The problem with that line of thought, as world events have indicated, is that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to share that belief and the greatest threat to Europe’s sense of mission is the path the United States follows. By continuing to rely on its overwhelming military power and its willingness to use it unilaterally if necessary, the United States is pursuing a path that will bring it into continual conflict with Europe.
“The current situation abounds in ironies. Europe’s rejection of power politics and its devaluing of military force as a tool of international relations have depended on the presence of American military forces on European soil. Europe’s new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that U.S. military power has solved the European problem … allows Europeans … to believe that American military power, and the ‘strategic culture’ that has created and sustained it, is outmoded and dangerous,” writes Kagan.
Kagan’s thesis is a compelling one but a reader, especially a European, could be forgiven if he asked how accurate it really was. While it’s true that collective European military power continues to decline in comparison to the United States and it’s also true that Europe’s experiences have led it to its focus on diplomacy over displays of raw power, is Kagan right to argue that there is a rapidly widening ideological gap between America and the Europe?
Judging by recent history, which not only includes Iraq but events in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, it would appear that Kagan is more right than he is wrong. Europe’s inability to project its power, as evidenced in Kosovo, has severely limited its influence not only with the United States but also throughout the world. When diplomacy fails, or never had a chance of succeeding, Europe’s approach to global politics fails. America should be happy that Europe is a paradise of peace, writes Kagan, but it should not expect to rely on it in the future. Europe will in the future continue to be frustrated in its attempts to constrain American power.
Given the emotional response that Europeans and Americans have displayed in reaction to each other’s efforts over Iraq, Of Paradise and Power may be one of the most important intellectual efforts of the year. The strain in relations between America and Europe promises only to grow greater in coming years as further threats to global security surface. Given the vast disparity in power between the two, that means the U.S. will likely initiate more unilateral actions and that will prompt further European protest. Of Paradise and Power does a remarkable job explaining the roots of this strain and why it will not diminish.
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