Friday, July 15, 2005

VIA ARTS & LETTERS DAILY, here is a very absorbing interview with Robert Kagan, a well-known foreign policy expert. Kagan has a new book out called Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order; the book focuses on the "ideological rift" between Europe and America. Kagan borrows John Gray's "Men are from Mars; women are from Venus" metaphor to describe the differences between Americans and Europeans. The Centre for Independent Studies calls Kagan a "thoughtful superhawk," which I find interesting because his comments reveal a very clear-eyed and objective view of the reasons that underlie the philosophical disconnect between the United States and Europe.

Here are a few of Kagan's major points:

1. The divide between Europe and the U.S. boils down to differing ideas about when and whether to use military force, the validity of power and its uses, and the value of international agreements, understandings, laws, and institutions. The source of our differences is not, as many neoconservatives say or imply, that Americans are more honorable, or more courageous, or more willing to "confront evil." Rather, America has more belief in the effectiveness of military force and the unapologetic use of power because we have a highly effective military and enormous power.

It is inherently true that nations which have greater military power tend to use it more, and believe in its legitimacy more, while nations which are weaker tend to believe less in military power and less in its legitimacy, and seek to use mechanisms to constrain those who have more military power.

Kagan goes on to point out that in the 19th century, when the balance of power was in Europe's favor, the United States took the attitude toward international cooperation much more than Europe did, and much more than the U.S. does now. In short, if you have it, you want to flaunt it. If you don't have it, you must find other ways to shine.

2. America and Europe have very different tolerance levels for potential threats because of their differences in military capacity and political power.

Nations that perceive they have the capacity to deal with threats are less tolerant of them than those that perceive they don’t have the capacity. That’s actually a more controversial point that few people have taken me up on. Americans were less tolerant of Saddam Hussein because we felt we could do something about it; Europeans were more tolerant because they felt they couldn’t do much about it.

3. Europeans and Americans have vastly different attitudes toward the two world wars of the 20th century -- especially World War II. Europeans look back at the carnage and devastating destructiveness of a half century of war, and see themselves as having been part of that horror, because they were there. They experienced the horror and they were responsible for the horror. By contrast, Americans view World War II, especially, through a much rosier lens. Americans view World War II as America's finest hour, when we saved Europe from annihilation and became a world superpower in the process. We view the war as having given us everything good we have now.

Europe has sought, as a consequence of two world wars, to make the old rules of balance of power no longer apply so that they will never again commit the horrors that they committed twice last century. This is the driving force behind the European Union, not economics. Fear keeps the EU going—fear that should they start backsliding, they’ll backslide all the way and revert to their military past. America’s history, however, has led it in a different direction. Americans are very proud of their role in World War II and politicians from Dean Acheson to Bill Clinton have taken the view that American power is the best guarantor of international peace and stability.

I think this point is extremely crucial if Americans are ever to understand our willingness to use war to resolve conflict. In a sense, World War II did the world incalculable harm, because ever since that war, Americans have taken it as the model for all wars. World War II has become the template for war; and 60 years after that war ended, Americans are still so hooked on our success, on our triumph, that it has profoundly affected our view of war in general; it has brainwashed us to see war as a positive thing. We've also developed a very distorted perspective on our role in the world -- not just at that particular time in history, but for all time to come. Because America saved Europe in World War II, that means America has been sprinkled with fairy dust and has become, now and forever, the last, best hope for global security, stability, and happiness. The problem with this self-perception is not so much its truth or lack of truth, but the fact that, because it is based on one experience that occurred in a particular historical moment, it is not amenable to differing political and historical conditions. It was true then; it's true now. That's dangerous.

4. The desire and motivation for cooperation between Europe and America has decreased on both sides because that "mutual dependency" was forged by the Cold War and the threat of the Soviet Union. Now that the Soviet Union is no more and the Cold War is long over, neither side has that motivation for cooperation anymore.

5. The idea that America once sought hegemony through consent and now does not care as much about consent is misleading, because America never really sought consent.

American hegemony was not achieved by consent but by two brutal world wars in which Germany and Japan were defeated. It was achieved by keeping hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed overseas, shaping the order, both in Japan and Europe. It was not accepted cheerfully by the Russians, the Chinese, large segments of Latin America and the Middle East, and not even entirely by Europeans. We did have de Gaulle, after all. So while American power was more accepted during the Cold War than it is today, the legitimacy we enjoyed then was not because we were consent-oriented in our foreign policy (because we were not), but because those who granted us legitimacy depended on America for security and felt that American power was checked to some extent by the Soviet Union.

6. America did not so much change after 9/11/01, as it "became more itself."

There’s a tendency to believe that when we have a change of president, or when we go from Democrat to Republican, we have a brand new foreign policy, but if you look back across 200 years of American foreign policy you see a great deal of continuity. I find the unilateralism charge overdone because America has always been a fairly unilateralist country. Similarly, there are very good historians like John Lewis Gaddis who have pointed out that the idea of preventive or pre-emptive action is not new in American foreign policy. The desire to be the most powerful country is not a new phenomenon and the desire to promote democracy overseas is very old. So what I meant by the United States becoming more itself is that when America is struck, as it was in Pearl Harbor in 1941 and on September 11, 2001, these already strong tendencies in American foreign policy—acting in ways that are more aggressive, unilateralist, ideological, etc.—are magnified.

7. America has always been an "expansionist" country.

You’re right that Americans don’t have a sense of how the rest of the world views us. We’re one of the most expansionist countries in the world. We’ve been expanding for over 400 years and yet we always think of ourselves as just sitting back minding our own business. I’ve found some great quotes from 1817 when American politicians were coming back from Europe shocked that everyone thought we were an incredibly aggressive country just because we’d stolen Florida, picked a fight with the Brits, were yelling that we wanted Canada, etc. It’s a constant theme. Intervention? Expansion of influence? This is the history of America.

A fascinating interview, and definitely a much more nuanced, balanced perspective than I would expect from someone considered to be a "superhawk." Well worth reading in its entirety.

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