Of Paradise and Power

This is more like a long political essay rather than a book. The title is kind of innocuous; it’s the subtitle that grabbed me, AMERICA AND EUROPE IN THE NEW WORLD ORDER. I’m going to start near the end of the book with a few quotes from Kagan that I think sum up the main point:

A great philosophical schism has opened within the West, and instead of mutual indifference, mutual antagonism threatens to debilitate both sides of the transatlantic community. Coming at a time when new dangers and crises are proliferating rapidly, this schism could have serious consequences. For Europe and the United States to decouple strategically has been bad enough. But what if the schism over “world order” infects the rest of what we’ve known as the liberal West? Will the West still be the West? (pg 107)

… America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy.

Americans will find that they cannot ignore this problem. … (pg 108)

This interests me. I have a strange self-consciousness about the perception of America by other citizens of the globe and I’m trying to make sense of it. Is the perception by the world community that we are too quick to use force and defy international order a fair perception? Does this perception detract from our legitimacy (often-used word by Kagan) as a world power such that it makes it more difficult to gain cooperation from other countries to resolve global problems? Most of all, are we a bad friend to Europe, our long-time ally? Or is Europe a bad friend to us?

I want help understanding this and I want it now! Okay?

Enter 158 pages of foreign policy analysis by Robert Kagan, a Washington Post writer and a Senior Associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This book starts by summarizing the differences between Europe and America. Try this on for size:

Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others through subtlety and indirection. They are more tolerant of failure, more patient when solutions don’t come quickly. They generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion. They are quicker to appeal to international law, international conventions, and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance. (pg 5)

Kagan agrees that this is generalizing, but I don’t think he feels it’s an over-generalization. A few paragraphs later he says, “When it comes to the use of force, most mainstream American Democrats have more in common with Republicans than with Europeans.”

Alright, it’s a generalization, but not far from reality. So Americans and Europeans are different. But why? Is one smarter than the other? What about their geography? One is a collection of many mid-sized nations situated close to each other and two oceans protect the other; could that have something to do with it? Or do each region’s historical conflicts have something to do with it? One has been devastated by multiple world wars on their own soil in the last 100 years, the other didn’t have their borders breached by a foreign enemy for most of that time until the horrific events of 9/11.

Could be, but Kagan breaks it down into even simpler terms.

A man armed only with a knife may decide that a bear prowling the forest is a tolerable danger, inasmuch as the alternative – hunting the bear armed only with a knife – is actually riskier than lying low and hoping the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle, however, will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t have to?

This perfectly normal human psychology has driven a wedge between the United States and Europe. (pg 31)

But is this really “perfectly normal human psychology?” I’m left of Kagan and my first inclination is to answer no, it’s not perfectly normal. But am I giving in to hindsight? Am I just not being truthful with myself? Of course, I need to gain some insight into this.

Nonetheless, there is a huge gap in power and it has resulted in America and Europe wanting to resolve world problems in different ways. For two such large and influential regions to disagree so vehemently just isn’t good for the world. Kagan expands further on this disagreement – why it persists and actually continues to worsen. He gets philosophical and invokes Kant and Hobbes often. It persists, he seems to say, because Europe has no incentive to build any significant military power because they are living in paradise – they have achieved peace on their continent without having to resort to violence because America continues to be the protector of the West. So why change? But America builds guns undeterred, and even views the European method of problem solving as a constraint and doesn’t trust them even when they offer military support:

Even after September 11, when the Europeans offered their very limited military capabilities in the fight in Afghanistan, the United States resisted, fearing that European cooperation was a ruse to tie America down. (pg 102)

So what do we do? Can we ever get on the same page? Kagan offers this up.

…If the United States could move past the anxiety engendered by this inaccurate sense of constraint, it could 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. It could, in short, take more care to show what the founders called a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind.” This was always the wisest policy. And there is certain benefit in it for the United States: Winning the material and moral support of friends and allies, especially in Europe, is unquestionably preferable to acting along in the face of European anxiety and hostility. (pg 102)

But if America is to give in this little bit, Europe must also carry the burden of rethinking their stance. He gets into that. At this point, Kagan still has the 50 plus pages of a new afterward to go subtitled American Power and the Crisis of Legitimacy. I gotta tell you, it was interesting reading, but it’s wearing me out writing about it. In the end, Kagan offers up this warning to Europe:

In their passion for international legal order, they may lose sight of the other liberal principles that have made postmodern Europe what it is today. Europeans thus may succeed in debilitating the United States, but since they have no intention of supplementing American power with their own, the net result will be a diminution of the total amount of power that the liberal democratic world can bring to bear in its defense-and in defense of liberalism itself. (pg 158)

That’s complicated, at least to me. I’m going to get this post up there then reread it later this year, near election time, to see if I can make more sense of this book.