The power divide

It is time to stop pretending that Americans and Europeans share a common view of the world
August 19, 2002

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. On the all-important question of power-the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power-American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power or, rather, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and prosperity, the realisation of Kant's "perpetual peace." The US, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defence and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic questions today, Americans and Europeans understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory-the product of one US election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats and fashioning and implementing foreign and defence policies, the US and Europe have parted ways.

America, say many European intellectuals, is dominated by a "culture of death," the product of a violent society where everyone has a gun and the death penalty reigns. But even those Europeans who do not make this crude link agree there are deep differences in the way the US and Europe conduct foreign policy.

The US, they argue, resorts to force more quickly and is less patient with diplomacy. Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil. When confronting adversaries, Americans favour policies of coercion rather than persuasion, emphasising punitive sanctions over inducements to better behaviour, the stick over the carrot. Americans tend to seek finality in international affairs. They want problems solved, threats eliminated. And, of course, Americans increasingly tend toward unilateralism in international affairs. They are less inclined to act through international institutions such as the UN, less inclined to work with other nations to pursue common goals, more sceptical about international law and more willing to operate outside its strictures.

Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They are more tolerant of failure, more patient. They prefer persuasion to coercion. They are quicker to appeal to international law and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasise process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance.

This European dual portrait is a caricature, of course. One cannot generalise about Europeans: Britons may have a more "American" view of power than many of their fellow Europeans. And there are differing perspectives within nations on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, Democrats often seem more "European" than Republicans; Secretary of State Colin Powell may appear more "European" than Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. Many Americans, especially among the intellectual elite, are as uncomfortable with the "hard" quality of American foreign policy as any European; and some Europeans value power as much as any American.

Nevertheless, the caricatures do capture a truth: the US and Europe are fundamentally different today. Powell and Rumsfeld have more in common than do Powell and Hubert V?drine, the former French foreign minister, or even Jack Straw. When it comes to the use of force, American Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they do with most European social democrats. During the 1990s, even American liberals were more willing to resort to force and were more Manichean in their perception of the world than their European counterparts. The Clinton administration bombed Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Sudan. European governments would not have done so. Whether they would have bombed even Belgrade in 1999, had the US not forced their hand, is an interesting question.

What is the source of these differences? It does not lie in the national characters of Americans and Europeans. After all, what Europeans now consider their more peaceful strategic culture is quite new. It is an evolutionary shift from the culture which dominated Europe for hundreds of years, at least until the first world war. The European governments-and peoples-who launched themselves into that war believed in machtpolitik. While the roots of the present European worldview, and the EU itself, can be traced back to the Enlightenment, Europe's power politics did not follow the designs of the philosophes.

As for the US, there is nothing timeless about the present reliance on force as a tool of international relations, nor about the tilt toward unilateralism and away from international law. Americans are children of the Enlightenment too, and in the early years of the republic were more faithful apostles of its creed. America's 18th and early 19th-century statesmen sounded much like the European statesmen of today, extolling the virtues of commerce as the soothing balm of international strife and appealing to international law over force. The young US wielded power against weaker peoples on the North American continent, but when it came to dealing with the European giants, it claimed to abjure power and assailed the power politics of the European empires as atavistic.

Two centuries later, Americans and Europeans have traded places-and perspectives. Partly this is because in those 200 years, but especially in recent decades, power has shifted dramatically. When the US was weak, it practised the strategies of weakness; now it is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do.

Europe has been militarily weak for a long time, but until recently its weakness had been obscured. The second world war all but destroyed European nations as global powers, and their postwar inability to project sufficient force overseas to maintain empires in Asia, Africa and the middle east forced them to retreat after more than five centuries of imperial dominance-perhaps the most significant retrenchment of global influence in history. For a half century after the second world war, however, this weakness was masked by the cold war. Dwarfed by the two superpowers on its flanks, a weakened Europe nevertheless served as the central strategic theatre of the struggle between communism and democratic capitalism. Its strategic mission was to defend its own territory against any Soviet offensive, at least until America arrived. Although it was shorn of most traditional measures of great-power status, Europe remained the geopolitical pivot and this, along with lingering habits of world leadership, allowed Europeans to retain international influence well beyond their military capabilities.

Europe lost this strategic centrality after the cold war ended, but it took a few more years for the lingering mirage of European global power to fade. During the 1990s, war in the Balkans and Nato enlargement kept both Europeans and Americans focused on the strategic importance of the continent. Then there was the promise of the "new Europe." By bonding together into a single political and economic unit-the logic of the Maastricht treaty in 1992-many hoped to recapture Europe's old greatness in a new form. "Europe" would be the next superpower, not only economically and politically, but militarily. It would handle crises on the European continent, such as the conflicts in the Balkans, and it would re-emerge as a global player. In the 1990s, Europeans could confidently assert that the power of a unified Europe would restore the "multipolarity" that had been destroyed by the cold war and its aftermath. And most Americans, with mixed emotions, agreed that superpower Europe was the future.

But European pretensions and American apprehensions proved unfounded. The 1990s witnessed not the rise of a European superpower but the decline of Europe into relative weakness. The Balkan conflict at the beginning of the decade revealed European military incapacity and political disarray; the Kosovo conflict at the decade's end exposed a transatlantic gap in military technology and the ability to wage modern warfare that would only widen in subsequent years. Europeans could provide peacekeeping forces in the Balkans-indeed they eventually provided the vast bulk of those forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. But they lacked the wherewithal to introduce and sustain a fighting force in hostile territory, even in Europe. The European role was limited to filling out peacekeeping forces after the US had, largely on its own, carried out the decisive phases of a military mission and stabilised the situation. As some Europeans put it, the division of labour consisted of the US "making the dinner" and the Europeans "doing the dishes."

This inadequacy should have come as no surprise. During the cold war, Europe's strategic role had been to defend itself. It was unrealistic to expect a return to international great-power status, unless Euro-pean peoples were willing to shift significant resources from social to military programmes. Clearly they were not. Not only were Europeans unwilling to pay to project force beyond Europe; after the cold war, they would not pay for sufficient force to conduct even minor military actions on their continent. Nor did it seem to matter whether European publics were being asked to spend money to strengthen Nato or to create an independent European foreign and defence policy. The answer was the same. Rather than viewing the collapse of Soviet power as an opportunity to flex global muscles, Europeans took it as an opportunity to cash in the peace dividend. Average European defence budgets gradually fell below 2 per cent of GDP and European military capabilities steadily fell behind those of the US throughout the 1990s.

The end of the cold war had a different effect on the other side of the Atlantic. For although Americans looked for a peace dividend, too, and defence budgets declined or remained flat during most of the 1990s, defence spending still remained above 3 per cent of GDP. Fast on the heels of the Soviet demise came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the largest US action in a quarter century. US administrations did cut the cold war force, but not as much as expected. By historic standards, America's military power and its ability to project that power to all corners of the globe remained unprecedented.

Meanwhile, the Soviet empire's collapse vastly increased America's strength relative to the rest of the world. It made the US more willing to use force abroad. With the check of Soviet power removed, the US was free to intervene practically whenever it chose-a fact reflected in the proliferation of overseas military interventions that began during the first Bush administration with the invasion of Panama in 1989, the Gulf war in 1991, and the humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1992, continuing during the Clinton years with interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Thanks to new technologies, the US was also freer to use force around the world in more limited ways through air and missile strikes.

How could this growing transatlantic power gap fail to create a difference in strategic perceptions? Even during the cold war, American military dominance and Europe's relative weakness had produced important disagreements. Gaullism, Ostpolitik and the movements for European unity were manifestations not only of a European desire for honour and freedom. They also reflected a European conviction that the US approach to the cold war was too confrontational. Europeans believed they knew better how to deal with the Soviets: through engagement, through commercial and political ties. It was a legitimate view, shared by many Americans. But it also reflected Europe's weakness relative to the US, the fewer military options at Europe's disposal, and its greater vulnerability to Soviet force. It may have reflected, too, Europe's memory of continental war. Americans, when they were not themselves engaged in the subtleties of d?tente, viewed Europe's approach as a form of appeasement, a return to the fearful mentality of the 1930s.

The end of the cold war, by widening the power gap, exacerbated disagreement. Although transatlantic tensions are now assumed to have begun with the inauguration of George W Bush in January 2001, they were already evident during the Clinton administration and may even be traced back to the administration of George Bush Snr. By 1992, mutual recriminations were rife over Bosnia, where the US refused to act and Europe could not act. It was during the Clinton years that Europeans began complaining about being lectured by the "hectoring hegemon." This was also the period in which V?drine coined the term hyperpuissance to describe an American behemoth too powerful to be designated merely a superpower. It was also during the 1990s that the transatlantic disagreement over American plans for missile defence emerged and many Europeans began grumbling about the American propensity to choose force and punishment over diplomacy and persuasion.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, though itself relatively timid and restrained, grew impatient with European timidity, especially the unwillingness to confront Saddam Hussein. The split in the alliance over Iraq didn't begin with the 2000 election but in 1997, when Clinton tried to increase the pressure on Baghdad and found itself at odds with France and (to a lesser extent) Britain in the UN Security Council. Even the Kosovo war was marked by nervousness among some allies-especially Italy, Greece, and Germany-that the US was too militaristic in its approach. That apprehension would only increase in the wake of US action after 11th September.

Today's transatlantic problem, in short, is not a George Bush problem. It is a power problem. US military strength has produced a propensity to use that strength. Europe's military weakness has produced an understandable aversion to the exercise of military power. Indeed, it has produced a powerful European interest in inhabiting a world where strength doesn't matter, where international law and institutions predominate, where unilateral action by powerful nations is forbidden, where all nations, regardless of their strength, have equal rights and are equally protected by internationally agreed rules.

This is no reproach. It is what weaker powers have wanted from time immemorial. The great proponent of international law on the high seas in the 18th century was the US; the great opponent was Britain, "Mistress of the Seas." In an anarchic world, small powers always fear they will be victims. Great powers, on the other hand, often fear rules that may constrain them more than the anarchy in which their power brings security and prosperity.

This natural disagreement between the stronger and the weaker manifests itself in today's transatlantic dispute over the question of unilateralism. Europeans generally believe their objection to American unilateralism is proof of their greater commitment to certain ideals concerning world order. They are less willing to acknowledge that their hostility to unilateralism is also self-interested. Europeans fear American unilateralism. They fear it perpetuates a Hobbesian world in which they may become increasingly vulnerable. The US may be a relatively benign hegemon, but insofar as its actions delay the arrival of a world order more conducive to the safety of weaker powers, it is objectively dangerous.

This is one reason why a principal objective of European foreign policy has become, as one European observer puts it, the "multilateralising" of the US. It is not that Europeans are teaming up against the US hegemon by creating a countervailing power. After all, Europeans are not increasing their power. Their tactics, like their goal, are the tactics of the weak. They hope to constrain US power without wielding power themselves. In what may be the ultimate feat of subtlety and indirection, they want to control the behemoth by appealing to its conscience.

The psychology of European weakness is easy enough to understand. 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 most likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn't need to?

This perfectly normal human psychology is driving a wedge between the US and Europe today. Europeans have concluded, reasonably enough, that the threat posed by Saddam is more tolerable for them than the risk of removing him. But Americans, being stronger, have developed a lower threshold of tolerance for Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, especially after 11th September. Europeans like to say that Americans are obsessed with fixing problems, but those with a greater capacity to fix problems are more likely to try to fix them. Americans can imagine successfully invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, and therefore more than 70 per cent of Americans favour such action.

The differing threat perceptions in the US and Europe are not just matters of psychology. They are also grounded in a practical reality that is another product of the disparity of power. For Iraq and other "rogue" states do not pose the same level of threat to Europeans as they do to the US. There is, first of all, the American security guarantee that Europeans have enjoyed for six decades, ever since the US took upon itself the burden of maintaining order in far-flung regions of the world-from the Korean peninsula to the Persian Gulf-from which European power had largely withdrawn. Europeans generally believe, whether or not they admit it to themselves, that were Iraq ever to emerge as a real danger, as opposed to a potential danger, then the US would do something about it-as it did in 1991. If during the cold war Europe by necessity made a major contribution to its own defence, today Europeans enjoy an unparalleled measure of "free security" because most threats are in regions outside Europe, where only the US can project force. In a practical sense, neither Iraq, Iran, North Korea nor any "rogue" state in the world is primarily a European problem. Nor, certainly, is China.

This is why Saddam Hussein is not as great a threat to Europe as he is to the US. He would be a greater threat to the US even were the Americans and Europeans in complete agreement on Iraq policy, because it is the logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power. In the Persian Gulf, in the middle east, and in most other regions of the world (including Europe), the US plays the role of ultimate enforcer. "You are so powerful," Europeans often say to Americans, "so why do you feel so threatened?" But it is precisely US power that makes it the primary or the only target.

Americans are "cowboys," Europeans say. And there is truth in this. The US does act as a sheriff, perhaps self-appointed but widely welcomed nevertheless, trying to enforce some peace and justice in what Americans see as a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred, often through the muzzle of a gun. Europe, by this analogy, is more like a saloon-keeper. Outlaws shoot sheriffs, not saloon-keepers. In fact, from the saloon-keeper's point of view, the sheriff trying to impose order by force can sometimes be more threatening than the outlaws who, at least for the time being, may just want a drink.

When Europeans took to the streets by the millions after 11th September, most Americans believed it was out of a sense of shared danger. The Europeans knew they could be next. But Europeans by and large did not feel that way and still don't. Europeans do not believe they are next. They may be secondary targets-because they are US allies-but they are not the primary target, because they no longer play the imperial role that might have engendered the same antagonism against them as is aimed at the US. When Europeans wept and waved American flags after 11th September, it was a product more of fellow feeling than self-interest.

Important as the power gap may be in shaping the respective strategic cultures of the US and Europe, it is only one part of the story. Europe in the past half century has developed a genuinely different perspective on the role of power in international affairs, a perspective that springs from its historical experience since the end of the second world war. Consider again the qualities that make up the European strategic culture: the emphasis on negotiation, diplomacy, commercial ties, international law over the use of force, seduction over coercion, multilateralism over unilateralism. These are not traditionally European approaches to international relations when viewed from a historical perspective. But the modern European strategic culture is a conscious rejection of the European past, of machtpolitik. For who knows better than Europeans the dangers that arise from unbridled power politics, from an excessive reliance on force and the balance of power.

It is, of course, the integration and taming of Germany that is Europe's great accomplishment-viewed historically, perhaps the greatest feat of international politics ever achieved. Some Europeans recall the central role played by the US in solving the "German problem." Fewer like to recall that the military destruction of Nazi Germany was the prerequisite for the European peace that followed. Most Europeans believe that it was the transformation of European politics, the deliberate rejection of machtpolitik, that in the end made possible the "new order." The Europeans, who invented power politics, turned themselves into born-again idealists by an act of will, leaving behind them what Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister, called "the old system of balance with its national orientation...and the permanent danger of nationalist ideologies and confrontations."

Fischer stands at one end of the spectrum of European idealism. But this is not really a right-left issue in Europe. Fischer's principal contention-that Europe has moved beyond the old system of power politics and discovered a new system for preserving peace in international affairs-is widely shared across Europe. As the British diplomat Robert Cooper writes, Europe today lives in a "postmodern system" that does not rest on a balance of power but on "the rejection of force" and "self-enforced rules of behaviour." In the "postmodern world," writes Cooper, "raison d'?tat and the amorality of Machiavelli's theories of statecraft have been replaced by a moral consciousness" in international affairs.

American realists might scoff at this idealism. George F Kennan assumed only his na?ve fellow Americans succumbed to such "Wilsonian" legalistic and moralistic fancies, not those war-tested, historically-minded Europeans. But why shouldn't Europeans be idealistic about international affairs, at least as they are conducted in Europe's "postmodern system"? Within the confines of Europe, the age-old laws of international relations have been repealed. Europeans have stepped out of the Hobbesian world of anarchy into the Kantian world of perpetual peace.

The means by which this miracle has been achieved have acquired something of a mystique for Europeans, especially since the end of the cold war. Diplomacy, negotiations, the forging of economic ties, political engagement-these were the tools of Franco-German rapprochement, the tools that made European integration possible. Integration was not to be based on military deterrence or the balance of power. During the cold war, few Europeans doubted the need for military power to deter the Soviet Union. But within Europe the rules were different.

Collective security was provided from without by the deus ex machina of the US operating through Nato. Within this wall of security, Europeans pursued their new order, freed from the brutal laws and even the mentality of power politics. This evolution from the old to the new began in Europe during the cold war. But the end of the cold war, by removing the external danger of the Soviet Union, allowed Europe's new order to blossom. Europeans became still more confident that their way of settling international problems now had universal application. They were offering the world not power, but the transcendence of power. The "essence" of the EU, writes Steven Everts, is "subjecting inter-state relations to the rule of law," and Europe's experience of successful multilateral governance has in turn produced an ambition to convert the world. Europe "has a role to play in world governance," says Romano Prodi, a role based on replicating European experience on a global scale. In Europe "the rule of law has replaced the crude interplay of power politics."

No doubt there are Britons, Germans, French, and others who would frown on such exuberant idealism. But plenty of Europeans, including many in positions of power, routinely apply Europe's experience to the rest of the world. For is not the general European critique of the American approach to "rogue" regimes based on this special European insight? Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya-these states may be dangerous and unpleasant, even evil. But might not an "indirect approach" work again, as it did in Europe? Might it not be possible once more to move from confrontation to rapprochement, beginning with cooperation in the economic sphere and then moving on to peaceful integration? Could not the formula that worked in Europe work again with Iran, or even Iraq?

Just as Americans have always believed that they had discovered the secret to human happiness and wished to export it to the rest of the world, so the Europeans have a new mission born of their own discovery of perpetual peace. Thus we arrive at what may be the most important reason for the divergence in views between Europe and the US. America's power, and its willingness to exercise that power-unilaterally if necessary-represents a threat to Europe's new sense of mission. American policymakers find it hard to believe, but leading officials and politicians in Europe worry more about how the US might mishandle the problem of Iraq-by undertaking unilateral or extra-legal military action-than they worry about Iraq itself.

Turning Europe into a global superpower capable of balancing the US may have been one of the selling points of European integration. But, in truth, the ambition for European "power" is something of an anachronism. It is an atavistic impulse, inconsistent with the ideals of postmodern Europe. Whatever its architects may have intended, European integration has proved the enemy of European military power and, indeed, of an important European global role.

This phenomenon has manifested itself not only in flat or declining European defence budgets, but even in the realm of "soft" power. European leaders talk of Europe's role in the world. Prodi yearns "to make our voice heard." It is true that Europeans spend a great deal of money on foreign aid-more per capita, they point out, than does the US. Europeans engage in overseas military missions, so long as the missions are mostly limited to peacekeeping. But while the EU dips its toe into troubled waters in the middle east or Korea, the truth is that EU foreign policy is the most anaemic of all the products of European integration.

It is obvious, moreover, that issues outside of Europe don't attract nearly as much interest among Europeans as purely European issues do. This has surprised and frustrated Americans of all political stripes. But given the enormous agenda of integration, this European tendency to look inward is understandable. EU enlargement, the reform of the CAP, the question of national sovereignty versus supranational governance, the so-called democratic deficit, the jostling of the large European powers, the dissatisfaction of the smaller powers, the establishment of a new European constitution-all of these present serious and unavoidable challenges.

American policies that are unwelcome-on missile defence, the international criminal court, belligerence toward Iraq-are all the more unwelcome because for Europe, they are a distraction. Europeans often point to US parochialism. But Europeans themselves have turned intensely introspective. As Dominique Moisi noted, the recent French presidential campaign saw no one asking, "What should be the role of France and Europe in the new configuration of forces created after 11th September?" The middle east became an issue because of France's large Arab and Muslim population, as the vote for Le Pen demonstrated. But Le Pen is not a foreign policy hawk.

Can Europe change course and assume a larger global role? There has been no shortage of European leaders urging it to do so (see Tony Blair p16). Nor is the weakness of EU foreign policy today necessarily proof that it must be weak tomorrow, given the EU 's record of overcoming weaknesses in other areas. And yet the political will to demand more power for Europe appears to be lacking, and for the good reason that Europe does not see a mission for itself that requires power. Its mission is to oppose power.

Even V?drine has stopped talking about counterbalancing the US. Now he shrugs and declares there "is no reason for the Europeans to match a country that can fight four wars at once." It was one thing for Europe in the 1990s to increase its collective expenditures on defence from $150 billion per year to $180 billion when the US was spending $280 billion per year. But now the US is heading toward $500 billion per year, and Europe has no intention of keeping up.

In thinking about the divergence of their own views and Europeans', Americans must not lose sight of the main point. The new Europe is indeed a blessed miracle and a reason for enormous celebration-on both sides of the Atlantic. The US solved the Kantian paradox for the Europeans. Kant had argued that the only solution to the immoral horrors of the Hobbesian world was the creation of a world government. But he also feared that the "state of universal peace" made possible by world government would be an even greater threat to human freedom than the Hobbesian international order, inasmuch as such a government, with its monopoly of power, would become "the most horrible despotism." How nations could achieve perpetual peace without destroying human freedom was a problem Kant could not solve. But for Europe the problem was solved by the US. By providing security from outside, the US has rendered it unnecessary for Europe's supranational government to provide it.

American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that US military power has solved the European problem, especially the German problem, allows Europeans today to believe that US military power, and the "strategic culture" that has sustained it, are outmoded and dangerous.

Most Europeans do not see the great paradox: that their passage into post-history has depended on the US not making the same passage. Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of "moral consciousness," it has become dependent on America's willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politi