Robert Kagan's celebrated analysis of the widening Atlantic is half right. But, as the split over Iraq shows, Europe is a diverse place and wields power in other ways.by Timothy Garton-Ash / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Anti-Americanism has reached a fevered intensity, Robert Kagan reported from Europe recently in the Washington Post. In London one finds Britain’s finest minds propounding, in sophisticated language and melodious Oxbridge accents, the conspiracy theories of Pat Buchanan concerning the ‘neoconservative’ (read: Jewish) hijacking of US foreign policy. Britain’s most gifted scholars sift through American writings about Europe searching for signs of derogatory sexual imagery.
The last sentence must be a reference to a recent essay I wrote in the New York Review of Books. Well, thanks for the compliment but no thanks for the implication. If I’m anti-American, then Robert Kagan is a Belgian. Since he and I have never met or conversed in accents melodious or otherwise, I take it that the earlier sentence cannot refer to me; but whoever it does refer to, its innuendo is even more disturbing. That two-word parenthesis ‘neoconservative’ (read: Jewish) can only be taken to imply that this criticism of ‘neoconservative’ views has, at the least, antisemitic overtones. That is a serious charge, which should be substantiated or withdrawn. It illustrates once again how American reports of European anti-Americanism get mixed up with claims, impossible to prove or refute, of antisemitic motivation. I am disturbed to find a writer as sophisticated and knowledgeable as Robert Kagan using such innuendo.
So far as ‘sexual imagery’ is concerned, Kagan seems to have taken offence at a passage in which, discussing the mutual stereotypes of America vs Europe (bullying cowboys vs limp-wristed pansies) I refer to his now famous sentence Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus, as in ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ Or perhaps he was irked to find his work discussed under the headline ‘Anti-Europeanism in America.’
So let us start with a necessary clarification: Robert Kagan is no more anti-European than I am anti-American. In his brilliant ‘Policy Review’ article (reprinted in last August’s Prospect), now expanded into a small book, ‘Paradise and Power’ (Atlantic Books), he gives one of the most penetrating and influential accounts of European-American relations in recent years. It is not yet quite in the Fukuyama ‘End of History ‘and Huntington ‘Clash of Civilisations’ class for impact both of them journal articles later turned into books but it is heading that way. One reason it has had such an impact is his talent for bold generalisation and provocative overstatement.
It is time to stop pretending, both article and book begin, that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world (my italics). He goes on to draw what he admits is a ‘dual caricature’ of Europeans Venusian, believing in a Kantian self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and co-operation and Americans Martian and martial, knowing that decisive national use of military power is needed in the Hobbesian world beyond Europe’s cute little US-protected postmodern paradise. The reasons for the transatlantic divide, he writes, are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. The current transatlantic controversy over Iraq, to which more reference is now made in the book, is seen to be representative, even archetypical.
Kagan gives three reasons for this divergence. The main one, to which he returns repeatedly, is European weakness and American power. (The original article was called Power and Weakness.) By this he means military weakness and military power. Pointing to the growing gulf between US and European military spending and capacity, he argues that when you are weak you tend to favour law, peace, negotiation, and not to see the need for the use of force: when you don’t have a hammer, you don’t want anything to look like a nail. Not even Saddam’s Iraq. In a vivid simile, he writes that a man walking through a forest armed just with a knife will have a different response to a prowling bear than a man armed with a rifle.
His second reason is that history has led Europeans to a different ideology. Humbled and shocked by our bloody past, we place a higher premium on peace as a value in itself. We aspire, with Immanuel Kant, to a world of perpetual peace. We would like others to imitate our European model of integration. We would rather not hear the growls from the jungle outside. There is a certain tension between these two explanations: do Europeans dislike war because they do not have enough guns, or do they not have enough guns because they dislike war? Kagan favours the former, philosophically materialist view: being determines consciousness. But he also allows for an influence the other way round. Finally, he attributes some of these differences to the fact that, since the end of the cold war, Europeans have sought to define ‘Europe’ as something apart from America, rather than seeking a common definition of ‘the west.’
This is a clever, knowledgeable argument, and there is quite a lot in it. Kagan is right to pour scorn on European pretensions to be a world power, without the military clout or he might have emphasised this more the foreign policy unity to deliver. He quotes the Belgian foreign minister saying in December 2001 that the EU military force should declare itself operational without such a declaration being based on any true capability. I would like to know where this quotation came from unlike most of the direct quotations in the book version, it is not sourced but if true, it is classic. We have not advanced very far in the ten years since the Luxembourger Jacques Poos pronounced, over disintegrating Bosnia, his equally ridiculous ‘the hour of Europe has come.’
Kagan is also right to remind us how far the ‘European miracle’ that began with Franco-German reconciliation actually depended on the external American pacifier. Even today, he suggests, the US is manning the walls of Europes postmodern order. So Europeans are, in Kipling’s famous phrase, making mock of uniforms that guard us while we sleep.
His remedy, so far as he has one, is twofold. First, Europe should stop being a ‘military pygmy’ in the phrase of George Robertson, Nato secretary-general. This means all of us, and Germany in particular, spending more on defence and getting our militaries together. Second, we should follow Robert Cooper’s advice and recognise that, beyond our postmodern world of the EU, there is a modern and a pre-modern world outside. We may be Kantian in our village, but we must be Hobbesian in the jungle around. Saddam Hussein lives by the law of the jungle, so we must threaten him with spears. The two parts of the remedy are connected. Like the man in the forest, once you have a rifle you may start hunting the bear and if you want to hunt the bear, you will go get a rifle.
There are, however, major problems with the Kagan thesis. One is this: if Europe does not exist as a single, foreign policy actor, then how can you generalise about it? Belgium and Luxembourg are certainly not Martian or martial in Kagan’s terms, but Britain and France are. As he acknowledges in two slightly embarrassed asides, it was Blair’s Britain that pushed, against the resistance of Clinton’s America, for ground troops in Kosovo. This at a time when the martial Americans were still bombing from 15,000 feet in case one of their warrior pilots got his little finger burnt. For three decades, from the end of the Vietnam war to 11th September, Britain and France were more ready to take military casualties abroad than the US was.
Moreover, the controversy over the Iraq war has shown that there is no simple divide between ‘Europe’ and ‘America.’ American public opinion is torn and Europeans are divided. Kagan’s commentary in the Washington Post was occasioned by the publication of an article by a European ‘gang of eight’ reaffirming transatlantic solidarity against Saddam, as a rebuke to the Franco-German axis. The ‘gang of eight’ included the prime ministers of Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland that is, Europe’s four most important countries after France and Germany as well as Václav Havel, then still president of the Czech Republic and one of Europe’s greatest moral authorities, and the leaders of Portugal, Denmark and Hungary. (Slovakia subsequently joined, to make it nine.) In his commentary, Kagan welcomed the political and moral courage of these leaders of what Donald Rumsfeld called ‘new Europe’ as they paid tribute to American bravery and farsightedness, against the fevered trend of European anti-Americanism. But he might also have written: whoops, how does this fit my thesis? If Europe’s so thoroughly Venusian, as I argue, how come so much of it is cheering for Mars?
If I wished to be polemical, I would say: where has Kagan been living all these years? The answer, as I understand it, is Brussels or between Brussels and Washington. And that may be part of the problem. Sitting in Brussels, listening to so much lofty Euro-rhetoric matched by so few effective military or diplomatic deeds, one could easily feel as he does. But in the larger EU of 25 member states from 2004 an enlargement that scarcely features in his account the balance of attitudes will be different. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Americanism about, especially in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium. There is also a lot of reasonable, measured scepticism about Bush’s policy on Iraq. And then there is a large constituency of the Americanised and the Atlanticist, especially in the new democracies of central and eastern Europe.
In short, Europe’s true hallmark is not weakness but diversity. It is the sheer diversity of states, nations and views, as much as the popular reluctance to spend on defence, and more than any programmatic Kantianism, that is the main reason for Europe’s feebleness in foreign and security policy. If we could just pool and redirect what we already spend on defence, we’d have a formidable European expeditionary force to send to Iraq, or wherever. But we won’t, because the French will be French, the British will be British and the Belgians will be Belgian.
Another problem with Kagan’s book is his emphasis on military power, to the neglect of the two other main dimensions of power: economic and cultural-social (‘soft power’). He is right to remind Europeans that old-fashioned military power still counts the postmodern continent is not living in a postmodern world. But he discounts Europe’s other forms of power. On a recent trip to the US, I found that what most people are most worried about is not the war on Iraq, it is the state of the US economy. To be sure, there is a two-way interdependence here Europe cannot be economically strong while America is economically weak, and vice versa while in the military dimension there is a one-way dependence of Europe on the US. And yes, welfarist complacency, national differences, over-regulation, corporatism, ageing populations and our moral incompetence over immigration are all potential sources of European economic weakness. But the advent of the ‘Slavonic tigers’ will give Europe a shot in the arm. The European economy is already roughly the same size as that of the US. Europe is also growing in a way that America cannot. Its soft power is demonstrated by the fact that not only millions of individuals but also whole states want to enter it. Turkey, for example.
Mention of Turkey raises a further difficulty with the Kagan argument: where does the Kantian world end and the Hobbesian begin? Turkey shares a border with Iraq. The frontier runs through the lands of the Kurds, the would-be Kurdistan. Turkey and Iraq have both been hammering their Kurds, on and off, for some time. But the US is urging the EU to take in Turkey, to encourage its adherence to the west by the European process of conditionality leading finally to accession, while at the same time urging us to join in a war against Saddam. We are being asked to be Kantian-European-postmodern here, but Hobbesian-American-pre-modern just a hundred yards across the border. In truth, we need to be both especially if the democratic reconstruction of postwar Iraq is to succeed. In a now familiar quip: America does the cooking, Europe does the washing-up.
Kagan himself concludes in conciliatory fashion. Unlike his compatriot, Charles A Kupchan, he insists that there is no ‘clash of civilisations’ between Europe and America. Europe should beef up its military and use it a bit more roughly in the jungle, and America, he avers on his last page, should manifest a bit more of what the founding fathers called a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. America needs Europe, Europe needs America, we both share common western values. I agree. His book is a challenge to make it so, to Europeans especially. But this is not what he said on his first page, which is that Europeans and Americans do not even occupy the same world. And that, not his conciliatory conclusion, is what he is being so much quoted for. That, in wider circulation, is ‘the Kagan thesis.’
Of course this is what tends to happen with these ‘big issue’ think pieces turned into books. As once upon a time we had vulgar Marxism, so we now have vulgar Fukuyamaism, vulgar Huntingtonism, and will soon have vulgar Kaganism. Francis Fukuyama can go on insisting until he is purple in the face that what he meant was History not history; people will still snort ‘well, the end of history, my foot!’ Yet usually the author is to some degree complicit, abetted by editors and publishers, in making a bold overstatement to grab attention for his thesis and to sell. The Hobbesian law of the intellectual jungle leads you, perhaps against your better judgement, to become one of what Jacob Burckhardt called the ‘terribles simplificateurs’.
The real danger now is that vulgar Kaganism will become popular on both sides of the Atlantic because people either believe Kagan’s ‘dual caricature’ or and I think this is happening are looking for ways to emphasise the gulf. In short, Kagan could have the opposite effect to the one he intends. His conclusion will only be proved right if Americans and Europeans agree that his starting point is wrong.