Kagan asks: Who’s afraid of Machtpolitik?

Ever since the Berlin Wall collapsed, burying one of the grand narratives and much theoretical certainty under its rubble, international pundits have been at pains to come up with the next big idea, the catch-all paradigm that can accommodate global patterns in the post-Cold War landscape. One of the most fundamental questions that has surfaced in this disorderly environment is whether the West – no longer defined in opposition to the communist world – continues to exist. After the common threat that glued the Western alliance together disappeared, it was only a matter of time before cracks began to show. The Iraq war accelerated this process, exposing the symptoms of a transatlantic rift. In his book «Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order,» an expanded version of a fiercely debated essay that originally appeared in the Policy Review, Robert Kagan makes no secret of the yawning chasm. In his opening line, Kagan, a famed neocon and clear exponent of the so-called Realist school in international theory, announces the uncomfortable fact: «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.» Europeans, the author says, believe they have escaped the anarchic world of unfettered power politics and have entered a self-contained world of laws and rules, of international negotiation and cooperation. Europeans, the theory goes, have taken up residence in a post-historical paradise of peace and prosperity – reminiscent of Kant’s utopia of «perpetual peace.» Meanwhile the Americans remain mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic, Hobbesian world that knows no other way. Here survival and freedom require the possession and use of military might. «That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less,» writes Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Washington Post columnist. These divergent perceptions of the world are not transient, the outgrowth of a specific US administration or the Iraqi invasion, Kagan says. Rather, they are the product of historical differences and deep-rooted tensions. The different views of the world on the two sides of the Atlantic, we are told, are rooted in their different views of power. And their different views of power are rooted in their uneven share of power. Kagan’s big idea, in other words, is that Europe follows policies fit for the weak while America pursues a strategy that befits its strength. Accordingly, Europe’s desire for international law – as encapsulated in its support for the United Nations – is nothing but an attempt to bind the superpower with legal checks – or, in short, to wield power while being weak. America, naturally, feels otherwise. Kagan rehashes the famous cliche: If all you have is a hammer, all problems tend to look like nails. The irony, the author claims, is that Europe has been able to live in a post-violence utopia because America does all the dirty work. «Europe’s rejection of power politics, 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.» Worse, we are told, Europe behaves as a self-interested and ungrateful free rider. Or, perhaps, an ignorant one. For Kagan, Europeans are blind to the fact that America’s security guarantee after the end of World War II enabled them to cut back security spending while criticizing the US for not doing so too. «Most Europeans do not see the great paradox: that their passage into post-history has depended on the United States not making the same passage.» Clear and straightforward as Kagan may be, he is painting with a broad brush that leads him to overlook some finer points. Bears and hornets Kagan’s «psychology of weakness» argument is flawed. He says that «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.» However, the author asserts, a man armed with a rifle «will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why would he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t need to?» But the bear analogy fails to explain European opposition to the US war on Iraq. According to Kagan’s paradigm the knife-carrier (Europe) should have gone for a free ride and let the gunman (the US) take the bear (Saddam). But it turned out that the knife-carrier tried to talk the gunman out of killing the bear, even though that would make the world a safer place for both of them. Hence, we are led to deduce that the European objection was made on the basis of principle, not fear. Europe does not object to the use of force per se, but the use of force outside a set of commonly agreed principles. Similarly, the ongoing brawl between the US and Europe over the issue of armed sky marshals shows that European aversion to guns and violence is not a question of cost or free riding but of different risk assessment. European critics have stood firmly against the US move, arguing that putting armed guards on international flights would actually make air travel more dangerous. Going back to the bear analogy, this has been more seriously overcome by Washington’s war on terror. In the wake of September 11, the US no longer has to deal with a bear (the Russian bear has itself been domesticated). Today’s terrorists look more like hornets and US interference in the Middle East has brought their nest about its ears. America cannot avoid the consequences of its decision to refashion the region and the outcome of its campaign is still not certain. However, one thing is: You cannot exterminate hornets using a rifle. Kagan’s neat and sweeping approach also squeezes out some inconvenient facts. European states – particularly France and Britain – possess great-power identities, and they have strong armed forces and enough firepower (including nuclear arsenals) to deter any potential threats. Maybe their defense spending – in fact total EU spending – lags far behind US levels, but who can claim that Washington’s threshold is a reasonable one? What Kagan seems to be really saying is that for the good of the world, Europe should step aside and, perhaps, accept a little bit of benevolent US hegemony. The author uses Europe’s relative military weakness as a pretext to justify America’s unrestrained global power play. Kagan invokes Thucydides’ description of the Athenian conquest of Melos (The Melians were slaughtered or sold into slavery after refusing to surrender to the all-mighty hegemon of the time), criticizing the ostensibly naive moralism of its inhabitants. But the history of the Peloponnesian War is, above all, a lesson in immoderation, illustrating how the Athenians ignored the perils of «overextension» (to put it in the modern-day lingo of international relations) proceeding with victory after victory until their final downfall. Robert Kagan: «Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order,» Kastaniotis, 2003. Introduction by Nikos Kotzias. Translated by Eleni Asteriou.