The Magazine

America's Ascendancy, Europe's Despondency

Why we horrify them, and they exasperate us.

May 20, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 35 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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ON HIS TRIP to Europe next week, President Bush will encounter more discontent among our allies than at any time in recent memory. A gulf is opening between our two continents, and the reasons are not just temporary or political. Deep-seated trends in Europe, quite apart from President Bush's particular policies, all point to a growing ambivalence about America and its position in the world.

The first cause of this ambivalence is American ascendancy. It sometimes seems that the only thing Europeans fear more than American failure is American success. American setbacks may endanger Europe's security and economic well-being, but American victories injure Europeans' pride, forcing the painful acknowledgement that the great issues of world politics pass through Washington, not Paris, Berlin, or Brussels.

This ambivalence about America has been on display in every major crisis of recent times. In the later stages of the Cold War, American failure would have left Europe divided and threatened with Soviet domination; but American success deprived Europe of its role as mediator between the superpowers and transformed Berlin from the focal point of a worldwide confrontation into a tourist mecca. In the Gulf War, failure would have subjected Europe to Iraqi blackmail over oil; victory made U.S. conventional military power the envy of the world. In the Balkans, failure would have left a seething cauldron of nationalisms on Europe's southern flank and a huge refugee crisis; success confirmed the need for American intervention even to defuse security problems in Europe's backyard. In Afghanistan, failure would have left Europe more vulnerable to terrorism; success has fanned fears that America is an empire beyond all restraint.

Our friends' ambivalence, of course, is not to be confused with outright anti-Americanism. Still, beyond a certain point, ambivalence lends credibility to anti-Americanism. This clearly is the situation today, where European diplomats express an increasingly alarmist view of American intentions. Inevitably, too, this attitude provokes in response a crude American Euro-bashing, now some commentators' sport of choice. It consists of selecting a nation whose critics are vocal and intelligent (usually France), finding an over-the-top comment by one of its intellectuals or politicians (not hard to do), then ascribing perfidy to our "allies," with the term in quotes as if to call Europeans' solidarity into doubt.

Cooler heads deplore all these excesses. America, pleads the Kennedy School's Joseph Nye, "can't go it alone." But it is equally true that his prudent admonishment should not lead us to bend at every accusation of arrogance as the price of Europeans' support. It is necessary first to understand the sources of European ambivalence, so that we can respond intelligently.

IN DISCUSSING American ascendancy, European analysts speak variously of the American "hegemon" or the "imperium" or the "hyperpower." Such terms are supposedly neutral or descriptive, but they can also carry a polemical edge. When asked to explain his labeling of America as a "hyperpower," French foreign minister Hubert V drine observed that the term "was not a criticism but a fact." He then went on: "The United States is not the sole country convinced of being endowed with a universal mission, but it is the only one that has the means for doing so and that considers itself entirely legitimate in carrying out this role." One does not know whether to be flattered or insulted.

Europeans' responses to the specter of imperium have been of two sorts: Either the imperium should be checked and diminished, or it should be embraced, with efforts made to manage and control it. One way to achieve the first objective would be for Europeans to form a counterweight capable of dealing with the United States on terms of greater equality, which would require building a significant European military capability. Some have just this goal in mind for the European Union, though so far political leaders have much preferred to talk about it rather than pay the price to realize it. Why, after all, spend so much for so little practical gain? For now, a European military superpower seems a long way off.

Another way to check America is to demand that it renounce imperial designs and behave more like a nation among other nations. But no sooner is this remedy proposed than it runs into the obvious difficulty that even when America pursues "just" its national interest, it ends up, because of its size and power, exerting a disproportionate influence. We suffer from the E.F. Hutton problem: When America speaks, people listen.

It has reasonably been suggested that in certain non-strategic areas--say, the marketing of culture, from movies to fast food--America should exercise self-restraint in order to foster a diverse world in which sensible particularities are respected. Yet here, oddly enough, it is Europeans (and their American Amen corner) who often fail to practice what they preach. They seek their own European hegemony, not plurality.

Thus, while few Americans are disturbed by Europeans' lavish welfare states, many Europeans take offense at America's "capitalist" system. It troubles few Americans that Europe has abandoned capital punishment, but it is deeply dismaying to many Europeans that we retain it. In the name of "multilateralism," Americans like Joseph Nye demand that we follow European standards as the way to maintain our leadership: "Our soft power," writes Nye, "is eroded more by issues such as capital punishment and gun control, where we are deviants in opinion among advanced countries, than by the cultural changes we share with others." But following Europe's lead, while it may suit the partisans of "progressive" measures in this instance, is hardly a reliable guide for American policy. Only recently many Europeans, and their American followers, were also expressing concern at the rise of religious faith in America.

For the most part, however, Europeans have resigned themselves to America's imperium. Their objective, they say, is to keep it benign. The American imperium in this view is a world institution, and accordingly it must serve the world's interests, not just America's. Europeans obviously have a profound stake in this outcome, all the more in that they are not passive observers but participants as allies. Americans who listen too much to some of their own overenthusiastic commentators all too readily forget that Allied troops are today in Afghanistan, where they daily face substantial risk. Europeans naturally feel slighted when they do not receive recognition, or when commentators and some government officials treat NATO as if it were just one "coalition" among many, to be ordered up a la carte as the situation warrants. The Allied view is that there is one permanent coalition that counts--NATO--which should be supplemented by secondary coalitions. But while this conception of affairs properly applies to the European theater, the rest of the world is different. Sometimes--as in Afghanistan, where the United States has assembled partners including some outside or at the fringes of Europe, such as Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan--non-NATO nations may play an important role in a global strategy.

A recurring question has been how much European views should influence American thinking when the two are at odds. No magical formula can supply the answer. These are matters to be determined case by case, in the light of traditional practices of consultation and longstanding institutional arrangements. Ideally, important allies would have a way to make themselves heard by Congress, but only Tony Blair seems to have figured out how to do that. The real difficulty, however, is not that European views go unheard--the New York Times and Harvard intellectuals make sure that doesn't happen--but that debates are conducted with an enormous amount of bad faith. Ideas that are at odds with European thinking are often presented by Europeans, and by Americans who share their views, as being isolationist or as serving a purely American interest. What they often represent, however, is a different judgment of how best to serve the "imperium's" general interest.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of missile defense, for example, it is not a policy of American withdrawal from the world--a plan to hide behind a shield so that Florence is destroyed while Los Angeles is saved--but a strategy to allow America to perform its international role more effectively in the face of certain kinds of threats. By the same token, the policy of "regime change" being advocated for Iraq is designed to advance not a purely American interest, but a world freer of threats to civilized nations. European disagreement with such policies needs to be weighed, but the claim that they will cost the United States its good standing in the world--diminish its "soft power"--should not be regarded as dispositive.

EUROPEAN AMBIVALENCE about America has a deeper cause, however, than differing judgments about policy. It is rooted in Europe's and America's different views of the source of "agency" in world politics. For centuries it was recognized that the primary actor in international affairs was the nation-state, aided at the fringes by semi-permanent alliances and international organizations. But this view is no longer dominant in Europe. For the past few decades, Europe has been engaged in the process of dismantling the nation-state and denationalizing political life. Before the European Union can be "constructed" (whatever it may ultimately prove to be), not only existing nation-states, but also the idea of the nation-state itself, must be called into question. This project is domestic, but it also profoundly affects Europeans' outlook on international affairs. If the nation-state is no longer the relevant unit of organization for domestic political life, then what is its legitimate status in the international arena?

There is a great paradox here. Europe was the cradle of the modern state, which grew up between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. And Europe spread the state system to the world. Other modes of organization of political life have existed or been contemplated, such as the tribe, the city-state, the empire, and the world state. The European nation-state system, as Pierre Manent has argued, was heir to the ancient city-state system perfected in Greece, then swept aside by the emergence of the empires. The nation-state had the advantage of being a unit large enough for reasonable self-sufficiency, yet conducive to a meaningful political life. Organized around the principle of balance of power, the state system in Europe provided sufficient security for each of the members most of the time, while allowing for the humane development of European civilization as a whole.

In the rest of the world, this European export was either imposed or adopted--often more in name than in fact. Under the label of "states" were to be found landed empires (like the Soviet Union and China), countries whose inhabitants yearned to be part of a larger nation (like the states of the Arab world), and geographical entities within which tribes or clans (often spilling over into other states, as in Afghanistan and many parts of Africa) offered people their primary political affiliation. Still, the state became the universal norm, and each state had its boundaries, its flag, its sovereignty, and eventually its seat in the United Nations General Assembly.

In the judgment of advanced Europeans today, the nation-state system has proven an abject failure, at least for Europe. The world wars of the last century brought Europe to the brink of devastation and reduced it from the pinnacle of world power to a secondary position. In the wake of this disaster, Germany, afraid of its own nationalism, sought protection from itself in a larger political grouping. France saw in a new arrangement a way of expanding its influence over the whole continent. Britain is, well, still trying to decide what to do. The European project has been further fueled by the recognition that none of the participating states any longer has the capacity to be the premier world power. The nation-state has accordingly lost much of its appeal in the heart of the continent. It is chiefly nations that have achieved independence only recently, such as Poland and Croatia, that still regard the nation-state as a desirable arrangement. Advanced Europeans make clear that this form will be left behind as these nations attain a higher stage of development and are integrated into Europe.

America's experience with the nation-state could hardly have been more different. The nation-state has not failed Americans--indeed, it hasn't occurred to the average citizen that its status could be doubted. Americans turn instinctively to the nation for security, and they regard it as a permanent locus of meaningful political life. This difference in perspective is fundamental and leads inevitably to different ways of responding to the world. Europeans consider American displays of nationalism, in which we indulge without embarrassment or apology, anachronistic. In Europe such sentiments have been pushed to the margins of political life, where they now assume the form--partly for want of any healthy outlet--of extreme nationalistic and xenophobic parties. Polite Europeans increasingly equate American patriotism with these crude sentiments. Meanwhile, some Americans view Europe's postnational, postmodern ideas as expressing the dispiritedness of countries no longer up to dealing with the harsher realities of world politics.

EUROPE HAS LONG been an exporter of ideas. Its thinkers are used to regarding Europe as the center of the world, and therefore usually fail to notice that from a global perspective, what is taking place in Europe is of parochial significance. Instead, most European theorists and their American followers have sought to universalize the European experience. They speak of the death of the nation-state and the movement to some new form of international organization as if it were a sure thing. The common assumption that Europeans deplore and seek to restrict "globalization" may be apt when that term is equated with Americanization. But Europeans have been the silent partisans of globalization in the realm of security, where they have sought to combine the protection offered by international alliances with low defense spending for themselves. Yet for all the talk, it remains unclear what will take the place of the state system.

For a moment after the collapse of communism--which occurred, miraculously, without overt use of force --some thought they saw the answer: Major war was a thing of the past, and the few, limited security threats that remained, such as outbreaks of nationalism or tribal warfare, could be handled by international peacekeeping operations under the United Nations. This internationalization of security would be supplemented by various international courts, all situated in Europe, which would resolve conflicts using evolving norms of international law. (The International Criminal Court, which President Bush only last week declined to recognize, is just one example.) When the United Nations proved inadequate or unavailable in the Balkan crisis, a new security regime operating under NATO was brought in to do the job, keeping American force under alliance control. Above all, the assumption was that mobilization for war must not rest on any national principle. No distinction was made between a perverted nationalism, as seen in Serbia, and a reasonable expression of the national idea.

All of this amounted to a shell game whose purpose was to conceal the principal actor--the United States. But no such immaculate deception can camouflage the more robust uses of force undertaken or contemplated since September 11. In the 1990s, American diplomacy often went along with European views, even though it was clear that rivalries among states--including superstates such as China--would continue to pose the traditional problems of international politics. Plainly, too, some security issues of particular interest to the United States, like Israel and Taiwan, didn't fit the new internationalist paradigm.

Now, the United States has undertaken a war against terrorism, and Americans have mobilized largely on a national basis. Our allies cannot have expected otherwise, and they can offer no real alternative. They have every right to insist that this American national engagement be enlightened and mindful of the "imperial" responsibilities of the United States; also that their moral support and material contributions be properly valued. But they have neither the right nor the ability to prevent the United States from acting in defense of its national ideal.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia.