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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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.