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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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.