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.