Trans-Atlantic differences: a clash of values or a failure to face reality?

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Trans-Atlantic differences: a clash of values or a failure to face reality?

Barry R. Posen gives an American response to articles by Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa and Fraser Cameron and argues that since the US has both the power and the strategy, the EU has a major task ahead if it wishes to temper the directness and energy of US strategy.

It has become a true-ism to assert that U.S. policy makers are concerned mainly with power and conflict, but that European policy makers understand better the virtues of cooperation, norms and institutions. Close examination reveals a more complicated story. Many in the U.S. and many in Europe agree on the importance of power. What causes their disagreements is that the U.S. has so much more power than Europe, and perhaps for the first time, the U.S. sees an international system alive with threats to the safety of its citizens.

International politics is a political system without a sovereign. Realist scholars of international politics observe that in that system, the individual actors – nation states – must help themselves. The principal means to self-help is power, and given the absence of an international sheriff, the principal kind of power is military. To understand international politics in any given era, the first question is which actors have the most power? Historically, the usual answer has been that several states stand at the top of the international pecking order, and compete mainly among themselves for pre-eminence. The answer today is unusual: the United States has more power than any other state, and it would require a very large coalition of states indeed to even balance U.S. power. Moreover, the U.S. is a truly global power, with perhaps the longest strategic reach of any power in history.

How much does this massive relative power position influence U.S. behavior? In the early 1990’s the U.S. edge was not an imminent factor in U.S. foreign and security policy. The magnitude of the U.S. position was revealed only slowly, and only gradually came to have a dominant influence on U.S. behavior. International politics presented many opportunities and challenges to the U.S.-some were accepted and some were not. But few problems could be solved without the U.S., and few resisted once the U.S. put its shoulder to the wheel. If you bet against U.S. power during the 1990’s, you usually lost money. Now, after a decade of experience, recognition of the U.S. power position is widespread in the U.S. national security elite, and they like it. A key goal of the new Bush national security strategy is not only to use U.S. power to pursue the nation’s interests, but to consolidate and widen the disparity between the U.S. and everyone else.

Why isn’t Europe as powerful as America?

Is such power to be eschewed, or to be envied and emulated as has been the historical norm? Fraser Cameron’s essay demonstrates that there is little disagreement between Europe and the U.S. about the virtues of great power in international politics. Some Europeans look at the collection of wealth and talent on their side of the Atlantic and ask “why can’t we have as much power as the U.S?” They know the answer – it is that these resources are distributed among four middle-sized, and many smaller states. If these resources could be centrally coordinated and managed, Europe would have an influence in the world consistent with the aggregate statistics, and this would put Europe in the U.S. league.

The EU struggles to find organizational, political, and management schemes to focus its capabilities. But centralized management will come slowly. European nation states, especially France and Britain, remain jealous of their sovereignty and their autonomy. A Common Foreign and Security Policy, and a supporting military capability, are attractive because they offer some possibility of significant global influence. Yet, they are unachievable without significant transfers of sovereignty and autonomy-transfers that the self-confident security elites and institutions of these two former global empires, as well as some of their cousins across Europe, find tantamount to committing suicide for fear of death. Cameron wonders if the energetic foreign policy of the Bush administration might shock the EU into doing more. This is a question of the old diplomacy couched in new institutional language. Will Europe balance the power of the United States?

For most of the decade, U.S. foreign policy lacked an overarching purpose-but it has one now. Four grand strategies were debated in a desultory way within the foreign policy elite – Primacy, Cooperative Security (muscular liberal internationalism), Isolationism, and Selective Engagement (balance of power.) The attacks of September 11, 2001 helped settle the argument. Primacy is the U.S. grand strategy. Its advocates can now attach the quest for global preeminence to a clear and explicable objective – the security of the U.S. homeland.

While the American people may not grasp the finer points of primacy – they now perceive that foreign and security policy really matters. What this means is very simple – the massive power of the United States is now seen by many Americans as central to their security. At least some projects for the employment of U.S. power abroad have an excellent chance of finding support, if they can be plausibly argued to serve the purpose of preventing future attacks. The Bush administration intends to address potential threats to the U.S. homeland proactively, and if need be, militarily. The marriage of great U.S. power with a clear and popular purpose, will inject considerable energy into global politics.

How liberal is Europe’s vision?

Europe’s view of a possible international future suggests that military power can and should play a limited role in the world. But there are reasons to doubt whether Europeans are quite as committed to this liberal vision as they sometimes imply. Europeans often argue that what seems to have “worked” in Europe can work globally to suppress both domestic and international conflict. Through diplomacy, institution-building, and a change of attitude, national rivalries can be suppressed and replaced by the rule of law. Class rivalries too can be muted, if the welfare state spreads more equally the fruits of dynamic capitalism. This is the thrust of Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa’s essay. Yet, Europe rebuilt itself under the U.S. security umbrella and Europeans are surprisingly unwilling to abandon it.

There is no obvious threat lurking on the European periphery, and it is difficult to see where one would emerge in the next several decades. Even as the EU expands its functional hold on European life, and admits new members, NATO remains the favored security institution. The EU struggles to develop some military capability, but it depends largely on the NATO alliance to generate that capability. Even liberal projects depend on a certain order, and many Europeans understand that that order is maintained by power.

Europeans are also willing to use power to pursue principle. Indeed they are willing to use power to pursue interest, and they have evaded liberal international institutions to do so. No UN Security Council resolution specifically authorized a war to detach Kosovo from Serbia. Russia would have vetoed such a resolution. Europeans and the U.S. feared that Milosevic would ultimately deal with the Kosovo Liberation Army in an extremely brutal fashion.

Europe’s interests were an amalgam of high-minded concern for the welfare of civilians, and more prosaic concerns about what it would do with another million refugees. Fearing the worst, NATO threatened war if Serbia did not militarily evacuate the province. When Serbia declined this arrangement, NATO went to war. Some disagreements arose between the U.S . and its allies over military tactics, but by the final weeks of the war no official European voices challenged the clear U.S. intention to destroy as much economic and social infrastructure as required to elicit Serbia’s compliance. These tactics skirted the edge of, and occasionally crossed, the boundaries of the laws of war.

Fundamental disagreements on how to tackle terrorism

While they agree more about power than they sometimes admit, Europeans and the U.S. do disagree strongly about how to address the problem of mega-terrorists with global reach. Publics and politicians in Europe do not quite grasp the intensity of the U.S. commitment to the “war on terror.” While many understand the impact of September 11 in intellectual terms, it appears difficult for others to penetrate to the emotional level of U.S. politics.

Europeans have seen terrorism before; they have also seen acres of leveled buildings in their cities. They have developed strategies for how to suppress terror. These strategies do indeed involve limited uses of military and police power, but they rely even more on patience, political bargaining, economic development, and the slow and laborious (re-) construction of legitimate institutions. As Europeans confront the terrorist threat, a threat that they do recognize, they reach for their preferred methods and assert they can be employed globally. These methods have the property of accentuating the things that Europeans are good at, and marginalizing the things they are less good at-for example waging war. The martial directness of the U.S. puzzles and frightens.

U.S. policy makers do not believe they have the time for Europe’s preferred strategies to work – even if they were certain they would work, which they are not. From the U.S. point of view, the threat is imminent – whether it be an Al Qaeda cell, or a possible new state supporter of terror. The Bush administration in particular perceives that the U.S. has the power to address these threats now, and to address them decisively. Moreover, it is probably true that many in the Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration regret that they did not act more energetically against Al Qaeda before September 11. Because the U.S. has both the power and the motive, Europeans have a major task ahead of them if they wish to temper the directness and energy of U.S. strategy. Europeans will need to develop, explain, and defend a practical, programmatic alternative.


Barry Posen is Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Visiting Fellow, German Marshall Fund.

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