The United States and Europe: Continental Rift

Europeans Are Wiser

Maximilien Isidore Robespierre (1758-1794). Drawing: Musée de Versailles/AFP). 

Since the Europeans so often and for such a long time have bowed down in the face of evil, the United States has to go its own way and leave those whining European leaders behind. Only America can uphold righteousness, and therefore it is in the world’s interest to have a self-willed and strong United States.

This is roughly the reasoning of the American summertime debate started by Robert Kagan’s article in the June issue of Policy Review, which heated up the decision to attack Iraq. Kagan belongs to the group of conservative intellectuals who are seen to have a big influence on the Bush administration. Hundreds of copies of his article were supposedly copied by the European Union’s (EU’s) “Foreign Minister” Javier Solana to be read by officials in Brussels. According to Kagan, it’s time to stop pretending that the United States and Europe have the same worldviews and the same goals. They actually have completely opposing visions.

Europe wants to build its and the world’s security on international agreements, common institutions, and common trade. The United States mistrusts the international legal system and feels that violence or the threat of violence often solves problems. The tension was already noticeable during the Cold War, when the United States confronted communism and the Soviet Union, while the Europeans looked for softer approaches, such as [former West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik [East politics] and France’s independent Gaullism.

In the 1990s, America used military force in the Gulf War, in Somalia, Haiti, and against Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The Europeans hesitated and criticized. They often felt that the behavior of the United States was a greater problem than the one it sought to solve. The same prioritization can now be seen in the war on terrorism and the debate over war on Iraq.

The school of thought that Kagan represents wants to explain the different viewpoints as Europe’s weakness and America’s strength. It implies that the EU is a military dwarf that cannot handle international operations and can barely maintain its own internal security. The United States can conduct four large wars at the same time and is now arming at a level of US$500 billion annually—versus the EU’s collective $180 billion. The Europeans’ international idealism is therefore not chosen; rather, it is forced upon us. The weak never advocate for the rights of the strong.

Moreover, goes the reasoning, the model for international conflict resolution that created peace in Europe—the European Commission and the EU—and with which the Europeans want to save the world could not have been created without American security guarantees and American military presence.

Parts of Kagan’s reasoning are correct. European governments gladly complain about the hyper-power’s will to lash out, but at the same time, they are woefully slow to expand their own military capabilities. Military spending is too slow, and the money is not used efficiently. But Kagan is wrong when he reduces the trans-Atlantic quarrel to a simple conflict in power relations, thereby making it an eternal struggle. The EU can never keep up in the arms race with the United States.

Europe has had bad experiences with war and extremely good experiences with common security, joint decision-making, and free trade. Thirty years ago, Spain and Portugal were dictatorships; today they are free democracies. Ten years ago, the Balkans was a disaster area. Today, after American bombs, agreements are being signed with the EU and NATO. Moscow wants to become a normal European capital and is drawing up plans for a high-speed rail line to Berlin.

The dream of becoming “Europeans”—meaning believing in democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy—is growing in Turkey as well as along the beaches of the Caspian Sea. And how things will turn out in the Middle East will depend on whether there, too, those same dreams will be embraced.

Sometimes, military force is necessary. But the European belief in cooperation and selling Danish cheese to Iran is in the long run the only path to peace and security. A strong international community is not the response of weak nations to the world’s problems—rather, a smart answer that will also gain strength in the United States.

The trans-Atlantic quarrel is a sign of this.