Such a criticism, according to Kagan, does not take into account the historical fact that since its founding, America has been a nation intent on transforming the world in its own image. America originated in freedom, and its destiny as a nation is to universalize the universal principle out of which it was born. America’s messianic impulse, then, is nothing other than its drive to fulfill its destiny: to universalize its source and origin, the principle of freedom. To renounce its messianic impulse would be to renounce the very core of its identity as a nation.
Today, according to Kagan, “many hope” that the seemingly insoluble situation in Iraq will chasten America’s idealistic “ambition and messianism in the world.” Kagan thinks that those who hold on to such a hope deceive themselves. “History,” he affirms, “is not on their side.” America, that is, will not betray its identity nor renounce its destiny.
In his most recent book, Dangerous Nation, Kagan presents the history of America’s idealistic or “messianic” impulse, from the nation’s founding to the Spanish-American War. Such historical argument, though, is not likely to silence America’s critics, either in the United States or in that bastion of civilized reason across the Atlantic—Europe. America’s critics certainly are not opposed to the spread of freedom in the world, but they share a deep ideological revulsion against the one thing that enables America to accomplish its destiny as a nation—power.
In the book for which he is still best known, Of Paradise and Power, published early in 2003, just two months prior to the beginning of the Iraq War, Kagan discusses the criticism leveled at America by its closest international friend, Europe. According to Kagan, a rift has opened in the longstanding political friendship between Europe and America. Like the good friend that it is, Europe has become critical of America’s aggressive behavior in the world. In Kagan's view, though, Europe has taken this critical stance towards its friend not so much because America is behaving questionably as because Europe now so manifestly lacks what America so manifestly has—military power. But the real origin of the rift goes even deeper than a disparity in military strength between the two friends. After centuries of using and misusing power Europe has revolted against it, and its revulsion has affected its relationship with the nation that not only has power but celebrates its use.
1. The World According to Immanuel and Tom
Kagan begins Of Paradise and Power by differentiating between the current European and American views of the instrument which throughout history has decisively shaped international relations—military power.
On the all-important question of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace.” (3)
Europe, according to Kagan, has entered a post-Cold War paradise because Europeans have chosen, after centuries of conflict, to renounce relations based on power and to institute relations based on reason. By dealing with one another rationally and by negotiating with one another in good faith, Europeans have established rules of political and economic behavior that apply universally within a new transnational entity—the European Union. These rules of behavior, established by means of rational discourse, have produced a Kantian realm of cooperation and peace. And by establishing such a world of perpetual peace, based on rationality and universal rules, Europe has entered a period of history that, in a sense, has gone beyond and transcended history.
Not so America.
Meanwhile, the United States remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. (3)
America, when engaging in world affairs, must often operate in the world outside the European paradise, a world governed not by Kantian reason but by Hobbesian self-interest and appetite for power. In this realm of unreason, America must of course engage in negotiations. Unfortunately, because these negotiations often do not take place within a framework of trust and good faith, America cannot expect them to produce agreements that will be honored. Quite the contrary, often those agreements will be broken, and the inevitable consequence can and often will ensue—war.
In this Hobbesian world in which nations often break rules and go to war against other nations, America, in order to achieve its goals of stability and peace, cannot depend on reason alone but must also depend on the only force that prevails in such a world: military power. America must sustain sufficient power to prevail in an anarchic wilderness in which not reason but national self-interest and fanatic passion dictate the course of events. Further, America must manifest the will to deploy its power when the course of events necessitates its use. Unlike the Europeans who live now in a postmodern realm that has transcended history, America is still mired in the conflict of nations, wanting like Europe to transcend history but willing, when it must, to engage in history and to make history.
Kagan, as we’ll see, is not saying that America operates exclusively in the realm of Hobbesian conflict and that it has no place in the Kantian realm of rationality and rules. Nor does he claim that Europe now operates exclusively in a realm of Kantian peace. Europe, though, lacks precisely the means that are necessary in order to act effectively in the world of Hobbesian anarchy—military power. As a consequence, Europe often fails to engage resolutely and realistically with the world outside the gates of its Kantian paradise.
America, on the other hand, operates in a boundary realm (my term for the situation Kagan describes). America, like Europe, is a nation founded on rationality and rules. Indeed, one can say that America was the first nation in history to originate as a Kantian nation, dedicated to rationality and the rule of law.
Though founded on reason, America has recently attained to a preeminent position of military power. And a good thing it has, because many if not most nations in the world, outside the Kantian realm of perpetual peace the Europeans have lately established, still operate in a Hobbesian world of conflict and power. America is the one nation on the planet that is both founded on reason and replete with power. America can therefore occupy that boundary position between the Kantian realm of perpetual peace in which Europe operates and the Hobbesian realm of perpetual war in which most other nations on earth still operate. America, in an image that Kagan seems to favor, is like the sheriff in the old American west, dedicated to rules but strong and skillful in a fight, who protects the peaceful townspeople from the marauding mischief of the outlaw.
Now one might expect that Europeans would understand the unique position that America occupies in world affairs and acknowledge the vital importance of America’s boundary role. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Rather than showing appreciation for the role America has assumed, Europe is consistently critical of America’s perspective on the world.
According to the European view, America, in its dealings with the world, tends to inventory nations into Manichaean regions of good and evil. Evil nations are those that have not only the military capacity but also the ideological will to produce mayhem and harm. America assumes that diplomacy and negotiation are useless with such nations. They are ideologically intransigent and implacably evil, and there exists only one prudent way of dealing with them: the swift application of decisive military force. Further, America is fully prepared to act unilaterally against those that it has identified as incorrigible threats. It is certainly willing to organize its allies into coalitions of effective action. But if required to do so, if, that is, America finds no other nations willing to support its action against a lethal and unappeasable threat, it is prepared to act decisively and alone. Advice or even criticism from its allies will not deter it if it concludes that a threat must be dealt with by means of military force.
The European approach is significantly different. Europeans are not so quick to categorize a nation as evil, but prefer to assume that allegedly intransigent nations are susceptible to “subtlety and indirection.” As a consequence of this more nuanced attitude, Europeans “generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion” (5). Rather than settling a dispute by the application of military force, Europeans favor a “soft-power” approach, emphasizing trade, economic development, and cultural exchange. And, finally, they favor a multilateral approach to international problems and disputes and prefer to act only under the auspices of UN resolutions and in the framework of multinational alliances such as NATO.
Europe is not naïve about the world. But, Kagan argues, it projects its Kantian view of things onto a world that is in essence Hobbesian and assumes that its mode of political behavior, based on rationality and rules, is applicable to the world outside its paradise. It is not, Kagan asserts, and he locates two causes for Europe’s adherence to an assumption that is so obviously mistaken. The most important reason is an ideological one—Europe’s distrust of power itself—and I’ll examine Kagan’s ideology of power next time. The other reason is a material one that has, according to Kagan, important psychological consequences.
2. The Strong are Different From You and Me
In our present historical situation, America is the preeminent military power on earth. Though some European nations boast modern armies, navies, and air forces, even as a collective unit Europe’s military capacity does not begin to approach the colossal firepower each arm of the American military can muster and deploy.
This difference in military capacity between Europe and America, Kagan argues, produces a distinct difference in political outlook. Historically it has always been the case that strong nations think and act one way, weak nations quite another. Nations that are militarily powerful believe in “strength and martial glory” (11) and the direct application of force to solve problems and resolve disputes. Nations that are militarily weak believe in discussion, rules, and the power of persuasion to achieve the same ends.
The current difference in military capacity between Europe and America has a recent historical basis. During the initial years of the Cold War, America’s European allies “were too weak to build up sufficient military capacity for self-defense” and depended on both the conventional and the nuclear forces of the US to serve as an effective deterrent against the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union. “But even when European economies recovered later in the Cold War, the Europeans were not especially interested in closing the military gap,” Kagan says (19), preferring instead to use their resources to augment the power of their economies. America, on the other hand, developed during the Cold War forces capable of operating outside America in the two theaters of Communist threat, Asia and Europe. As a result, after the collapse of Soviet Communism America found itself with a military force capable of operating throughout the world, whereas Europe found itself with a force capable of operating inside Europe but no longer sufficient for quick and decisive operations on a global scale.
Europe found this development very much to its liking. With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the military might of America no longer was of the utmost importance in world relations. Economic and cultural power now came to the fore and assumed predominant importance in the affairs of nations. “For Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union did not just eliminate a strategic adversary; in a sense, it eliminated the need for geopolitics. Many Europeans took the end of the Cold War as a holiday from strategy” (25).
Contrary to Europe’s expectations, however, there would be no such holiday. Outside the Kantian realm of rationality and rules that Europe was beginning to construct in the 90s, a Hobbesian realm of irrationality, fanaticism, and war still existed. The Soviet Union had disappeared, but new threats emerged that were as driven by ideological passion as the Communists had been. And like the Communists these new threats were not susceptible to the soft-power seductions of Europe. Negotiation and diplomacy might achieve temporary accommodations with these fanatics, but, finally, one had to be willing to employ against them the only means of persuasion that have ever proven effective in the Hobbesian world of conflict and war: the swift and decisive application of military force.
And only the United States, drawing on its military legacy left over from the Cold War, had available to it such means of persuasion. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, no military force in the world could even begin to measure up to that of the United States. Its great superpower opponent dismantled and gone, America thus entered its “unipolar moment,” that moment in history in which it now stands preeminent as the sole superpower on the planet. And America’s unipolar predominance has colored Europe’s perception of its great transatlantic ally.
Europe’s lack of military strength, as we’ll see, affects its psychological capacity to deal with rogue nations. Unable militarily to compel such nations to act reasonably, Europe minimizes their threat and tries to cajole them into good behavior by means of “soft-power” seductions. But, unfortunately, according to Kagan, Europe’s lack of military strength affects also its psychological capacity to deal with the only nation on earth powerful enough and resolute enough to act as the world’s sheriff—its great ally and friend, America.
3. Those Who Can Do. Those Who Can’t Preach.
“Strong powers naturally view the world differently than weaker powers,” Kagan says (27). America measures and responds to threats in a manner that reflects its military capacity. Europe measures and responds to threats in a manner that reflects its military incapacity. America responds to the threat of rogue regimes with a forthright will-to-war based on its knowledge that it can wage war successfully. Europe, on the other hand, because of its debilitating sense of military incapacity, has no such will-to-war and seeks rather to deal with crisis situations by means of negotiation and soft-power seduction.
Further, America, because it is strong, does not delude itself about the world. For the most part, the world is a Hobbesian jungle in which only superior force prevails. That is the simple reality of things. Having the force that will prevail in such a world, America does not need to deny its Hobbesian dynamics. America would prefer not to have to use its force, but when confronted by rogue nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, it may well have no choice but to muster and deploy it. And there is no denying that such nations are incorrigible outlaws. They refuse to negotiate in good faith and thus can be successfully dealt with only through those means appropriate to an outlaw: military force.
Europe, though, tends to deny the reality that rogues cannot be dealt with by means of rationality and rules. Europe thus persists in using methods—diplomacy, negotiation, appeasement—that with outlaws can only fail. And it persists in using such methods because it does not have the military means of dealing successfully with those nations that exist outside its realm of Kantian peace and prosperity. Its lack of military strength has psychologically enfeebled it, and so, unable effectively to confront such rogue regimes, it ends up tolerating their existence, hoping that in some indeterminate future they will shed their irrational ways and consent to enter the Kantian paradise the Europeans have established among themselves.
As Kagan argues, because Europeans are “relatively weak,” they “have a deep interest in devaluing and eventually eradicating the brutal laws of an anarchic Hobbesian world where power is the ultimate determinant of national security and success” (37).
America suffers no such compulsion to deny the laws of the Hobbesian jungle. To be sure, America hopes that in the future it can eradicate the “brutal laws” of power that prevail in the Hobbesian world of anarchy and war and replace them with the benign laws that prevail in the Kantian world of perpetual peace. But it is obvious that we have not yet established a worldwide realm of Kantian rationality and peace, and until we do we cannot and must not devalue America’s military strength and its will to use it. Further, because of our Kantian idealism we cannot and must not misdiagnose situations and fall into the fantasy that we can negotiate with and appease those who are both lethal and unappeasable.
There is another consequence of the disparity in power between Europe and America. Those nations, like America, who have the strength to deal with rogues and outlaws “often fear rules that may constrain them more than they do anarchy” (38). In the world of Hobbesian conflict, which today remains potentially most of the world, “they rely on their power to provide security and prosperity” and not on the flimsy expectation that those who are irrational and committed to anarchy will magically become amenable to reason and consent to abide by rules.
Europe, concerned for the ideal of law and for the moral standing of its great ally, reminds America that even in the realm of Hobbesian anarchy it must submit to the rules that govern reasonable behavior among all nations. America might be “a relatively benign hegemon” (40), but to the extent that it is willing to act outside those rules it runs the risk, Europe warns, of becoming that which it fights: a rogue nation operating according to the rules not of Kantian reason but of Hobbesian power.
Kagan readily admits that Europe’s chiding has had its effect. It is true that because of its strength and its will to use it in the world of Hobbesian anarchy, America is disposed, when it sees fit, to break the rules of reasonable behavior and to act unilaterally in crisis situations. But America prefers to abide by those rules and always attempts to legitimate its use of force by seeking the support and consent of its allies. America thus is not a rogue nation but “is a behemoth with a conscience” (41). America understands now and has always understood the importance of rules and rational behavior. Indeed, it was the first nation that founded itself exclusively on the rule of reason and law.
The United States is a liberal, progressive society through and through, and to the extent that Americans believe in power, they believe it must be a means of advancing the principles of a liberal civilization and a liberal world order. Americans even share Europe’s aspirations for a more orderly world system based not on power but on rules. (41)
Still, if America concludes that in the realm of Hobbesian anarchy only the swift application of military force will resolve a crisis, it will apply that force, and unilaterally if it has to. America is not afraid to deploy its power to its fullest effect if it deems that the situation demands such deployment, and it is precisely here, in their respective attitudes towards power itself, that the real origin of the political rift between Europe and America can be found.
It is power itself that the Europeans have come to dislike and distrust, and they have constructed an ideology based on the rejection of power. In the place of power they have put reason, and in their postmodern, Kantian paradise of rationality and rules, they believe that they have left power, and the history that power makes, forever behind. In this, according to Kagan, they are deeply and disastrously mistaken. And in order to see just how mistaken they are, we will have to examine the three figures that, in Kagan’s scheme, define contemporary world affairs: Hobbes, Kant, and the Sheriff.
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