Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order
by Robert Kagan
Knopf. 103 pp. $18
In a widely read and discussed essay in the Summer 2002 issue of Policy Review, Robert Kagan analyzed the increasingly rancorous relationship between the United States and Europe in terms favored by the so-called neoconservatives who have exercised such a decisive (and controversial) influence on the foreign policy of the Bush Administration since September 11, 2001. The essay’s argument was perfectly captured in its title, “Power and Weakness.” In Kagan’s view, America’s extraordinary military power decisively shapes its approach to the world, just as Europe’s relative weakness determines its outlook. Whereas the former sees a world filled with dangers that can best be managed through the strategic use of military force, the latter believes that the world (or at least Western Europe) has entered a Kantian era of perpetual peace in which virtually all disputes can be contained using international organizations. According to Kagan, Americans and Europeans have been led by their relative power and weakness to occupy radically different mental worlds.
Kagan’s new book, Of Paradise and Power, expands on this provocative thesis. In it, he argues that it was America’s policies in the aftermath of World War II that turned Europe away from ambition and war to prosperity and peace. Preferring to shoulder the burden of defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union instead of allowing the continent to rearm itself, the United States relieved Europeans of responsibility for their own self-defense, thereby allowing them to construct the post-political “paradise” to which Kagan alludes in his title. The result is that many Americans now view Europe as a continent of free-riders, enjoying the benefits of American power while demanding that we limit it. Europeans, for their part, tend to consider the United States to be hypocritical for attempting to use international law and concern for equal rights to limit everyone’s power but its own.
There is considerable truth in Kagan’s account, which accurately describes a very real difference in attitudes and assumptions on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Yet Kagan’s aim is not merely descriptive. Rather, he wishes to defend the “Hobbesian” view of power politics he associates with the United States as the best guide to “a new world order.” Europeans, he claims, must come to realize that their “Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order.” In Kagan’s ideal world, then, Europe would enjoy its “postmodern” zone of peace while acknowledging the need for “modern” American power to protect it and other regions from “premodern” threats.
So far, so good—at least until we begin to look for the principles that guide Kagan’s analysis of how America should behave in its reign over the world. As far as Kagan is concerned, there are only three options: one is either a Hobbesian, a liberal internationalist, or a pacifist. At no point does he make room for the just war tradition in classical philosophy and biblical theology. This caesura makes Kagan’s book much less useful—and much more morally cramped—than it might have been.
Kagan’s occasional references to Reinhold Niebuhr suggest an awareness that there is more to the just war tradition than the pacifism that frequently dominates it today. Yet Kagan quotes selectively from Niebuhr, effectively portraying him as a Kaganite Hobbesian. In Kagan’s view, Niebuhr is important primarily because he advocated that America had a “responsibility” for solving the world’s problems.
But this is The Irony of American History (1952) without the irony. In Kagan’s account, Niebuhr’s distinctive warnings about the temptations of human power are absent—as are his concerns about the perils of hubris and overreaching by those who are overly confident of the efficacy of power and justice in the world. In particular, Niebuhr detected dangers in the combination of American exceptionalism and great power—dangers rooted in pride and original sin. Like Tocqueville, he acknowledged that in many ways America was exceptional and that, marshaled to extraordinary power, our ideals had done and could do much good in the world; hence his criticism of Christian pacifism in the 1930s and defense of the Cold War in its early years. At the same time, however, he warned that American self-righteousness could easily destroy itself through blindness and bluster.
If Kagan wished to avoid the theological overtones of Niebuhr’s version of just war thinking, he could easily have looked to its less overtly religious stream, which reaches back to George Washington, Montesquieu, Aristotle, and Thucydides. Instead, Kagan prefers to read Thucydides as yet another enthusiastic advocate of power politics. In doing so, he overlooks the Greek historian’s real sobriety—his account of how our baser instincts can overwhelm our higher ones, not to mention his portrayal of the tragic consequences of war for human self-understanding and decency. To be sure, Thucydides does depict (and subtly criticize) the proto-Kantian moralism of the Melians. But the History of the Peloponnesian War is largely concerned with Athenian immoderation and imprudence—and, above all, with its worship of dynamism and power, which won many campaigns but eventually lost the war. Thucydides’ primary interest is in promoting moderation.
The same might be said of Washington. But here, too, Kagan tends to focus on extremes, claiming that the commitment of America’s founders to international law and diplomacy reveals a “psychology of weakness” that reflects the young nation’s lack of power in the late eighteenth century; likewise, the secret yearning of the Founders to beat the Europeans at power politics pointed toward a properly imperial future. But neither position accounts for Washington’s moderation in seeking a secure America that followed neither pure self-interest nor abstract justice but instead combined the two. According to Washington, provision for security must be balanced by “good faith and justice toward all nations.”
Kagan’s continual reduction of politics to power leads to other problems as well. He demeans our staunch and loyal ally, Great Britain, by failing to give the country a place in either the American or European paradigms. Indeed, Kagan reduces to a footnote Britain’s support throughout the recent Iraq crisis. Elsewhere, he omits Lord Robertson’s invocation of the NATO charter in America’s defense after the September 11 attacks. And while he closes his book by advising America to “show more understanding for the sensibilities of others” and more “generosity of spirit,” since “a little common understanding could still go a long way,” his own theory lacks a place for such diplomacy.
Unlike Thucydides, Kagan seems not to recognize that in international affairs perception can be as potent as reality. It may very well be true that, as many neoconservative intellectuals have argued, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups were emboldened by American military fecklessness throughout the 1990s. Yet it is also the case that such groups frequently come into being in the first place out of a desire to strike back at what their members perceive as America’s bullying tactics (in cultural as much as military matters). Such “blowback” does not justify terrorist attacks, but it may help to explain them.
If this is true—even partly so—our response must go beyond the exercise of mere power. In dealing with a range of threats—from international terrorists to such “rogue nations” as North Korea and Iran—international institutions and multilateral cooperation can and must play a crucial role. And saying so does not require becoming a post-political European. Those who carry a big stick can afford to speak softly and should have the wisdom to do so, knowing that even the biggest stick cannot achieve everything.
Paul Carrese is Associate Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, coeditor of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (2000), and author of The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism (2003). This essay does not represent the views of the U.S. Air Force Academy or the U.S. Government.