From the archives: How the power gap is coloring U.S.-Europe relations

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A Macedonian army vehicle reinforces a gate that migrants have tried to storm to enter Macedonia from Greece. On Monday, the European Union began sending Syrian refugees and other migrants in Greece to Turkey to try to curb migration. (Boris Grdanoski / AP)

Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column, an edited version of which appeared in Tuesday’s print edition of the American-Statesman, revisited Robert Kagan’s well-known 2002 essay, “Power and Weakness,” which Kagan later expanded into a short book, “Of Paradise and Power.” Kagan analyzed how the United States and Europe had diverged after the Cold War, and how the American war on terrorism and the divisive debate over the Iraq war had brought the differences between the two into sharp relief.

Here’s how Kagan began “Power and Weakness”:

“It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. … (O)n major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory — the product of one American election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.”

In his column, Douthat sees, “in this time of political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic,” an emerging Mars-Venus reversal of the Bush-era alignment Kagan explored — a reversal taking shape even though the United States remains the world’s only hyperpower and Europe is still militarily weak.

“It’s too soon to say Europeans are actually from Mars once again,” Douthat writes. “But the Continent’s Venusian idyll has taken blow after blow: the euro crisis, the aggressions of Vladimir Putin, and now the convergence of mass migration and Islamist terror. Nationalism is returning, border fences are going up. The center is weakening, the far right is gaining power. The Mediterranean and the Russian marches are zones of conflict again, and ancient habits — French military adventurism, Little Englander separatism, a tense relationship with Islam — are resurfacing.”

Meanwhile, Douthat writes, “if nationalism is making Europeans more militaristic, in America it’s inclining us to lay down the burdens of empire, to retreat into a self-sufficient Arcadia all our own.”

I’ll let Douthat’s column stand without comment, but it prompted me to revisit “Power and Weakness” as well as a Q&A I did with Kagan that was published in the Statesman on March 16, 2003, four days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In light of Douthat’s column, I thought the Q&A worth rescuing from the archives:

That Europeans and Americans no longer share a common view of the world has never been more obvious. The debate over Iraq has divided the strategic alliance that held the West together throughout the Cold War, and there are concerns it will not survive.

Even if present tensions ease, the fundamental disagreement about the use and legitimacy of force between the United States and its major European allies will remain, because America is militarily powerful, Europe is not and the powerful and the weak approach foreign affairs differently. For the powerful, force is always an option; for the weak, who cannot rely on force as an instrument of foreign policy, the emphasis must be on international rules, organizations and negotiation.

Robert Kagan examines this power gap in “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order,” an expanded version of his influential essay “Power and Weakness” that appeared last summer in the journal Policy Review. Kagan’s analysis has given shape to the debate on U.S.-European relations and brought clarity to it. His take is not beyond challenge — questions and doubts arise reading both his essay and book — but it is an indispensable study for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of American and European positions and strategies.

Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.* He lives in Brussels, Belgium, and contributes regularly to the Weekly Standard and The Washington Post. He is usually lumped in with the so-called neoconservatives, a group of thinkers and writers who are generally considered the intellectual architects of a new interventionist policy that marries American power to American principles.

I spoke with Kagan last week about the rift between Europe and the United States. An edited transcript follows.

Austin American-Statesman: You write that Europeans inhabit a world where agreed-upon rules of behavior and international law trump military power. The way you describe it, it sounds like a pretty good world and it is, after all, the “paradise” of your book’s title. So why can’t the United States be a part of that paradise? Why must we remain outside it?

Robert Kagan: The United States is in effect the creator and the guarantor of that European paradise, which rests ultimately on a foundation of global security that the United States provides and the Europeans don’t have to provide. That’s the paradox: that the United States makes paradise possible for the Europeans only by not being in it itself. Because the fact is, outside the European continent, we have to deal with people like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and China and others who have not chosen the path that Europe has chosen.

Must America live by a double standard — not follow some international conventions, support arms control for others but not for itself, and so on — to achieve security? Doesn’t that expose us to charges of hypocrisy?

We’ve always been in this position; it’s not a new position. The international legal mechanisms of the United Nations have existed for almost 60 years now. The United States has done what it’s done in the world without reference to those institutions. In the real world we try to support international rules as best we can, but there are times, especially when it comes to the exercise of power, when the goal of furthering liberal international order requires that the United States be able to take some action without necessarily having the full support of an international body like the United Nations. There is no time in the past when the United States could have taken action, no matter what that action may have been, with the full support of the U.N. Security Council. And we lived in that world fairly comfortably.

I find it a bit odd for Americans, those who do, to suddenly suggest that the Security Council is the only place where one derives legitimacy for action. That’s not been the American position in the past, and it wasn’t even the European position as recently as four years ago with the war in Kosovo, which was conducted without a Security Council resolution.

Doesn’t exposing ourselves to charges of hypocrisy threaten what might be our greatest power, the power of our ideals and values?

It’s realism, not hypocrisy, to say that it is impossible to maintain order strictly through the legal mechanisms of the United Nations. A double standard is not exactly the same as hypocrisy. However, you make a reasonable point, and it’s unclear exactly what the answer is. Obviously a great deal of American power stems from the sense that America undertakes actions for the general good and not for purely selfish interests. If you look to the past, the legitimacy of American leadership in the world has always rested on the general opinion of our allies as to whether we were acting in a common interest or whether we were acting in a selfish interest.

Now on Iraq we obviously happen to be in strong disagreement with our allies. When American policy was engaged in the defense of Europe, Europeans by and large, and with some exceptions, found American behavior in the world to be fundamentally legitimate. Now that the United States is no longer engaged, at least in the immediate sense, in the defense of Europe, Europeans are finding more flaws in the American approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.

Throughout the Cold War, the idea of the West was the organizing principle of foreign policy in Europe and the United States, structured to counter a threat from within Europe. But now the threat comes from beyond Europe — radical Islam, terrorism, failed states. Still, shouldn’t the idea of the West be the organizing principle of a new foreign policy to meet this new threat?

That’s a very American view. I can tell you there are very few Europeans who would see it that way because a) they just do not view the threat of international terrorism the way Americans do, and b) they have a very complicated relationship with their own Muslim populations and therefore with the Muslim world in general, and I just do not believe that what Americans see as the present threat creates a united West in anything like the same way that Soviet communism did.

For one thing, it’s a physical threat to the West, not a spiritual, ideological threat, which is what communism was. Communism was an alternative vision for the West; it was a path that the West could take. I don’t think the possibility of the West being converted to Islam is very great.

Then the West as we know it is a relic of the Cold War?

The West as a culture, as a political philosophy, as an economic philosophy and as an economic entity does exist and is very strong. But as a strategic entity, the West is a relic of the Cold War.

What do you think? How relevant are Kagan’s points 13 years later? Is the U.S.-European relationship headed toward “a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of the Iraq debate,” as Douthat suggests?

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*Today, Kagan is a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

 

 

‘How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.’

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A man wears the Belgian flag as people observe a minute of silence in Brussels on Wednesday in honor of the victims of Tuesday’s terror attacks. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

It didn’t take long after news broke of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Brussels for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to politicize the attack and issue a call on Facebook urging his fellow Americans “to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” What these new “patrol and secure” powers would be or how they would jibe with the Constitution, Cruz didn’t say. But his post reinforced an observation I have long held that those who claim to love the Constitution more than the rest of us are also the ones who seem most likely to abandon it in a panic.

Cruz’s posturing was just one of several unhelpful reactions to Tuesday’s bombings in Belgium that killed 31 people and wounded 270 others. The response from Republican U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, for example, was wearily familiar: Brussels was bombed. Seal the border with Mexico!

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings and on Wednesday warned of additional attacks in the West. Two of three suicide bombers were brothers born in Belgium. A third suicide bomber was a Belgian born in Morocco. The three may have been part of a cell that also carried out the attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.

In 2008, scholars with the RAND Corporation produced a study, “How Terrorist Groups End,” that surveyed the fates of numerous terrorist organizations worldwide since 1968. Most terrorist groups end either because they eventually decide to join the political process, the study’s authors found, or because police and intelligence agencies arrest or kill a group’s key members. While the military has a role to play in the fight against terrorism, and sometimes the role can be large, the study’s authors concluded that terrorism is most effectively attacked as a political and criminal act rather than as an act of war. They called for a fundamental rethinking of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, starting with trashing the phrase “war on terrorism.” After all, you can’t defeat an abstract noun.

The Islamic State is not abstract. It is a religious terrorist organization as well as a rebel army that governs parts of Iraq and Syria. As a religious terrorist organization, it is even harder to defeat than groups that are exclusively political, and thus is a difficult law enforcement and intelligence challenge. As a rebel army, it can be pushed out of territory it occupies. And, in fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a fifth of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

Cruz and Donald Trump promise to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion if elected president, though at what cost or sacrifice they don’t say. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic, but I don’t think anyone should be under any illusion that a President Cruz or a President Trump — or a President Hillary Clinton, for that matter — is likely to fundamentally redirect the nation from the counter-terrorism track it’s been on the past 15 years, or engage Islamic terrorism in a way that doesn’t continually risk making matters worse.

The agreements that drew the borders of the modern Middle East after World War I and unsteadily held it together for almost a century appear to have been thrown on history’s ash heap. Their dissolution probably was inevitable after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, out of which the Islamic State evolved. Acknowledging that fact would be helpful. Ditto acknowledging the counterproductive roles that Turkey and Saudi Arabia play in the Middle East — Turkey in undermining the fight against the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia in promoting the spread of radical Islam.

A determined respect for perspective over fear, and a resolute trust in our values, also would help, lest we become the giant who brushes away gnats by smashing furniture and breaking windows. I close with this quote from Salman Rushdie, written after 9/11:

“The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

“How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”