An Unbridgeable U.S./Europe Divide?
A briefing by Robert Kagan
December 14, 2004
Robert Kagan directs the U.S. Leadership Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is author of Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Knopf, 2003) which argues that the U.S./European divide is likely to be enduring, reflecting American great power status on one hand and European weakness on the other. Mr. Kagan is a columnist with the Washington Post, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, and has also written for Commentary, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, National Interest, New Republic, New York Times, Policy Review, and the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Kagan addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, on December 14, 2004.
Recent elections have driven home something that I already knew: that Europe and the United States are often profoundly divided in their views of the world. Europeans believe that America is fundamentally divided on foreign affairs and that the Bush administration completely changed foreign policy when it came to office. In particular, Europeans believed that President Bush, in choosing to go into Iraq, was forging a new type of foreign policy in the U.S.
In fact, George W. Bush is continuing with a tradition of U.S. foreign policy. I could produce dozens of quotes about Saddam Hussein, the importance of stopping dictators or spreading democracy before telling you that each and every one of them came from officials in the Clinton administration. As president, Bill Clinton spoke of the great danger posed by Saddam Hussein. Similarly, former secretary of state Madeline Albright similarly offered her views on the dangers of not learning from the lessons of the 20th century and allowing dictators to go unchecked. Many goals are shared between Bush and Clinton, but they have prioritized and acted differently.
Division between Americans and Europeans
However, if there is some continuity in policy between Bush and Clinton, there is clearly a divide between the average American and the average European. When I lived in Brussels, I noticed that Europeans generally hold a very different view to Americans on the use of force. Polls confirm it: 82% of Americans have been polled believing that under some conditions, war can be necessary to obtain justice or defend the innocent. In Europe only 41% think so and the number is even lower if you eliminate Britain and Turkey from the equation. In France, 33%, in Germany 31%, and in Spain only 25% agree with that proposition.
Origins of these differences
I believe there are two explanations for the differences in the European and U.S. mindsets about war and the use of force. The first is a structural explanation. The second is an ideological/historical explanation.
Structurally, there is an enormous disparity in the use of military power by the U.S. and Europe. Particularly after the end of the Cold War, the gap between U.S. and European military prowess widened due to technological advances in the American military. At this point, European and U.S. armies can barely fight together in the field because of the gap in technology that exists.
This disparity is owed to the difference in military spending. The U.S. spends about $400 - $450 billion dollars each year on defense while Europe spends only $160-170 billion. In addition, the U.S. spends a tremendous amount on research and development (R&D) relative to Europe. The R&D portion of its defense budget is higher than the combined R&D budget of all the European nations. The consequence of this disparity is that those who have more military capacity are more inclined to use it. The U.S. maintains the use of force as a viable option. Europeans, lacking that power, cannot even imagine using it.
The structural explanation, however, is not sufficient to explain the differences between Americans and Europeans. Europeans could spend more money on defense if they wanted to. They choose not to.
Historically and ideologically, these different approaches have been seen with the roles reversed. In the 18th century, when America was relatively weak and vulnerable and European states powerful, the U.S. was much more inclined to talk about diplomacy and law, the Europeans in contrast spoke more about Realpolitik. Strong powers have always been reluctant to let international bodies stop them from using their power to defend or advance their interests.
Part of the European choice to spend less is due to protection by the American defense umbrella. Perhaps most important, however, is the European desire to set up a balance of power on the continent. Europeans want to create a system in which a repetition of the horrors of the world wars is unthinkable. This is basically what we have, and, to some extent there is no greater gift Europe can give to the U.S. than a Europe at peace. We must recognize this. But this has also reinforced a European tendency to believe that their peaceful norms and practices can be extended without effort to other places and cultures.
Moreover, we must be aware that Europeans also have a tendency to see U.S. power as a threat to the type of peaceful world order they envision. Americans do not share that view. We tend to think of the generation that fought World War II as our greatest, because we are proud to have defeated fascism.
Where do we go from here? At least we know we disagree and why. I am not optimistic that things are going to change much. Some Americans think that when Europeans are hit by large-scale terrorism, as we were in Madrid in March 2004, they will feel the way we do. Yet, before Madrid, I said that when Europeans get hit, they will blame the U.S., which is precisely what they did.
We should perhaps stop looking to Europe for things they are not going to give us and look instead at the positives about Europe: Europe has the ability to shape the behavior of nations on its immediate periphery because Europe is attractive. Look how Turkey has tried to change its performance on human rights and economics in order to obtain entry to the European Union. The Ukraine is another example of this phenomenon. If Europe over the next 10-20 years helps to bring a measure of stability and liberalism to the regions surrounding it, that will be very useful. The key is not to ask Europeans do more than they can or want to do, but to encourage them to avoid doing some things and to do the other things they do best.
Related Topics: US policy
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