Whatever the current burning issue is - trade with Iran, war with Iraq, support for Israel, building a missile defense system, accepting the International Criminal Court - Americans and West Europeans often find themselves on opposite sides of the

Whatever the current burning issue is - trade with Iran, war with Iraq, support for Israel, building a missile defense system, accepting the International Criminal Court - Americans and West Europeans often find themselves on opposite sides of the argument.

Americans tend to dismiss the Europeans as soft-minded appeasers lacking moral fiber or strategic vision. In turn, Europeans depict Americans as cowboys under the sway of a "culture of death."

These current attitudes tend to be seen as immutable facts of life, arising out of the respective national characters. But these differences are hardly permanent. Two centuries ago, when Americans acted cautiously around the tough-guy Europeans, the roles were roughly reversed.

Robert Kagan.

Today's attitudes, Robert Kagan writes in a brilliant analysis in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, "Power and Weakness," follow logically from deeper realities. In particular, they result from two post-1945 developments so momentous they tend to go unnoted:

Europe is weak: For 500 years before 1945, Europe dominated the world. Tiny Portugal and Holland took turns ruling the seas. Mid-sized Britain and France built empires that spanned the globe. But that was then.

Today, the European Union spends far more on social problems than on arms. Despite a population and an economy roughly similar to America's, it is a "military pygmy" that lacks the ability to project force or even handle a minor problem in its own neighborhood (as the Balkan fiascos revealed).

In contrast, Americans have continued massively investing in defense, creating a true superpower no other state can challenge. "In military terms there is only one player on the field that counts," observes Yale historian Paul Kennedy. Looking at the contrast between the United States and the rest of the world, Kennedy finds that "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing."

This huge gap in capabilities causes Europeans and Americans to approach problems very differently. In their strength, Americans predictably see it as normal and legitimate to use force against enemy states such as Iraq. In their weakness, Europeans no less predictably find this approach worrisome and even immoral.

Europe is post-modern: For the 80 years before 1945, the demon of German aggression haunted Europe, causing two world wars. Then, through a lengthy process of negotiation, multilateralism, building commercial ties and applying international law, the Europeans engineered what Kagan calls "perhaps the greatest feat of international politics ever achieved" by integrating Germany into a totally peaceable Western European state system.

As the German lion lay down with the French lamb, Europeans widely congratulated themselves on a world-historical breakthrough and concluded that their future global mission is to develop a "postmodern system" that resolves problems without even the hint of force. (Along the way, they conveniently forgot that this transformation was only made possible because U.S. forces defeated Germany.) They aspire, Kagan argues, to replicate their success on a global scale, by taming a North Korea or an Iraq as they did Germany.

From this vantage point, American use of force challenges the universal validity of Europe's soft approach. Worse: if the European methods of cajoling and paying off adversaries do not always work - as they clearly do not - this suggests that Europe's own hope for perpetual peace among states may be illusory. The European Union's highly emotional reaction to American use of force derives in large part, then, from its horror at facing war again in Europe.

The differences, in brief, are stark: Americans are from Mars; Europeans, from Venus. Europeans spend their money on social services, Americans continue to devote large sums to the military. Europeans draw lessons from their successful pacifying of post-1945 Germany; Americans draw lessons from their defeat of Nazi Germany and of the Soviet bloc. Kagan's insights have important implications:

  • U.S.-European differences are not transitory, but long-term.
  • They are likely to grow with time.
  • Europe is highly unlikely to develop a military power to rival America's.
  • As Europe settles into strategic irrelevance, Americans need pay it less and less attention.
  • Contrarily, because Washington so predominates, it should make gestures to win European goodwill.
  • NATO is little more than a shell.
  • Americans should look increasingly to countries outside Europe - Turkey, Israel and India come first to mind - for meaningful military alliances.

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Nov. 17, 2009 update: Who would have imagined that it would be Barack Obama, so beloved in Europe, that would implement the final one of my implications above? Yes, as John Vinocur convincingly argues in "Why Europe Feels Rejected by Obama," that is the case. Excerpts:

Mr. Obama ... is concentrating by his presence America's attention and future hopes on China and Asia. Virtually at the same moment, the European Union, in what's plainly an effort to assert its relevance, will choose (with considerable difficulty and potential irrelevance) a common president and foreign minister for the first time.

Together, that's hardly a guarantee of a warmer trans-Atlantic clasp of hands. Instead, it's a remarkable contrast to Secretary of State James Baker's proposal, a month after the wall fell, of a new, organic economic and political relationship between Europeans and Americans.

Now, Denis MacShane, a former British minister for Europe, who met with other Atlanticists at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh over the weekend, describes the circumstances this way: "There's a growing worry everywhere in Europe that we have the first U.S. president since 1945 to show no interest in what's happening on this side of the relationship." ...

the president over his first year in office has shunned, or taken for granted, Europe's initial burst of affection for him. The fallout — either attributed to the private comments of European leaders, or reflected in major editorial voices — is an expression of skepticism about Mr. Obama's capabilities and the depth of the change he claims to represent.

In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper that knows Chancellor Angela Merkel well, has written ironically of how little has changed, outside atmospherics, from the Bush to Obama administrations in attitudes toward Germany. Over the weekend, it found that Mr. Obama's America seems "to be taking pleasure in the idea of having a G-2 condominium" with China that would leave little place for a European share of global power.

In France, the tone has been harsher. Olivier Debouzy, a lawyer and former French Foreign Ministry official, wrote last week that foreign governments were "opaque" for Mr. Obama because he projected his own notion of American rationality on them. Mr. Debouzy asserted that the president also showed a sense of his and America's superiority to foreign leaders. "He expresses this by holding himself at a distance from them, which is unusual for an American political figure," Mr. Debouzy wrote. "It makes personal relations with him complicated, a fact attested to by more than one European chief of state or government."