Friday, August 15, 2008

Europe vs. America in regard to the use of force

I read Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power with a view toward determining whether I might be blind toward anti-European polemics. Perhaps it is only anti-Republican and anti-Democratic polemics that I can recognize. But if I am blind, I am blind still for Kagan strikes me as a political theorist and not a polemicist. Consider the following:

[The American founding generation was] realistic enough to know that they were weak, and both consciously and unconsciously they used the strategies of the weak to try to get their way in the world. They denigrated power politics and claimed an aversion to war and military power, all realms in which they were far inferior to the European great powers. They extolled the virtues and ameliorating effects of commerce, where Americans competed on a more equal plane. They appealed to international law as the best means of regulating the behavior of nations, knowing well they had few other means of constraining Great Britain and France. They knew from their reading of Vattel that in international law, ‘strength or weakness . . . counts for nothing. A dwarf is as much a man as a giant is; a small Republic is no less a sovereign State than the most powerful Kingdom.’ Later generations of Americans, possessed of a great deal more power and influence on the world stage, would not always be as enamored of this constraining egalitarian equality of international law. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was the great European powers that did not always want to be constrained.

“Two centuries later, Americans and Europeans have traded places – and perspectives. This is partly because in those two hundred years, and especially in recent decades, the power equation has shifted dramatically: When the United States was weak, it practiced the strategies of indirection, the strategies of weakness; now that the United States is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do. When the European great powers were strong, they believed in strength and martial glory. Now they see the world through the eyes of weaker powers.”

I don’t see this analysis as being polemical or partisan. It is a clever interesting observation that seems to be based on the facts of history, and if it is true, perhaps it can shed light upon the ongoing disagreement between Europe and America in regard to the use of force.

Lawrence Helm

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