Kagan’s Power and Weakness

If you have a little time to spare, I would highly recommend reading

Power and Weakness, Robert Kagan’s essay

about "why, on major strategic and international questions today,

Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus". My friend

Matthew Rose tells me that it’s already proving rather influential in

what he calls "various policy/commentary circles", and I’m

sure you wouldn’t want to find yourself in one such unprepared.

As I say, I would highly recommend you read the original essay, even

though it’s about twice as long as it needs to be. If you simply don’t

have the time, however, then in a nutshell Kagan’s argument is this:

that Europeans, with little might to their name, like international

norms because they’ve built some kind of Kantian utopia, where such

things trump military might. Americans, on the other hand, with nearly

as much military might as the rest of the world combined, are much more

inclined to a Hobbesian/Machiavellian view of the world, and, moreover,

have provided the security shield which has allowed Europe to develop

peacefully over the past 57 years.

The essay is excellent, and there is a temptation to admire this piece’s

intelligence and insights to the point at which one overlooks its elisions

and oversights. Its broad thesis, I think, is largely correct: Europe

is living in a postmodern Kantian paradise whose security is only assured

by brute Hobbesian US strength. At least, I think that was unarguable

up until the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union constituted

a threat to Western European regional security which nobody denied.

Now, however, for all that Europe is a “military pygmy”

compared to the US, it still has more than enough firepower to deter

any state you might care to mention from a direct assault upon it. Kagan

is convinced that the only reason that Europe is secure is that any

potential aggressors know that they’d have the US to answer to

were they to act. But that’s not the case: while the US is overwhelmingly

more powerful than Europe, France and Britain both have militaries (not

to mention nuclear weapons) big enough to deter any tinpot dictator

like Slobodan Milosevic or even Saddam Hussein from launching a direct

attack on the EU.

Which leaves Russia — a country which certainly has enough in

the way of nationalistic rumblings to worry the Kantians of the EU.

But even in the case of Russia, a direct assault on the European Union

is unthinkable: the worst that could happen would be some kind of attempt

to expand to the borders of the former Soviet Union. And Germany’s

attempts to reach out economically to Russia and start to integrate

it into the European economy have to be a more constructive way of bringing

Russia to Kantian paradise than would be building more tanks.

Quoth Kagan:

Most Europeans do not see the great paradox: that their passage

into post-history has depended on the United States not making the same

passage. Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard

its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well

as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of "moral

consciousness," it has become dependent on America’s willingness

to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world

who still believe in power politics.

I disagree. I think that Europeans do see the great paradox,

but with the emphasis very much on the “deter” rather than

the “defeat” of the final clause. As Kagan himself notes,

“Europeans generally believe, whether or not they admit it to themselves,

that were Iraq ever to emerge as a real and present danger, as opposed

to merely a potential danger, then the United States would do something

about it – as it did in 1991.” So there’s no need to go in

and topple Baghdad now. What’s more, Saddam Hussein, a man who has shown

a unusual degree of ability on the self-preservation front, is unlikely

to suicidally attack Europe, America or anybody else anytime soon.

It’s quite a simple argument: either Saddam’s going to start

attacking other countries, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, then

we can let him be, following the principle of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia,

which established the principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs

of other states. If, on the other hand, Saddam is going to attack, then

we can wait until he does so and then destroy him with the full support

of the world community. Meanwhile, any invasion now would mean that

it was the US which was making an unprovoked attack on another sovereign

state, violating every principle of international peace. Kagan’s

justification of such an action as, basically, “well, that’s

the way a Hobbesian world works” isn’t good enough. When has

a “pre-emptive” attack by one country on another ever been

considered moral or justifiable?

The United States, of course, in its role as global policeman, has

certainly attacked regimes which haven’t marched across international

borders: Kosovo being a prime example. But what’s being mooted in Iraq

goes beyond "humanitarian intervention": the justification

here is much more that we should take out Saddam before he’s capable

of taking out us. I have met one person, a former UN official, who approves

of invading Iraq on humanitarian grounds. But there’s only one nation

whose long-term security is uppermost in the thoughts of the Bush administration

hawks, and it’s not Kurdistan.

I would also like to take the opportunity to poke a couple of holes

in what Rose calls Kagan’s "money quote":

The psychology of weakness is easy enough to understand. A man armed

only with a knife may decide that a bear prowling the forest is a

tolerable danger, inasmuch as the alternative – hunting the bear armed

only with a knife – is actually riskier than lying low and hoping

the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle, however,

will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable

risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t need


Kagan then goes on to conclude, at the end of the following paragraph,


Europeans like to say that Americans are obsessed with fixing

problems, but it is generally true that those with a greater capacity

to fix problems are more likely to try to fix them than those who have

no such capability. Americans can imagine successfully invading Iraq

and toppling Saddam, and therefore more than 70 percent of Americans

apparently favor such action. Europeans, not surprisingly, find the

prospect both unimaginable and frightening.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But actually, it doesn’t stand up

to scrutiny. Pretty obviously, bear=Saddam, knifeman=Europe, shooter=USA.

But the problem is that the situation never arises where the man armed

only with a knife needs to decide whether or not to hunt the bear: he

always knows that there’s another man with a rifle who will shoot

the bear before it mauls anybody. So he doesn’t need to make any

cost-benefit calculations about hunting the bear versus not hunting

the bear. He knows he’s not going to be mauled, because the chap

with the rifle is right behind him. So there’s no point in going

bear-hunting: the minute the bear becomes a real and present danger,

it gets shot.

Now consider the situation from the bear’s point of view. So long

as there’s a man with a rifle in the forest, he knows better than

to go after either man. So what’s the shooter afraid of? Remember

that the knifeman, although he doesn’t like the bear, certainly

doesn’t want the man with the rifle to shoot it, because that would

violate the Rules of the Forest (aka the Treaty of Westphalia). So from

the shooter’s point of view, the bear might be a potential danger,

but there’s no point in pissing off the knifeman by going after

it: if and when the bear actually attacks, it can be shot then just

as easily.

Stop and think: why would an American invasion of Iraq be “not

surprisingly” unimaginable and/or frightening to Europeans? It

would only be so if (a) Europe could conceivably lose a war with Iraq;

and (b) Europe would not have the backing of the US in such a war. Neither

condition obtains in the real world. Kagan misses his own point, which

is that America has taken on the role of Europe’s guardian.

Kagan doesn’t take sides on the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-invade-Iraq

debate. But it’s actually easy to frame it in terms of his forest scenario.

The only reason to tear up Westphalia and shoot the bear anyway is because

the bear might lend its claws to suicidal rabbits, who can creep up

on the man with the rifle when he’s not looking and cause serious

damage with them. They certainly die in the process, which is why the

bear itself never does such a thing, but they’re suicidal rabbits,

remember, so they’re not so fussed about that. The shooter, worried

about rabbits bearing bear-claws, then decides that the only way to

avoid that threat is to kill the bear and declaw it.

And this is where we get to the Mars/Venus distinction between Europe

and the US. Both of them are well aware that shooting bears because

of a threat from rabbits violates centuries of international protocol.

And because Europeans care about international protocol and Americans

don’t, Europeans are opposed to bear-shooting while Americans think

it’s actually rather a good idea.

There’s one more hole in Kagan’s argument I’d like to point

out, and that’s where he says that “although the United States

has played the critical role in bringing Europe into this Kantian paradise,

and still plays a key role in making that paradise possible, it cannot

enter this paradise itself. It mans the walls but cannot walk through

the gate.” Someone should remind Kagan that the US is itself a

federation, and has been living in its own Kantian paradise for much

longer than the Europeans have — in fact, since the end of the

Civil War. America’s states have gone so far as to leave their

defenses completely open, relying only on the Second Amendment to provide

individual citizens with small arms. One Republican pundit told me once

that her answer to “who’s in charge here?” would not

be the mayor of New York nor the president of the United States, but

rather the governor of New York State. States’ rights are a cornerstone

of Republican ideology, and many of the most hawkish members of the

present Administration would consider the USA a hegemonic power, to

be sure, but one constituted of 50 separate units.

Kagan claims that “Americans apparently feel no resentment at

not being able to enter a "postmodern" utopia.” But surely

the reason they feel no resentment is because they’re already in

one. Only twice in its history has America been attacked by foreign

agents: Pearl Harbor and September 11. Both attacks profoundly changed

the American national psyche, but neither of them compare to the kind

of invasions that most of the rest of the world’s countries have

suffered again and again. Both attacks started — and stopped —

right on the very edge of US national territory. Never has the American

heartland had to worry that a foreign power would take over the USA.

It’s undeniable that America is very suspicious of the European

programme of international courts, laws, treaties, etcetera: it wants

the freedom of action to which it feels its role as the world’s

policeman entitles it. Yet domestically, it has no problem circumscribing

its own states’ rights in myriad ways, through federal laws. Europe’s

Kantian paradise, on this view, is simply a recapitulation of America’s,

on an international rather than intranational scale. The US should be

comfortable with such structures, but of course Kagan provides good

historical reasons why it isn’t: its own federal system was set

up when it was weak, just as Europe’s looser federation reflected

that continent’s military weakness compared to the USA and the

USSR. Now that America is by far the strongest country in the world,

it has no use any more for such structures.

I’m not saying that there’s a nice, clean analogy between US states

and European countries. What I am saying is that Americans have long

experience of living in a federation where one doesn’t need to worry

about being invaded by a neighbouring state, and that such an experience

parallels the Kantian utopia which Kagan says the US cannot enter.

Kagan’s main point, however, rings true.Europeans and Americans need

to understand their differences, and America, especially, "could

begin to show more understanding for the sensibilities of others, a

little generosity of spirit." That way lies a lot of international

goodwill. Policemen find it much harder to do their job when those on

whose behalf they are working mistrust them. America has a choice between

galvanising Europan opinion behind its police work on the one hand,

or turning the rest of the world into a police state. The former is

in everyone’s interest, especially America’s.

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3 Responses to Kagan’s Power and Weakness

  1. Frederick Griggs says:

    Very interesting analysis. Let me pose one more scenario: The man with the gun sits back and thinks, “Gee, I keep rescuing this fellow with the knife, but in return he just insults me. Let him solve his own problems. If the bear comes after me, I can still kill it.” The man goes home and has a drink, leaving the knife-wielder alone with the bear.

  2. Jasper says:

    One of the strengths of Kagan’s analysis is that he consistently views national actions as being determined by national self-interest operating within the constraints of national competence. In line with this principle we must acknowledge that the bear shooter’s past altruism was also an expression of self-interest.

  3. Very interesting analysis. Let me pose one more scenario: The man with the gun sits back and thinks, “Gee, I keep rescuing this fellow with the knife, but in return he just insults me. Let him solve his own problems. If the bear comes after me, I can still kill it.” The man goes home and has a drink, leaving the knife-wielder alone with the bear.
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