Are Americans Really from Mars, and Europeans From Venus?:
A Review of Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power


Friday, Apr. 25, 2002

Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America Vs. Europe in the New World Order (Knopf 2003)

The rift between the United States and the European powers of France and Germany over the war in Iraq is widely seen as the greatest internal crisis to hit the Western Alliance since the end of the Cold War. Robert Kagan's book Of Paradise and Power - which presents a wide-ranging analysis of relations between Europe and the United States - is thus extremely timely.

The book expands on a much-discussed essay that appeared last summer, which readers may recall. In it, Kagan argues that Europe and America's differences over Iraq are merely one expression of a fundamental divergence of views about the most basic elements of international order.

According to Kagan, the Europeans have taken up residence in what he calls "a post-historical paradise" where international relations can be governed by the rule of law and by multilateral cooperation. The Americans, meanwhile, continue to believe that the exercise of military force is necessary to deal with threats to international order or to U.S. national security.

In a nifty piece of pop-cultural appropriation, Kagan writes that "on 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."

In General, Kagan's Argument, While Clever, Is Not Quite Persuasive

Kagan's argument is clever and striking, and it undoubtedly captures one aspect of current trans-Atlantic relations. Nevertheless the book as a whole is ultimately less than convincing.

The main problem is that the contrast that Kagan sets up between European and American visions of the world is simply too neat and too sweeping. Indeed, Kagan himself appears to recognize this at various points in the course of the book, when he introduces qualifications that effectively undermine the more simplistic picture that he sometimes seems to be painting.

In the International Law Arena, Kagan's Thesis Is Convincing

One area where Kagan's argument is persuasive, however, is in his discussion of the respective European and American attitudes to international law. Here, the contrast is quite genuine.

After the appalling trauma of World War II, the nations of Europe turned away from foreign policies based on the pursuit of national interest and the balance of power. In the European Union, they constructed a new legal order based on shared sovereignty and transparency.

Kagan offers the EU a slightly patronising pat on the back. It was, he writes "a miracle of world-historical importance." However, he also notes that the success of this model within Europe has led Europeans to place undue faith in the idea that it can be applied universally: that international order can be secured within the existing framework of international law.

Kagan is clearly right to observe that Europeans attach much more importance to multilateral or diplomatic processes in dealing with global problems, while the United States now tends to think that resorting to force is the best way to go. The diplomatic back-and-forth that preceded the Iraq war is only one of many examples that support the point.

Kagan is also convincing when he attributes European wariness about the use of force to the continent's painful history in the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, he persuasively argues that the absence of a common threat - in the form of the Soviet Union - has reduced the need for the Western powers to pull together, so that their different visions of international order can cause a lot more friction. America and Europe are no longer, in many respects, forced into the same boat.

Unfortunately, however, when Kagan goes further, he is far less cogent - and unfairly privileges the U.S.'s perspective over that of Europe.

It's Unfair to Claim Europe's Attitudes Are A Product of Lack of Military Power

Alongside his argument about the ideological differences between Europe and the U.S., Kagan wants to make a further point: that the European outlook is a reflection not only of its history but also of its weakness. He contends that Europeans shun military solutions because they don't have the power to enforce them, while the United States, which can look after itself very well, doesn't need to be afraid of getting into a fight. International law, Kagan seems to imply, is for sissies.

To illustrate his point, Kagan gives the example of a man in a forest carrying a knife who sees a bear prowling around on the loose. He is likely to decide that the bear 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."

But, Kagan continues, the same man armed with a rifle "will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn't have to?"

Plainly, the lowly knife-carrier represents Europe; the studly rifle-bearer is the United States.

The problem with this example - entertaining as it is - is that it doesn't explain why the European countries should have opposed American military action against Saddam Hussein. That would be like a man in the woods with a knife who didn't want his well-armed travelling companion to take a shot at the rogue bear. Since the knife-carrier too is threatened by the bear (even more so than his rifle-bearing companion), his objection must be one of principle, not cowardice.

To explain the phenomenon of Europe's protests against the U.S.'s Iraq war, Kagan resorts to the assertion that the European nations regard U.S. militarism as an innate threat to their idea of a world order under law. That sounds a lot more like a point of principle, than an accusation of cowardice or weakness as a motivating force.

Indeed, Kagan says this "may be the most important reason for the divergence in views between Europe and the United States. America's power and its willingness to exercise that power - unilaterally if necessary - constitute a threat to Europe's new sense of mission." By Europe's sense of mission, he means its desire to export its "post-historical paradise" of a law-based order to the rest of the world.

But there's a problem with Kagan's argument here: it focuses only on force, without taking sufficient note of the role of law. Kagan accuses Europe of being a sissy, but it's not force Europe is afraid of; it's lawlessness.

After all, the only reason that the exercise of American power against Iraq represented a threat to the multilateral system is that the U.S. was prepared to use force outside the law - in the case of Iraq, to go to war without the clear backing of the United Nations Security Council. It is not American power that the Europeans object to, but American unilateralism - and the distinction is much more important than Kagan admits.

Despite what Kagan claims, European nations do not believe that power is unimportant in the world, or think that it has been superseded by the rule of law. But they do tend to think that power should be exercised through the law, and they do tend to think that the use of military force is a blunt and destructive tool that should be used only as a last resort.

They would also argue that there are many forms of power beyond military might - for instance, so-called "soft power" that influences other countries through trade and the gradual spread of liberal and democratic values.

The Neglected Issue of Legitimacy, and the Recent Change in U.S. Views

Similarly, the United States has not until recently seemed so willing to disregard the views and feelings of the rest of the world in its exercise of its military might. Kagan notes in passing that the United Nations was an American creation, but he does not acknowledge the degree to which the entire multilateral system that exists today was set up by the United States at a time when it was already the world's most powerful nation.

The American statesmen who built this system recognized that it was in the interests of the United States that its power in the world should be seen as legitimate. They knew that they could secure American interests most effectively if other countries cooperated willingly with American purposes, not at gunpoint.

So what is different now? First, with the end of the Cold War, American predominance has increased, to the extent that some people in Washington believe that the U.S. no longer has much to gain from the kind of international legitimacy it used to value.

Secondly, since the attacks of September 11, there is a widespread sense that the new dangers America faces cannot be dealt with within the framework of international law as it now stands.

In the end, these are the real issues that are driving the United States and Europe apart - the issue of how much multilateralism matters, and the issue of whether it is still realistic to ask the U.S. to comply with international law. Are American interests best served by sticking with the multilateral system or by cutting loose? Does America face a level of threat that is not appreciated abroad, and that the existing structures of international security cannot handle? Are the nations of Europe - with their settled faith in negotiation and compromise - complacent in the face of radical new forms of disorder?

Kagan has interesting things to say on all these questions. But his excessive reliance on an overstated contrast between European weakness and American power prevents him from addressing them head-on. In the end, then, he offers an interesting argument, but fails to get to the crux of the issues he raises.

Anthony Dworkin is editor of the Crimes of War Project website, an online journal covering international law and armed conflict.

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