Reinventing the West

Dominique Mosi. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 6. November/December 2003.

Whither the West?

Does “the West” still exist? Have we moved from a world with two Europes and one West to a world with one Europe and two Wests? Transatlantic tensions of the past—the Suez debacle, the French departure from NATO in 1966, the Vietnam War, and the Euromissiles crisis in the 1980s—were contained by painful memories of World War II and the unifying effects of the Soviet threat. But if the long-term cause of today’s emotional estrangement was November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came down, the short-term catalyst was September 11, 2001. For the past two years, the United States has been at war, but attempts to elevate America’s foe to a new common enemy, to redefine the West in purely negative terms, have been largely divisive.

Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have not had the same unifying effect as yesterday’s Soviet threat because Europe and the United States have increasingly differed on how to confront them. It is ironic that since September 11, the United States has adopted the Bismarckian approach to foreign policy, dominant in late-nineteenth-century Europe, placing dramatic displays of military might at the heart of its strategy. Europeans, meanwhile, have behaved more like early-twentieth-century American idealists, advocating measured and principled foreign interventions. This role reversal has profound causes, underpinned by political and social changes on both sides of the Atlantic and, like September 11 itself, by deep-rooted geopolitical trends. The challenge is to accept that although Europeans and Americans have different interests, values, and sensibilities, both sides still need one other and must work toward a new modus operandi.

Two Wests, Two Misunderstandings

Europeans have always found it difficult to understand Americans. This is particularly true today, when less savory sides of the American character—its nationalist religiosity, its intolerant suspicion of others—have returned to the fore. These forces, moreover, are no longer counterbalanced by the deep understanding of Europe that American elites possessed in the past. Who today could write so patient and sensitive an account of French rural life as Laurence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse? “We recognize the American wherever we meet him as a practical idealist,” wrote the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1944. Yet today’s leaders no longer resemble former Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, with their deep personal knowledge of Europe and its heritage.

Perhaps this is because the United States has lost its cultural inferiority complex. After all, the best universities in the world—the places where the brightest students from China, Japan, even Germany, want to go—are now in the United States. Sociological and political factors have also undermined Americans’ interest in Europe. As Hispanics and Asian-Americans have become more prominent and the political center of gravity has shifted from the East Coast to Texas and the Midwest, European studies have increasingly been consigned to the fringes of university syllabuses. Today, in the eyes of many Americans, Europe is neither a subject nor an object of history. It has become a theme park, a museum, a charming place to visit, an interesting experiment in collective sovereignty—and, above all, a growing source of irritation.

Europe’s view of America has changed too. If the United States has not become an empire in the way that France and Britain were a century ago, an American imperial project of sorts has emerged in the past few years, focused on the Middle East. And this fact has become increasingly irksome to Europeans. In confronting a revisionist Soviet Union, the West—Europe and the United States both—favored the status quo. Today, however, it is the U.S. West that is revisionist, while Europe’s West remains mired in introspection and is mistrustful of change. What, Europeans ask, will the geography of their continent look like in the future? What sort of institutions will emerge from the work of the European constitutional convention? Is Turkey to be more Western than European; Russia more European than Western? As Europe’s identity crisis plays out, it is unsurprising that a new brand of anti-Americanism should emerge.

It is as if, divided over its institutional and geographic future, Europe feels that it must exist as an alternative to the United States—a different and better West. European intellectuals, such as Jrgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, see in the recent antiwar demonstrations the emergence of a European civil society that chooses to define itself negatively against the United States. It is unfortunate that Europeans have not chosen to define themselves positively in the name of a clear project from Europe. Unlike anti-American sentiments in the past, this breed of anti-Americanism is not so much a reaction to what the United States does as a reaction to what it represents. Although French President Jacques Chirac was clearly not speaking in the name of most European governments when he spectacularly opposed the United States over the war in Iraq, he was in tune with European public opinion.

Needing One Another

It is all too easy for Washington to view Europe with a mixture of indifference, commiseration, and derogatory paternalism. But the United States still badly needs Europe—although not for the reasons it thinks. Washington seems to view Europe as being somewhere between its deputy sheriff and its cleaning lady. “America fights, Europe funds, the UN feeds,” the thinking goes. The problem with this vision is that it does not fit today’s geopolitical realities. In our complex, interdependent world, “hard” and “soft” power are increasingly intertwined. The clear-cut definition of military force has disappeared, and classical notions of territory and boundary have become a thing of the past.

In this context the United States needs Europe—and not just for its intelligence networks, sophisticated judicial systems, humanitarian efforts, or police. Europe is the best protection that the United States has against its inner evils: its isolationist narcissism, its ignorance of the way others feel and think. To remain truly internationalist in a positive, constructive—and republican—way, the United States must be reminded of the best aspects of its past. How, otherwise, will Americans achieve idealism without illusion, realism without cynicism? Learning from past European empires is also vital to the success of the American imperial enterprise today. One of the first of these lessons—a particularly pertinent one for American administrators in Iraq—is that no power should ever define what is good for others without those people being involved.

Ironically, a multipolar world less dominated by American hegemony might well be better for the United States. But such a world could well be more dangerous for everyone else, including Europe. Yesterday, the United States directly guaranteed Western Europe’s security against the Soviet threat. With today’s diverse threats, Europe needs the United States at least as much. Europe should never rely solely on the U.S. military machine, and it must have a credible military instrument if it wants to be taken seriously by Washington. But the not-so-secret dream of the French government to counterbalance U.S. military power would be a nightmare for a majority of the governments in the new Europe of 25 member states. Trying to match American hard power with European soft power is also likely to provoke American ire and thereby damage European interests.

Although in recent months the war of words has greatly abated between the two sides of the Atlantic—even between the Americans and the French—thoughts and feelings have not really changed. False perceptions and deliberate distortions of each other’s position continue.

The United States’ tendency to use Europe’s past against Europe’s present, as if a Munich or a Vichy were just around the corner, is vexing. Europe is not doomed to be a continent of betrayal and antisemitism, a view too often trumpeted in popular American magazines such as Vanity Fair. Antisemitic acts in modern Europe are perpetuated by individuals, not states, and have nothing to do with Europe’s past. There is an equally dangerous tendency, on both sides of the Atlantic, to believe that in today’s Europe, Jews are the primary target of discrimination and, in America, an insidious source of influence. This dichotomy must be resisted, as neither assertion is true. Muslims are far more likely to suffer prejudice and discrimination in Europe, and Jewish power in America has always been greatly exaggerated.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s division between “new” and “old” Europe has also bedeviled transatlantic relations. That categorization is not only intellectually false, but also politically offensive. If anything, new Europe—the Europe of the European Union—has been driven by the Franco-German condominium. Old Europe, by contrast, consists of the Balkans or the eastern-most parts of Europe, first and foremost Russia—countries that continue to strive for more democratic institutions. To assume, as some Americans do, that a country’s degree of modernity is determined by its standing with Washington is misguided and narcissistic in the extreme. And Europe’s obsession with the United States should not be an obstacle to the already difficult European integration process.

It is unfortunate that popular anti-Americanism has been encouraged by some European governments; as if the most conservative, ideological, religious, and nationalist elements of the Bush administration’s thinking were the only ideas found in the United States. Both sides’ tendency to focus on the most extreme discourse of the other has been one of the most frustrating aspects of the transatlantic relationship. The truth is that for many Europeans, America is still a land of opportunity, excellence, and economic dynamism. A more balanced assessment, rather than today’s overwhelmingly negative caricature, is essential in constructing the new transatlantic partnership.

Building Bridges

To act together, Europe and the United States do not need to think the same way, but they must understand the other’s way of doing things. To ensure this, the future European foreign affairs minister (should this position ever be created) should have at his or her disposal first-class resources for analysis and prediction as well as strong institutional links with his or her American counterpart. Connections should be established between civil societies in Europe and those in the United States. And intergovernmental “contact groups” should be set up to extend cooperation in the war against terror to other vital issues, such as Iran and WMD proliferation.

On the American side, the United States does not have the luxury of ignoring the UN. At the outset of the Cold War, Americans decided to give power to NATO. As the world faces similarly momentous debates, the time has come for the United States to give the UN genuine clout. From Iraq to North Korea to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the best long-term solutions will involve the international community. By the same token, Europeans should not think of the UN simply as a tool to restrain the United States.

Instead of using the UN as a pawn in their rivalry, Americans and Europeans should pool their resources and think of the best possible ways to reform an institution confronted by the gulf between its missions and its means and by changing legal norms. We live in a world where military interventions to combat failed and rogue states are becoming increasingly necessary. In this interdependent world, where we are no longer ignorant of one another’s problems, we need to work together.

Reconciling the international legal order with the reality of American hegemony will be difficult. Europe will have to accept that, at times, the revisionist instincts of the United States can be legitimate, that the world’s status quo cannot simply be taken for granted. The United States, meanwhile, will have to accept an implicit division of labor and be willing to defer to Europe in some cases, just as it expects Europe to defer to it in others.

The result might amount to something like the acceptance of two Monroe Doctrines, with the transatlantic partners each holding sway in certain areas, and on certain issues, that reflect their de facto spheres of interest. Europeans would concentrate on Europe, with a special emphasis on the Balkans and the Mediterranean, and the United States would have priority in the Americas and in Asia. Both Wests would support moderate leaders and promote the rule of law in their respective spheres of influence. They would collaborate in the Middle East, attempting to close the emotional gap between them over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And the two sides would also come together over a new doctrine of enlightened interventionism in Africa.

In building a new model of cooperation, Europe should learn from the United States’ ambition, and the United States from Europe’s modesty. America still dreams and makes people dream, and its revisionist instinct can be used to positive effect. But the United States badly needs Europe’s postmodern instincts about the limits of power and its reflections on the imperial experience if it wants to avoid getting stuck in quagmires abroad. Responsible revisionism—a better alternative to imperial revisionism—can only be achieved if Americans and Europeans start thinking and planning together. The debate between unilateralism and multilateralism will remain artificial if it simply masks Europe’s refusal to act or America’s refusal to consult with its allies.

The worst-case scenario would be for America’s West to turn into an oversized Prussia—bullying, brooding, and obsessed with military might—and Europe’s West into an oversized Switzerland—selfish and parochial, wrapped in neutrality. To avert this result, positive, rather than negative, definitions of transatlantic identity must be invoked by leaders on both continents. In constructing a new partnership, the unique legitimacy conferred by the international community will be key. To this end, both sides together must lead the way in reforming the UN, so that it becomes an institution with teeth, genuinely respected by the international community. Rather than competing for global influence or attempting to outdo one another in hard or soft power, the United States and Europe must accept a de facto division between their spheres of influence: a new Monroe Doctrine for a changed world. Finally, both sides must make a determined effort to transcend their natural prejudices, overcoming petty inferiority or superiority complexes. Europeans must accept the United States’ unique international status and Americans must rediscover the virtues of modesty and self-restraint.

To future historians, November 9, 1989, will mark the end of the old West—and the beginning of a dissonance between European and American interests. Let us hope that the bitter rivalry witnessed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, will go down as a temporary emotional rupture, rather than as the end of a constructive transatlantic partnership.