The Book Club

The Real Turning Point

You have focused on the end of the Cold War, not 9/11, as the real turning point in the recent history of America’s relations with the rest of the world.  And I agree.  That is the key to understanding our current predicament and to any successful effort to ameliorate it.  Sept. 11 may have aroused Americans to take a series of military actions, but the actions themselves are hardly surprising or unprecedented, much less out of character— as Gaddis so persuasively explains in his essay. It is widely asserted, especially by those hostile to the Bush administration, that Bush has engineered a “revolution” in American foreign policy, with such presumably radical inventions as the idea of “pre-emption,” or by flouting the U.N. Charter and bypassing the U.N. Security Council, or by a willingness to take action “unilaterally”— i.e., without the approval of Paris and Berlin. But as Gaddis notes, pre-emption, a certain tendency toward unilateralism, and a proclivity to expand power and influence in response to threats all have deep and enduring roots in American history. 

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What have changed are the international circumstances in which these American actions take place, and those changed international circumstances have in turn reshaped others’ perceptions of American behavior. Gaddis is not the only one nostalgic for the quasi-multilateralism of American foreign policy during the Cold War. But that quasi-multilateralism (for Gaddis does rightly note that it was not true multilateralism, at least as Europeans would understand that concept) was not merely a policy choice by one allegedly visionary American president.  I find Gaddis far too enamored of FDR, the “grand strategist.”

More significant were the special international circumstances of the Cold War upon which that policy rested. The United States and Europe, and the United States and Japan, were in a state of mutual dependence. For the United States, or at least for the majority of Americans, the Cold War was about saving Europe and Japan from the global Communist threat. Given that, genuine unilateralism was out of the question. Alliances and alliance cooperation were essential. In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, dependence on the United States was total. Acquiescence to U.S. leadership, and even acceptance of America’s essential legitimacy as the “leader of the free world,” was not primarily the result of the kindness and gentleness of American foreign policy, the “legality” of American actions, nor even the “soft,” “sweet,” “sticky” power that Nye and Mead refer to, though these were all important. The United States violated the U.N. Charter year after year, toppling some governments and making or threatening war against others. It rarely looked to the U.N. Security Council for legitimization.

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And goodness knows it made its share of mistakes. Europeans were as appalled by Vietnam then as they are now by Iraq—more appalled, probably. Yet strangely enough, this did not lead to a trans-Atlantic split of the kind we now see. Why not? Because Europe’s core dependence on the United States precluded it. In a recent book I much admire, Allies at War, Phil Gordon, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, has argued that somehow the mechanism of alliance cooperation at NATO has broken down, chiefly as a result of the Bush administration’s actions. But the key to allied cooperation during the Cold War was not a mechanism of consultation: It was the absolute necessity of consultation and cooperation, driven on both sides by mutual dependence.

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That is one thing that changed after Sept. 11. It is easy for all of us—you, me, Gaddis, and Mead—to say that the United States needs allies. But the problem is, most of our allies no longer believe they need us. Certainly that is the case with the majority of Europeans. With the Soviet Union gone, they no longer feel threatened, and to the extent they do feel threatened, they do not believe they need the United States to protect them. Rather they harbor resentment and apprehension at American power; they see the unipolar world as inherently unjust (and that is true even in dear Britain). They are more worried about controlling American power than about marshalling it in the common defense. And, yes, we have Japan on our side. But why is that? It is because Japan still depends on the United States, indeed depends on it more than ever now that it faces a rising China on one side and a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons on the other. That is the main reason why Japan has forces in Iraq and Germany doesn’t.

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So what would we have to do to rally Europeans to our side? The funny thing is, Bush actually tried. In moments of candor, honest Democrats such as Phil Gordon and Ivo Daalder (another Brookings scholar) admit that if Al Gore had been president in 2003, he would not have been able to win France’s support for the invasion of Iraq, either. Nor can anyone who is not working for the Kerry campaign believe that the election of Kerry will magically transform our relations with the rest of the world. As Mead correctly insists, it is “wishful thinking” that “if we can just reverse and undo the changes of the Bush years we can get back to the calmer and more peaceful atmosphere of the ‘post-historical’ nineties.” Much less can we return to a Cold War foreign policy that was the outgrowth of the special circumstances of the Cold War. So as much as I sympathize and agree with calls for the United States to make its global power more palatable to others, I am not confident that this can be done—unless we avoid all policies and actions which others may find objectionable, for reasons both good and bad. Mead joins that group of optimists (I yearn to be one of them) who believe the U.S. and Europe “will find a common approach to the Middle East that reenergizes their partnership.” I see little sign of any such thing, despite the earnest words of Joschka Fischer and Javier Solana. Nor can I share Mead’s optimism that “China and the United States seem closer to a genuine meeting of the minds than ever before.”

However, Niall, I await with eager anticipation your analysis of Walter Mead’s proposals, and perhaps, too, a word about how some of these problems might be addressed by employing your concept of “liberal empire.” 

All best,
Bob

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