The Breakfast Table

Eradicating Poverty in the Homelands of Terrorism: Not a Guarantee of Safety

Dear Anne,

As you point out, America is “not just a superpower, but the only power.” Paul Kennedy, professor of history at Yale, likes to rub our noses in this disconcerting fact and was doing so again in yesterday’s Observer. “We comprise slightly less than 5 percent of the world’s population;” he wrote, “but we imbibe 27 percent of the world’s annual oil production, create and consume nearly 30 percent of its Gross World Product and—get this—spend a full 40 percent of all the world’s defence expenditures. By my calculation, the Pentagon’s budget is nowadays roughly equal to the defence expenditures of the next nine or 10 highest defence-spending nations—which has never before happened in history.” Under these extraordinary circumstances, it is not surprising that the Europeans feel a little forlorn. The big European nations have been accustomed for centuries to playing leading roles on the world stage, but now they are reduced to having walk-on parts. The award for Best Supporting Actor goes to Britain for standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with America in the post-9/11 world. But the British shoulder hardly reaches above the American ankle. The U.S. defense budget has risen since 9/11 to $379 billion. Britain’s defense budget last year was around $33 billion.

There is, however, one area in which Europe still spends more money than the United States, and that is development. The Washington Post article you refer to says the EU spends about $30 billion a year on development assistance, nearly three times as much as America. So it’s bound to want to make a virtue out of this. Tony Blair, when he was in opposition, had a catch phrase to encapsulate the Labour Party’s attitude toward law and order—”tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime.” That seems roughly to be the European position on global terrorism. European countries support America’s desire to crush terror by force, especially as America doesn’t require them to help in this unenviable task. But they also believe that by delivering prosperity to its breeding grounds, they will eventually eradicate its causes. The Americans regard this as wishful thinking, and they are probably right. The suicide bombers of 9/11 were mostly well-off, middle-class people motivated by religious fanaticism and a deep loathing of the United States. I doubt if that loathing has much to do with antipathy to the American way of life—freedom, democracy, MTV, etc.—which is what President Bush would have us believe. It is, rather, an inevitable response to any nation possessing power and wealth on such a monumental scale. Rooting out poverty in the homelands of terrorism, even if such a thing were possible, would probably do little to make Americans any safer.

The Europeans don’t like this “axis of evil” talk because it undermines their “good cop”—or what Americans might consider cowardly—role. But I doubt if the alliance is in as much trouble as is often claimed. I’m sure you are quite right in saying that European feelings toward the United States are more bitter and nasty and emotional in private than they are in public. They always have been. But if the best public evidence of a rift is the complaint by Chris Patten, the EU external affairs commissioner, that America may be shifting into “unilateral overdrive,” then I doubt if there is all that much to worry about. I hope not, anyway. Good luck with your move. Your problems with napkin rings, bottle openers, and wine glasses suggests rather a glamorous way of life in Warsaw.

Alexander Chancellor