Yankee, Come Back: The New Interventionism

For a perfect illustration of how much the world has changed over the past 20 years, look no further than the cartoon that appeared on the front page of Monday’s Le Monde, the newspaper of choice for France’s leftish-leaning elites. In one half of the picture, a fire is raging, fighter planes are flying, bombs are exploding, little cartoon men are flailing their arms and dripping blood. On the right, Uncle Sam, complete with star-spangled hat, is sitting at his desk. His telephone is unplugged. He is asleep.

The implications are clear enough, but the accompanying set of articles—grouped under the headline “Comment arreter la guerre?” (How to stop the war?)—makes them even clearer. War is breaking out in the Middle East; something must be done; the United States must do it. True, one commentator made a somewhat feeble effort to argue that it is Europe who must intervene, not the United States. He pointed out that Europe is one of the principal suppliers of aid to the Middle East, has more strategic interests in the Middle East, and has historical connections to the Middle East. But he also noted that Europe’s political weight in Middle East negotiations is negligible. Hélas! The United States has no other choice but to take up its responsibilities.

Nor was Le Monde alone. On precisely the same day, reflecting precisely the same spirit, the Guardian, the newspaper of choice for Britain’s leftish-leaning elites, also published a full-page editorial on the Middle East calling for … intervention in the Middle East. And, like Le Monde, the Guardian argued that—in the shameful absence of the United States—Europe had no choice but to step in.

The coincidence was striking but not surprising. In fact, these are just two example of a larger phenomenon, one which has implications even beyond the Middle East. Once upon a time, European elites in general and the European Left in particular hated America for acting like a pushy superpower, for intervening in parts of the world where it had no business, for shoving its values down everyone else’s throats. Young Britons, Tony Blair among them, joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which mostly dedicated itself to protesting against Ronald Reagan’s perceived expansionism. Young Frenchmen and young Germans, foreign minister Joschka Fischer among them, joined marches calling for American troops to pull out of Europe.

Nowadays European elites in general and the European Left in particular are still anti-American. But they no longer criticize the United States for its hegemonic, overbearing behavior in far-flung corners of the world. Now, they criticize the United States for its perceived “withdrawal” from the rest of the world: What is wanted, it would seem, is more hegemonic, overbearing behavior. Nor does the European Left any longer believe that intervention in the politics of foreign countries is neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist meddling. Instead, intervention has become a moral obligation of the highest order.

It is a profound reversal and one that has, I think, several different causes. In fact, the anti-American tone of the European debate mostly derives from a broader antipathy to George Bush, an antipathy that has a lot more to do with his domestic policy than his foreign policy. The European Left doesn’t like the death penalty, they don’t like American social conservatism, and they don’t understand born-again Christianity, all of which they associate with Bush, fairly or not. Above all, they don’t like tax cuts, which threaten their own assumptions (and could, if they caught on in Europe, even threaten their own power). Given that, almost anything Bush does abroad will be received in Europe with catcalls, even if it represents nothing very different from what the Clinton administration would have done in the same circumstances.

But the new spirit of left-wing interventionism has other sources as well. Probably more fundamental is the recent experience of the war in Kosovo. This war happened to occur while left-wing political parties (and remember that the European Left was historically pacifist) were in power all across Europe. For Tony Blair’s Labor Party, for Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats—and above all for their partners, Joschka Fischer’s Greens—the war was a turning point: In coalition with the United States, they all participated in an invasion of another country, and the experience marked them all. To this day, Tony Blair waxes almost mystically lyrical about Kosovo. In an interview I did with him earlier this year, he described the experience of the war as “very, very difficult … more difficult even than people thought at the time,” but one that convinced him that there are higher foreign policy goals than those of mere national interest.

None of which means that Europeans actually will become more activist and interventionist around the world. On the contrary, without a unified foreign policy, or a single army, or even a willingness to invest in the requisite military hardware, it is hard to see how the European Union could. Individual European countries have even fewer tools at their disposal. Besides, having influence abroad is partly a matter of perceptions: People listen to you if they think you are powerful—and, to put it bluntly, nobody anywhere thinks any country in Europe is even remotely as powerful as the United States. (In the particular case of the Middle East, it must be said, the Europeans have no influence because the Israelis loathe them and probably always will.)

Still, the change in tone is a real one. No one ever guessed the German Green Party would back a German military action, no one would have thought the Guardian would ever support military interventions abroad. And who would have believed, 20 or 30 years ago, that a cartoon of a sleeping Uncle Sam would give the readers of Le Monde anything other than cause to rejoice?