Finding Common Ground: Competing US and European Interests. (Perspectives on the United States)

By Tucker, David | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Finding Common Ground: Competing US and European Interests. (Perspectives on the United States)


Tucker, David, Harvard International Review


Robert Kagan argues that the United States and Europe embrace completely different attitudes toward the use of military power. Europe, he tells us, is a self-contained world of international law and cooperation among states whose security is sustained through treaty and mediation. The United States, in contrast, believes that international law is unreliable and that, according to Kagan, "true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might."

Kagan assures us, however, that this difference should not be attributed to any inherent virtue or vice of national character. Rather, we are witnessing a changing of places. As he points out, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the great European powers were strong and the United States was weak, the orientation of the United States was very similar to Europe's present-day orientation. A strong nation will seek to assert itself unilaterally, but a weak one will appeal to international law and opinion.

Kagan offers an additional explanation for his view that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." He elaborates, "Europe, because of its unique historical experience of the past half-century--culminating in the past decade with the creation of the European Union--has developed a set of ideals and principles regarding the utility and morality of power different from the ideals and principles of Americans, who have not shared that experience."

This argument is difficult to sustain, however, because the United States and Europe have so much in common. Indeed, the emergence of a Europe-wide free market that is almost a mirror image of the interstate economic relations in the United States is itself a triumph of US hegemony.

This is not to say that Kagan is wrong to draw our attention to serious differences between the United States and Europe. It is certainly true that Europeans are, for the most part, not enthusiastic about the policies US President George Bush is pursuing regarding Iraq. The Economist recently reported that 80 percent of the French public, 85 percent of Germans, and 73 percent of Britons agree that the United States is acting mainly in its own interests in the war on terrorism. There is also much European resentment about what is being referred to as "Bush's unilateralism"--his willingness to go it alone in foreign affairs and to undermine cooperative ventures such as the initiatives establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

If Kagan's explanation of this rift between the United States and Europe is wrong, we need a better understanding of its origins than the one he provides. The United States has fundamental interests that are distinctive, making some policy disagreements with European states inevitable. In short, history belies Kagan's argument that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

Successful US Leadership

By the start of the 20th century, the United States had emerged as the champion of freedom, democracy, and market capitalism. It was not, however, the most militarily powerful nation at the time: Europeans, Japanese, and Russians went about their lives without worrying very much about what the United States was doing. World War II changed this balance, and starting in 1949, the United States led the confrontation against totalitarian communism. Since then, the United States has successfully exported its ideas and has led the international community in developing the institutions that now ensure the free flow of capital, commodities, and technology throughout most of the world. The World Bank, for example, has been effective at forcing debtor nations to undergo very stressful liberal reforms in order to secure funding. Important trade agreements, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which founded the World Trade Organization, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, have brought states into closer trading collaboration.

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