The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century

Feb 27, 2003

International relations authority Charles Kupchan argues that America ignores Europe at its own peril.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome members and guests to our Author in the Afternoon program with Charles Kupchan who will discuss his work, The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century.

When I heard predictions about a snowstorm coming our way, I thought how appropriate, since the subject of our discussion this afternoon is also about a storm, only this tempest brewing is one that may lead to a dramatic shift in the international landscape.

To much of the world, the United States appears to be an all-powerful behemoth whose dominance will last forever. Our guest, however, says that this chauvinistic confidence about the longevity of the American era is not only misplaced but dangerous.

In The End of the American Era Mr. Kupchan discusses what he sees as the major challenge for American foreign policy in the twenty-first century, which he identifies as "the management of relations among contendant centers of power and the consequent rivalries which will ensue." He writes that "if America embraces the delusion that its primacy is here to stay and adopts the view that more traditional geopolitical challenges are gone for good, it will do so at its own peril."

As history has shown, coalitions of countries often arise to balance the dominance asserted by major powers. Even today, we see this happening as we witness the shifts in the new search for power at the United Nations. Although this book addresses the issue of where America and the global system erected under its watch are headed, much of its content focuses on the past. Professor Kupchan's method is to use historical analogies to shed light on contemporary problems. In so doing, he deftly explains how the U.S. and the rest of the world should prepare for the future era of unpredictability and global instability. In essence, he argues that "the illusion of American preeminence is a dangerous one to sustain because in fact it is unsustainable."

Mr. Kupchan is currently a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His experience as Director for European Affairs on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration provided a wealth of information for his research.

Before joining the NSC, he worked in the U.S. Department of State on the policy planning staff. Prior to his government service, Mr. Kupchan was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He is also the author of Atlantic Security: Contending Visions (1998), Nationalism and Nationalities in the New Europe (1995), The Vulnerability of Empire (1994), The Persian Gulf and the West (1987), and numerous articles on international and strategic affairs.

He is currently writing a book on the sources of peaceful systemic change and how the U.S. should manage the coming transition to multipolarity.


CHARLES KUPCHAN:Thank you very much.

The backdrop to our discussion is a rather sobering one, in that over at the UN there is an ongoing debate between the United States and the main powers of Europe about Iraq and whether the U.S. should lead a coalition against Saddam Hussein.

The distance that we see between France and Germany and Russia, on the one hand, and the United States, Britain, and a handful of other countries, on the other, is unlikely to be closed in the coming weeks, and that is partly because the one event that could close it, which would be an indictment by Hans Blix of Iraq and Saddam Hussein, will not be forthcoming. Saddam Hussein is smart enough to destroy a missile here and there, and to show just enough cooperation to avoid the definitive report that would create unity within the Security Council.

If the gap is not be closed and there is no second [UN Security Council] Resolution, then we will see the U.S. go to war without the backing of the UN. That would be a profound event that will mark the close of the era opened by Pearl Harbor and World War II. The stakes of this standoff could not be higher.

This is a dispute about first-order principles, war and peace, and not a dispute about a pipeline, a weapons system, trade. It goes to the heart of the international order that we Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and others worked so hard to put into place, starting in 1941 and into the Cold War.

I would like to share my assessment of how we got here—of why the United States and its key European allies are parting company on first-order principles. My book foretells an America that grows increasingly diffident and difficult on the international stage. I shall then return at the very end to the question of Iraq and what is likely to happen in the days and weeks ahead.

The conventional wisdom, certainly in Washington, and probably around the country as a whole, is that 1) the American Era is alive and well, thus that this continues to be the era of American primacy; and 2) that's generally a good thing—especially if you happen to live in the unipol, which most of us do, but even if you don't because unipolarity, a world dominated by America, is a relatively benign world since there is no great-power competition. Removed from the table is the most challenging feat facing statesmen throughout history, and that is managing relations among contending poles. We win by default.

Returning to 1): a big part of the conventional wisdom is that this will not be a moment but rather an era. Charles Krauthammer called it "the unipolar moment," but most analysts have now called it "the unipolar era" because they see American primacy lasting well into the twenty-first century, if not through the twenty-first century.

I share the view that this is still the era of American primacy, and that it's not such a bad thing because it does forestall great-power competition; but I part with the conventional wisdom on the key issues of durability and longevity: how long is this unipolar world likely to last?

In my view, American primacy is already past its peak. If that is the case, the policies that the Bush administration is adopting—preeminence, the preservation of unipolarity, preemption—are precisely the wrong policies because we ought to be preparing for a world of multiple centers of power rather than resisting. Likewise, rather than meeting every challenger, trying to push him back, we should be getting ready for a world where leverage/influence/voice is more equally distributed.

Let me focus on the two main engines of change at work in the global system: first, the rise of Europe as a counterweight to the United States; and second, the erosion of liberal internationalism in the United States by the forces of unilateralism and neo-isolationism, two extremist alternatives. (By "liberal internationalism," I mean a moderate, centrist internationalism that manages the international system through compromise, consensus, and international institutions.)

As far as Europe is concerned, I bring a conceptual and historical frame to the analysis, because we should think about the EU not in terms of a snapshot, but as a process of integration and amalgamation. We then come away with a sense that history is reversing itself in some paradoxical manner, because in the nineteenth century the United States gradually came together as a unitary federation with a collective identity and character, and by the 1890s, with Teddy Roosevelt building the Navy and McKinley deciding he wanted empire, we said to the Europeans: "We're here, we've arrived, move over; we want to play the game of great power politics." And the Europeans, and the British in particular, had the good sense to make way for us.

Today Europe is gradually stitching together its separate nation states into a collective whole, and is increasingly saying to America, "Hey, Uncle Sam, move over, make way." But Uncle Sam, at least up to this point, doesn't seem too interested in making way.

Keep in mind that the America that we live in today is not the America that existed for many decades. Go back and look at what we Americans were debating for most of our early years. The key issues were:

  • Can we have a single currency?
  • Who will regulate trade among the separate states?
  • Should we let the federal government raise a major army and a navy or should the state militias do our fighting?

We didn't have an army to speak of until the Civil War. Our early wars were all fought by the state militias. In other words, we were not really a federation until the late nineteenth century—we were a states union, a grouping of sovereign states jealously guarding their autonomy—and then we had the Civil War, which kicked in a debate about the nature of our federal union.

It wasn't until about thirty or forty years after that, around the 1890s, that we began to have geopolitical ambition outside our own neighborhood—began to range among the great powers, to project power, and to care about the balance of power outside the Western Hemisphere.

Nor did Americans consider themselves as part of a collective unitary federation until the end of the nineteenth century. No one ever said "the United States is"; they always said "the United States are"—because we were a pluralistic, not a unitary union.

When General Robert E. Lee was forced to choose between fighting for the Union or going back to Virginia and fighting alongside his Virginia "countrymen," he didn't have to think hard. He went back to fight for the Confederacy because his loyalties to Virginia were much stronger than his loyalties to the United States of America.

The world we live in today—where Maryland and Virginia could not even think about competing, except on the basketball court, where we are Americans first and only New Yorkers second or third—is a recent phenomenon.

I digress here simply to put Europe in historical perspective, because Europe is struggling with all of these issues today, and that helps one see that the glass is more half-full than half-empty in terms of European identity and centralization, in terms of the federal project that the Europeans are engaged in.

Let me back up this interpretation with a few pieces of evidence:

1) Europe's GDP is almost equal to ours. Ours is about $10 trillion; the EU's is $8.5 trillion. Given enlargement, the EU will pull roughly even with the U.S. some time during the second half of this decade.

The Euro is steadily gaining ground against the dollar, past parity. It has replaced the dollar as the main currency in Central Europe. EU-Russia trade is now denominated in Euros, not dollars. Go to Moscow today and look at the price tags. They're not in rubles or dollars any more, they're in Euros.

The Euro is emerging as a rival to the dollar as a global reserve currency, and that will put us back in a world that looks more like the 1930s than the 1990s, when there were two reserve currencies, the dollar and the pound sterling; and when there were two voices on the global stage, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, which had difficulty managing international monetary relations—with not very positive political consequences. In this decade the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve will be roughly co-equal voices in monetary relations, which will cause trouble, given that the U.S. Federal Reserve is used to being the solitary captain at the helm.

2) There are important changes taking place in Europe's political discourse. For the last fifty years, national elites legitimated European integration through one dominant refrain: "We need integration to escape the past and eliminate the nation state." Every time Helmut Kohl spoke to the German people to sell the Euro, the single currency, he said, "This is a question of war and peace."

You never hear that anymore. Now Europe is about projecting the voice of Europeans on the global stage; it is about the emergence of the European Union as a counterweight to the United States; it is about Europe's place on a geopolitical map of the world. That is taking place because younger Europeans, who didn't live through World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall, have no past from which they seek to escape. Thus the legitimating refrain of the European process of integration is about the future, not about running away from the past. It used to be only the French who used that imagery of Europe as a counterweight to the U.S. It is now the Germans, the British, the Italians, the Swedes, and all of the European Union.

3) The EU is graduallyadmittedly slowlymoving into the realm of geopolitics, diplomacy, and military ambition. The EU has replaced the U.S. as the main diplomatic arbiter in the Balkans. It was the EU that brokered the dissolution of Yugoslavia into Serbia and Montenegro, that cut the peace deal between the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] and the Macedonian Slavs in Macedonia last summer, and that has gradually assumed responsibility for most peace-keeping in that part of the world.

The EU's move into the military realm is admittedly slow and insufficient. They will probably have their "headline" force of 60,000 sometime this decade. But they will still need to do more and spend more. And they need to prepare the European public for more military spending.

A final point on Europe: the debate over enlargement, which many people see as an event that will dilute the Union, may well have exactly the opposite effect, because it triggers within the key traditional countries—"old Europe"—a new willingness to deepen the Union. They know that if they don't deepen it before they enlarge, there could be trouble, as a big union will be an unwieldy one. It is for that very reason that Europe is currently engaged in a constitutional convention where they are debating, drafting, and ratifying a constitution that appoints a single foreign minister for Europe, creates a directly elected chief executive, and introduces a whole host of other very important innovations, changes, and institutions that will give Europe a more federal character.

Part of the rise of Europe that we are seeing today—in the willingness of France and Germany to stand their ground against the U.S.—is about Europe and Europe's evolution and maturation, which has nothing to do with us. But another part of Europe's trajectory has everything to do with us, and it has two pieces to it. One is a fear of abandonment that grew out of the 1990s and America's reluctant wars in the Balkans. The Europeans saw that, justifiably, those wars as America's last in Europe. The other piece is the Europeans' growing belief, especially in the wake of 9/11, that the U.S. is in the process of decamping from the European continent, and that they therefore need to assume responsibility for their own defense.

At the same time that Europeans fear abandonment by the U.S., they also grow increasingly resentful of American power and policy, which makes them want to get rid of their American pacifier and protector: they no longer want to hitch their wagon to a superpower that they see as having run off the rails.

Let me now switch to this side of the Atlantic and try to share with you my thoughts on why we are where we are in terms of the Bush administration's foreign policy and the crisis over Iraq.

If you look at American foreign policy over the larger swathe of history rather than just the last fifty years, you see that the liberal internationalism and the globalism of the last fifty years are the aberration. The rule for the United States—from 1781, when we began life as a confederation, to 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor finally allowed Roosevelt to sell internationalism to the American people and to the Republican Party—was that the country was equal parts unilateralist and isolationist.

The isolationism came from the Founding Fathers and their sense that we had big oceans on either side and nice small neighbors to the north and south, so why imperil our natural security by roaming around the world and getting involved in great-power intrigues?

The unilateralism came from two things: 1) American exceptionalism, the sense that we were a new, unique nation, and we don't want to engage in the world, or if we do, it has to be on our terms; and 2) American populism, by that I mean the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian tradition of fierce jealousy over sovereignty, liberty, and autonomy. That's why the U.S. Constitution is full of checks and balances: for many decades, Americans were much more fearful of their central government than they were of foreign powers. They feared the tyranny of centralized power. They wanted to be left alone to lead lives of freedom and liberty.

If they felt that way about their own home-grown institutions, you can imagine the views of international institutions, views that were well articulated during the early decades, right up until World War II. Look at the debate between Wilson and Lodge over the League of Nations, which was all about internationalism versus unilateralism and isolationism. Isolationism and unilateralism triumphed over internationalism, and Woodrow Wilson essentially killed himself in that fight to sell liberal internationalism to the American people.

In the wake of the Cold War, and with the ending of the threat that pushed us into a moderate center, we see a return to a more traditional American foreign policy that is characterized by unilateralism and neo-isolationism more than by liberal internationalism.

Remember where we were from January 20 to September 11, 2001: two dominant wings of the Republican Party duking it out on a daily basis. One wing consisted of the neo-conservatives, the diehard unilateralists, Paul Wolfowitz and company. In the morning, Wolfowitz would announce that the U.S. was going to beef up its military spending, have the best military in the world, stare down any challenger, run the world; and in the afternoon Bush would give a White House press briefing and announce that we were pulling out of the Balkans, that we could not be everything to everybody, and that we were now going to focus on the Western Hemisphere. There was no common ground whatsoever between the heartland conservatives represented by George Bush and the neo-conservatives represented by the political class left over from the Reagan era.

The centrist liberal internationalists, the traditional Wall Street Republicans, still exist, but they don't have political power. Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Daddy Bush—these are all classic Wall Street liberal internationalist Republicans, but they're not anywhere near the center of gravity of the Republican Party.

Then September 11th comes along to knock the wind out of the heartland conservatives, because after terrorism hits the homeland you don't talk about bringing home the troops. Since September 11 the unilateralist, neo-conservative wing of the Party has been unchecked because the heartland conservatives are for now silent. The Democratic Party, too, is scared of saying "boo" about foreign policy lest it be seen as unpatriotic.

The American people have also been scared into following what the President says, rather than asking the hard questions that should be asked of the Bush administration. Many people in Washington believe that if only we get rid of George Bush, or if only Gore had won, everything would be fine.

That is not the case, partly because many trends in the Clinton administration are now simply gaining steam during the Bush administration. Indeed, the U.S. had already begun to check out from international affairs before President Bush took office:

  • Coverage of foreign news in the press declined by 60 percent over the course of the 1990s.
  • Congress rarely found time to debate international questions. It wouldn't even take up ambassadorial appointments, because it was more worried about partisan infighting than it was about having our staffs overseas in the embassies.
  • In the middle of the war over Kosovo, Congress voted "no" to the war (they couldn't even muster a "yes" vote for a war that had not produced a single combat casualty).
  • President Clinton, generally interpreted as an avowed multilateralist, didn't want to sign up to the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Protocol—he did these things at the very end of his term and told the Senate to either not ratify it or change before ratification.

Many believe that September 11 will prove to be the new Pearl Harbor, the new threat that will push us back to the center. But, as we've seen since September 11, that is not the case.

That is partly because terrorism is a much more elusive threat than Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union. We don't know where to find it or how to fight it. For now it has angered us and made us feel vulnerable, so we'll "go get the barbarians." Over time, however,terrorism will have the effect reawakening neo-isolationist voices.

I looked at how the British and the French responded to terrorist attacks on their possessions either at home or abroad while they were great powers with overseas possessions. Generally, they got out. Terrorist attacks got the British out of Palestine and Aden; they got the French out of Algeria. Terrorists tried to get the British out of Malaya, but they stayed, pacified them, fought them—and then peacefully handed over power. But the general picture of terrorism against great powers with overseas commitments is not a picture that says great powers always fight to the finish.

When our barracks were bombed in Lebanon in 1983, we got out. When the USS Cole was blown up, bombed, a couple of years ago, we closed the port at Aden, sent the Sixth Fleet into the Mediterranean, and pulled our troops out of Jordan.

On September 11th, we closed our ports, shut our air space, had F-16s over our cities. So even as we prepared for war in Afghanistan, we also raised protective barriers, and over time there will be a sense of "let's pull in, let's protect ourselves against these threats." And it may well be that the occupation of Iraq could be the event that reawakens those voices, because, especially in the heartland, George Bush's main constituency, there is not a lot of appetite for the establishment of a new American colony in the Middle East.

Another reason that we are headed into a new era of our foreign policy is that demographically our country is beginning to look more like the nineteenth century than twentieth century. That's partly because the digital era is to some extent reversing the industrial melting pot of the twentieth century: people can now live where they want to live without moving for work. The fastest-growing parts of our country are the mountain West and the agrarian South, precisely those parts where Jeffersonian and Jacksoninan traditions are alive and well—populism, unilateralism, and neo-isolationism.

It is also important to note that one third of this country will be of Hispanic origin by the second half of this century. Hispanic Americans tend to concentrate in the Southwest, in states with a large number of votes in our Electoral College. California and Texas, two states that are soon going to have Hispanic majorities, have eighty-six votes. That's just shy of a third of what you need to win the presidency. Florida, another state with a huge number of electoral votes, also has a large Hispanic population.

We don't have good public opinion data on the Hispanic community, but to the extent that we do, their view of foreign policy is very different from the traditional political classes' view: much more focused on the Western Hemisphere, much less interested in defense alliances and the traditional foreign policy agenda. This is yet another reason that our foreign policy will be changing in very significant ways in the years ahead.

A final point: there is also generational change taking place. The people who have been running our foreign policy cut their teeth in the world during World War II, they were in the military, they served abroad. They are default internationalists because of those experiences. My students at Georgetown will never serve in the military, and they will never carry in their heads images of the Berlin Wall because they did not come of age when the Berlin Wall existed. I don't know what their internationalism will be like, but it will be different from the internationalism of Richard Lugar, Lee Hamilton, Dick Cheney, and other members of that older generation of Americans that is now about to depart from political life.

These two sources of change in the world—the rise of Europe as an integrated entity that will increasingly hold its own against the United States; and an America that is growing increasingly difficult and diffident about its role in the world—will combine to bring American primacy to an end much sooner than most people think.

The EU will not be a military rival to the United States, but it will change the world enough that the U.S. will no longer be able to call the shots. We are seeing that today in the UN Security Council.

There will not be a second Resolution, because the U.S. either doesn't have nine votes or the French will veto it. The Bush Administration will then proceed to war—that's their preferred outcome; and this will change the world. It will bring to a close the order that has been in place since 1941, and certainly since 1945. It will ineluctably mean the end of the Atlantic Alliance as we've known it. The notion that American and European security are indivisible will be shown to be no longer operative, and thus it's only a question of years before NATO turns out its lights and hands over to the EU responsibility for managing European security.

Can we fix this problem? Yes and no. This rift with Europe is probably too far down the road to reverse. But if I could offer three pieces of advice to America as a polity, they would be the following:

  1. We need to be very concerned about reshaping our internationalism, because if we don't, it will drift to the extremes. We need to have a campaign every bit as ambitious as the one that Roosevelt engaged in over the course of World War II to recommit this country to a centrist, multilateralist, institutional course of engagement in the world.
  2. Rather than practicing and striving for preeminence, we should practice strategic restraint. A country that is as powerful as this country, if it is unrestrained, scares the hell out of the rest of the world. I fear that we Americans are today compromising our most precious commodity, our international legitimacy—the sense that we are a benign power who plays by the rules. I fear we will wake up in Baghdad about three weeks from now to find the world a very lonely place, and we will have done ourselves no favors if that is the case, nor will we have done the world any favors.
  3. Finally, we ought to not just back away from international institutions but recommit to and revitalize them, because these institutions are the lifeblood of a world that doesn't operate by the savage rules of the balance of power. I fear that we are scuttling these institutions because we think we can get away with it as we have so much power; but we are likely to need those institutions a few years down the road—NATO, the UN, the Kyoto Protocol, the ICC—only to find them in shambles. We will then have no one but ourselves to blame because it was the U.S. that walked away.

As a matter of urgency, we must try to redress the way this country is going, because I fear that we are doing grievous damage to our own interests as well as to the broader international community.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You appear to embrace the common notion of the United States as an absolute superpower. If you compare us to any other country, we are far more powerful, but if you compare us to the world and its problems and the problems the we must face, we're not nearly powerful enough, and never will be. You said in passing that your Georgetown students will never know the experience of war. That's awfully optimistic, because if we want to pursue this global domination number, we will need to reinstitute the draft, which will change the equation greatly, too. Many people who are now waving the flag very dramatically will suddenly have second thoughts.

Finally, you mentioned the rise of Europe and how that will diminish our power. But there's also the rise of China and the entire Southeast Asia, which will become very powerful itself.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I don't think we'd disagree that the U.S. by the numbers is the lone superpower. But if you look at what else is going on in the world and the inability of U.S. supremacy to deal with key challenges like North Korea, that power doesn't get the country what the Bush administration would like. We could park all of our carrier task forces off the Korean Peninsula and put all of our aircraft in South Korea, and it wouldn't do us much good, because we are being deterred by a North Korea that may well have nuclear weapons.

I didn't focus on China and on East Asia in part because I see the emergence of China as a serious counterweight to the United States as being further off—2020 or 2025. China's economy is smaller than that of California; even ten years from now, it will only have an economy the size of Italy's. So we're talking about a growing power, one that will emerge as a serious challenger only in twenty-to-thirty years.

The other reason I focus on Europe is because no one else was thinking about it. Everyone assumed that we were in the same family, and that the idea of the end of the Atlantic Alliance was nuts. Now people are saying, "Maybe there's something to this."

There is a partnership with Europe, but it's fragile, and as the balance of power between the U.S. and Europe becomes somewhat more equal, an element of competition will kick in.

The historical analogy I use is to look at what happened to the Roman Empire between 284 and 324, the period in which Diocletian decided that the Empire needed to be divided into two, and then, ultimately, you saw a second capital emerge, Constantinople. From that time on, even though there was a unitary Roman Empire with a unitary culture and religion, Rome and Constantinople became direct rivals, to the cost of both.

Today a unitary West is being split in two, as Europe emerges as the more self-confident, self-possessed half of what used to be a unitary West.

QUESTION: Your comment that our room for maneuver is very much constricted in North Korea now because of the possession of nuclear weapons would suggest that if we don't do anything about Iraq in the short term, or even in the long term, that they eventually will put us in the same position that North Korea has us in now. One of the reasons that we have been successful in getting the inspectors back into Iraq has been the credible threat of the use of force. But as long as part of our European allies remains reluctant to back up that threat, Saddam can use these European detractors to try and refute it. What in your view should happen?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I divide the issues raised by the impending war against Iraq into two baskets. One basket contains the issues having to do with the war itself—its impact upon the Middle East and upon what happens with weapons of mass destruction. As to the issues in that basket, I am right on the fence. The Bush administration's arguments, and particularly the one that you just made—that we can't just sit around and wait for him to get nuclear weapons because we'll have another North Korea—is a serious argument.

On the other hand, on the questions of whether using force on Iraq will tame or radicalize the Islamic world, and whether Saddam Hussein is more likely to use WMD if we don't attack him or if we do attack him—here I come down on the side of the Europeans. The Bush administration is being naive about the impact of this war on the Middle East. They think it will liberate the forces of pluralism. In fact, it will do the opposite.

So for that reason, I'm on the fence about whether I would personally go to war on the narrow issue of Iraq. As soon as I bring the second basket into the picture—that most of the world is against this war, and that the United States will launch a war that will be seen as perhaps legal but illegitimate—I firmly come down on the side of let's not go to war. Let's put 14,000 weapons inspectors in there; let's occupy the country; but let's do it all without war. Sooner or later, somebody will kill Saddam.

QUESTION: I would appreciate your comments on factoring in what I call a countervailing force, that is trade and the economics. I doubt very much that there will be a cutting of the umbilical cord between Europe and the United States because of the factor of trade, the capital markets, and every other aspect that now ties the United States more and more to Europe and South America. Therefore, the United States cannot afford to disengage with Europe. If you then factor in markets and the addition of ten more countries to the EU, the U.S. will clearly need to stay engaged with Europe for the good of its economy.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I don't disagree with you, but the flag does not follow trade, and our strategic commitments are not always determined by our economic commitments.

For example, the U.S. could withdraw all of its troops from Europe by the end of this week and it probably would have little impact upon U.S.-European trade or investment, which goes back and forth because it's mutually beneficial, not because we have troops there. In the early Cold War years, it was true that we had troops there and that helped open the door to trade, but we're now past that.

In the Persian Gulf as well, the flag does follow trade. We are there because we are dependent upon Persian Gulf oil. To some extent, the same is true in Northeast Asia, that we will stay there in part because a trading environment conducive to our interests still requires serving as an over-the-horizon balancer.

So you must go region by region. In general, political commitments and strategic commitments will ultimately take their own course, even if economic interests dictate otherwise. I could therefore see a neo-isolationism emerging in this country that would trump the power and the voice of multinational corporations, who would then be urging Americans to stay put in the various quarters of the globe.

QUESTION: The U.S. at this point in our history is feeling the most vulnerable it has ever felt since 9/11. The Europeans, however, are feeling more secure than ever because the city states from which their countries evolved, and which were warring for centuries, have now created a community in which they are willing to cede much of their sovereignty. Many of them actually feel that war is illegitimate; they are looking forward to a perpetual peace. Would you comment on how that would further exacerbate problems between Europe and the United States?

Also, after 9/11, we tried to create a coalition to fight terrorism. Don't we need Europe to help us block the transfer of money, technology, etc., if we're going to wage war on international terrorism? What will happen to that effort if the U.S. becomes too isolationist?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: You are very correct to point to this question of vulnerability, which is key to understanding what is happening to this country—to understanding why Bush is doing what he is doing, why the American people are going along with it, and why the only person in the Senate that stands up and says anything that is critical is Robert Byrd (and people dismiss him as an old crazy guy!). That would not happen if people weren't scared, because this is a country that has thrived on pluralism, on free debate, and we're just not seeing that today as we should. It also explains why in the Republican Party, which did have that healthy tension between the neo-conservatives and the heartland conservatives, power has now been vested almost exclusively in one camp.

It's a very complicated picture in Washington about who believes what, because, for example, Rumsfeld is not a neo-conservative in the sense that Wolfowitz is. Wolfowitz has an ideology; he wants to remake the Middle East at the barrel of a gun. Rumsfeld is a conservative pragmatist, an assertive nationalist but not a democratic imperialist: he cares about American territory and the security of Americans. But, because of 9/11, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are on the same sheet of music.

They will part company when it comes to "what do we do now that we own Iraq?," because Rumsfeld and company are not interested in an American empire; they're interested in American security. It is Wolfowitz who wants an American empire.

I agree with you entirely, we need Europe. We need Europe partly because some of the most effective tools against terror are the quiet ones: intelligence sharing, freezing of assets, law enforcement. I have no evidence to say that this Europe-U.S. split will make cooperation in taking anti-terrorism measures harder to come by, but I bet it will be the case.

The other way we need Europe is that the Atlantic Alliance has been the anchor of the international system. The Bush administration has been dismissive of Europe at its own peril. It has alienated Europeans profoundly. Robert Kagan articulates a view of Europeans that is widespread in Washington. He thinks that they are a bunch of feckless weasels; that they have been engaged in building institutions so don't understand power politics any more; and that all they want to do is smoke cigarettes and drink espresso.

I think Kagan is wrong. The Europeans, as they become more able to aspire to geopolitical ambition, to voice, to dignity, will do so, just like Americans do. That's partly what this rift is about. Europeans are becoming more able to say to us "buzz off," and they're doing so.

QUESTION: Everybody wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein and to develop the Middle East region to embrace modernity. If we attack Iraq, however, we will defeat them in six days. Then we will have a honeymoon for six months, where GIs will be distributing chocolate bars and they will be hugged and kissed. Then you will have six years of turmoil, where the Iraqis wage war on each other. Their neighbors and the GIs will get caught in the crossfire. Finally, you will have six decades of confrontation within the Arab-Muslim world, to be remembered for six centuries. And we do not want this.

The United States has been a benign hegemon, and we Europeans would prefer that it remain so, because it helps all of us.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I would only disagree with you on one small point. Our honeymoon in Iraq will be shorter than six months.

QUESTION: What if France, Germany, Russia, and China had all agreed with the United States? What would that have done to Saddam Hussein, that strength of the entire world threatening him, standing against him? Would he then not have given up his arms? And isn't he strengthened now that the free world is broken? And what is France's ulterior motive? They originally built a nuclear reactor in Iraq and continue to trade with Iraq.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Iraq is a dangerous country and Saddam Hussein deserves the worst. The threat of force and America banging its fists on the table is necessary to tame him, and we can't just stick our heads in the sand because something awful could come of it. George Bush is right: we cannot simply wait around for a nuclear weapon to go off in one of our cities.

Would consensus in the Security Council make that much difference? I don't think so—in part because there was consensus on the first Security Council resolution on Iraq, fifteen-nothing, and Saddam continued to pull our chain. So he will in any case be willing to go to war over this issue. The key difference is that if there were a consensus in the UN, someone like myself, who is opposed to the war, might well be in favor of it. That's because I am mostly concerned about the damage that will be done to the international system by the U.S. going to war without the approval of the UN Security Council.

The objections of the French are very serious. They are not frivolous. When they make arguments about what it will do to the Islamic world—that it may get new recruits for al Qaeda, as opposed to "draining the swamp"—I end up being on their side in these debates. We shouldn't bash the French for sticking their thumbs in our eye. They have a sincere, heartfelt difference of opinion about the wisdom of attacking Iraq.

QUESTION: You're not preaching to the converted because I'm not converted, even after all that you've said. Why do you continue to talk about the U.S. versus Europe as though Europe is of one mind, when you had eight countries sign a letter supporting us, you had the U.K. and Spain with us on this new Security Council resolution? Maybe there's a German, French, and Belgian group with one mind—more opposed to the war than other European nations.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: The answer is that 80-to-90 percent of European publics are unified in this and that the governments of Britain, Spain, and Italy are way out there in ways that may well spell the end of the political careers of people like Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair.

It's also important to read what was said in those letters. The letters did not say "we support war against Iraq." They said "we should not let the issue of Iraq scuttle the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, we should seek unity in the Security Council." So they were not a clear, open endorsement of the Bush administration's policies.

This crisis will ultimately strengthen Europe into a single European voice, because the impact on Atlantic relations will be to reveal that there is nothing left of NATO, nothing left of the idea that America and Europe are indivisibly united. And the Central Europeans, who so desperately want Uncle Sam, American bases, and NATO, will say, "You know what, we're not going to get it because the U.S. is in the process of decamping from Europe."

Ultimately the Poles, the Hungarians, the Latvians, and the British will say, "Our future is with the EU, with a Europe that is able to speak with a collective voice"—even if they want America to continue to protect them. Their short-term differences of opinion will give way to longer-term unity out of sheer necessity. A Europe no longer protected by America is a Europe that needs to step up to the plate.

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