The outburst of vituperation of American foreign policy that has recently emanated from a collection of European political officials is remarkable--not for its hectoring tone (I discussed that in a previous post), but for its extraordinary frankness. On-the-record language like "absolutist and simplistic", "unilateral overdrive", "more rhetoric than substance", and "hard to believe that's a thought-through policy" is not uncommon from tinpot dictators talking about each other, and occasionally heard from Western democrats talking about tinpot dictators, but one can scarcely imagine, say, anyone in the US State Department openly referring in similar terms to an industrialized democratic ally.
The frankness, moreover, is not just a matter of language; even more striking was the cold, unabashed disdain for anything that might resemble principle or idealism. EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, most famous for his courageous defense of Hong Kong's nascent democratic institutions, is now standing up for "constructive engagement" towards Iran and North Korea--not because he deems it more morally justified, but because he claims that it is more likely to be effective (at what, exactly, he doesn't even bother to say). French Premier Lionel Jospin sounded a loftier note--but only slightly; although he expressed concern about excessive use of military action, his chief worry was apparently America's lack of commitment to multilateralism--a diplomatic value but hardly a fundamental moral one.
The most unrestrained commentary, though, both in its fury and in its cynicism, emanated from an unnamed EU official, who complained that "[i]t is humiliating and demeaning if we feel we have to go and get our homework marked by Dick Cheney and Condi Rice". There we have it--not even a scintilla of a pretense of high-mindedness, only the unconcealed bitter resentment of a minor functionary representing a stagnating region of scorned demi-powers. The bitterness is understandable, to be sure. And in the wake of America's spectacular success in Afghanistan--powerful testimony to both the moral and practical superiority of American muscularity over Europe's accommodationism--the traditional haughty moral excuses for criticizing America are much harder to substantiate. But if there had ever been any doubt that Europe's internationalist rhetoric about postwar American power has been motivated more by catty parochialism than by genuine principle, that doubt has now been finally, utterly erased.