Monday, April 14, 2003

Most of the debate between Europe and America over the latter's intervention in Iraq has centered on moral or legal issues: national sovereignty, human rights, democracy, multilateralism, and so on. Framed in that fashion, the argument frequently degenerates into a crossfire of mutual recriminations and indignant assertions of moral absolutes. Robert Kagan, in his celebrated Foreign Affairs article (since padded into a slim book), argues instead for a philosophical explanation for the Euro-American conflict. He sees Europe's disagreements with American foreign policy as stemming from the former's military (and general geopolitical) weakness, which makes it uncomfortable with shows of raw power. "[I]n truth, the ambition for European 'power' is something of an anachronism....even in the realm of “soft” power," writes Kagan. "[T]he political will to demand more power for Europe appears to be lacking, and for the very good reason that Europe does not see a mission for itself that requires power. Its mission is to oppose power."

It's a charming characterization, to be sure. But it flies in the face of the most basic common sense about the conduct of international relations. A far more reliable model assumes all nations to be following at all times a simple set of geopolitical rules:

  • Morality is subservient to state interests, and is of value primarily as a pretext for pursuing those interests;

  • Power, when available, should be exercised maximally, against any other state, if doing so is safe and furthers state interests; and

  • Other states that are immune to such exercises of power should be accommodated, insofar as they cannot be coerced.

    Seen in this light, Kagan's notion of a European emphasis on economic and diplomatic relationships over military ones (as typefied by the EU) can be interpreted as a conscious decision to pursue an alternative route to power. In effect, Europe has decided to cede the military field to America, and to concentrate on the realm of economic and diplomatic power, where it believes it can challenge American hegemony. A prototype for this kind of exercise of power might be the sanctions regimes against South Africa and Rhodesia, which brought about "regime change" in those two countries through economic and diplomatic means alone. European involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict follows a similar pattern; its position has the dual purposes of serving its own economic interests (by placating economically uncoerceable Arab nations with which Europe would like to expand its trade) and maximizing the leverage of its economic and diplomatic power (by exercising it against the one country in the region--Israel--most vulnerable to it).

    Under this interpretation of European power politics, America's vigorous assertion of its military power is threatening because it moves the competition onto ground where Europe is at an overwhelming disadvantage, and thus neutralizes Europe's particular local advantages in the economic and diplomatic spheres. Naturally, America is in the opposite position; where possible, it is inclined to attempt to use its military power to advance its own interests, regardless of the damage it will do to other countries (such as those of Europe).

    It is easy, of course, to apply this analysis to, say, France's anti-war position, and indeed many have done so. But America's stance, as well, is not difficult to characterize as self-interested in the same way. I refer here not to the vapid "it's all about oil" refrains of clueless anti-war protesters, but rather to the simple observation that morality has a more complicated relationship with America's choice of military targets than many American hawks would like to admit.

    For example, China is a dangerous country with a corrupt, oppressive government, but it is also largely immune to American military pressure, because of its large army and nuclear deterrent. It also threatens its neighbors economically, by undercutting their prices when exporting to the West; but that is, from America's point of view, somebody else's problem (chiefly Japan's). Hence America accommodates China, making little noise about its many very serious human rights abuses. In contrast, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was weak enough to intimidate militarily, and the neighbors it threatened were American allies who looked to the US for protection. Hence America spent twelve years applying military pressure to Iraq and ranting about its human rights abuses, culminating in the recent invasion and "regime change". From a European point of view, then, America's behavior certainly appears to be following the aforementioned rules of self-interested exercise of power.

    Substituting Europe for America in the above analysis produces an interesting set of analogies. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was, like China for the US military, impossible for European economic or diplomatic power to coerce, since its leader was immune to diplomatic isolation or the imposition of suffering on its populace. It also posed no economic threat to its neighbors, and its military threat, while real, was someone else's problem (chiefly America's), since no Middle Eastern country would ever have looked to Europe for security against military aggression. Europe's self-interested posture towards Iraq, then, leaned towards accommodation. On the other hand, America--like Israel--is vulnerable (moreso than Iraq) to economic and diplomatic pressure (although the former can only be applied at a substantial cost). Moreover, its military threat has been directed against countries like Iraq, with whom France and Germany had a rather accommodating multibillion-dollar long-term trade relationship. It therefore shouldn't be surprising that Europeans have viewed America as a greater threat than Iraq, and have expended much effort in trying to contain it, rather than Iraq.

    Note that I take no notice in this analysis of protest marches, celebrity stunts, country/Western songs, television images of falling statues or bleeding victims, or any other manifestations or movers of public opinion. But then, public opinion can hardly be said to have determined the behavior of the nations involved in this conflict. Few countries' populations, for example, have presented a cultural "unified front" against the war as seamless as Spain's; yet its political stance was so resolutely pro-war that prime minister Aznar was one of only two leaders invited to meet with George Bush and Tony Blair at the pre-war summit in the Azores. In fact, none of the eight European leaders who signed an open letter backing the American hard line on Iraq could be said to have been pandering to public opinion. It may be that the leaders of all eight (and those who later joined them) were suddenly stricken (after years of indifference) with overwhelming pangs of conscience upon considering the plight of oppressed Iraqis. More likely, though, they were weighing the dispute between the Anglo-American and Franco-German camps, and taking care of their nations' interests by backing the side they figured had the most to offer.

    Now, one can certainly dispute the justice of subordinating moral concerns to calculated self-interest in formulating a national foreign policy. And in the long run, it's certainly the case that the grand acts of states are judged on moral criteria as well as by tactical advantage gained. But if we want to understand why countries behave as they do, rather than whether they should, it's usually more reliable to examine apparent selfish interest as the most likely cause. And none of the parties involved in the lead-up to the Iraq war--not Bush, nor Blair, nor Chirac, nor Schroeder, nor even Saddam Hussein, who was clearly dealt the weakest hand, and nevertheless managed to string it out over the better part of a year--can be said to have acted in a manner inconsistent with the hardheaded, coldhearted pursuit of their nations' material interests.
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