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IDEAS

Thinking man's warrior

In his best-selling account of the American-European divide, Robert Kagan gives the Bush administration's foreign policy its most sophisticated defense. Will anyone outside the US buy it?

By Laura Secor, 3/30/2003

HEN THE AMERICAN activist group Women For Peace marched on the White House, Le Monde, France's center-left daily, had the story. "...Women for Peace are responding to the machismo that characterizes George W. Bush's rule," reported Patrick Jarreau on March 13, 2003. "The brutality of Donald Rumsfeld, the vulgarity of Fox News, and the crudity of the hymn to force Robert Kagan sings provoke a moral malaise. Women for Peace testify to that."

Women for Peace might be surprised to hear it. Although "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order," the slim new volume by conservative foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan, has made the New York Times best-seller list, Kagan's name is not yet the household word here that it seems to be in France.

Kagan, who publishes a monthly Washington Post column and writes foreign policy editorials with William Kristol for the Weekly Standard, has certainly struck at a red-hot moment. The old trans-Atlantic alliance has been torn asunder. The outlook and motives of the current American administration strike many Europeans as baffling and alien. And "the Kagan thesis," as it has come to be called, offers an explanation. It's one that's both headier and simpler, more broadly disturbing and more lucidly articulated, than anything a member of the Bush administration has managed to get across to a restive world.

"It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world," begins Kagan's book, which started life last summer as an essay for the journal Public Policy that was widely circulated over the Internet, attracting numerous critics and admirers. Since World War II, Kagan points out, the United States has guaranteed Europe's security, allowing it to focus its energies inward. Partly as a result, Europeans have witnessed a near miracle of cooperation among former enemies. Under the umbrella of the European Union, they are "entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity."

But this is not a paradise the United States can or should attempt to enter. As the world's only superpower and a guarantor of regional stability around the world, America is inevitably vulnerable to threats from rogue states and terrorists. What's more, with its unrivaled military power, the United States has the capacity, and hence the will, to crush those threats when they appear.

"That is why on major strategic and international questions today," writes Kagan in the book's most quoted line, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less."

Not that this is a desirable state of affairs. "I'm a nostalgic for the old US-European relationship," Kagan tells me in his book-lined study, off the restaurant-sized kitchen in his sprawling Brussels home. The house, and the Belgian gentleman who serves us coffee, Kagan says a bit sheepishly, are paid for by the American taxpayer. Kagan's wife, Victoria Nuland, is the US deputy chief of mission to NATO. (In a couple of months, the couple will return to Washington, where Nuland will become Vice President Richard Cheney's number-two foreign-policy adviser.) Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A big man in his early 40s with salt-and-pepper hair and something of a baby face, Kagan possesses an aggressive, rapid-fire intelligence that rarely misses a beat or flubs a syllable. Good-humored and affable, he also exudes the bland personal inscrutability of the government official he once was -- in the Reagan state department, where he was a wunderkind in his mid-20s.

That's the era for which Kagan waxes nostalgic: a time when Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and "even Franois Mitterand" stood together against the Soviet Union. But times have changed, he says. During the Cold War, the defense of Europe was the primary objective of American foreign policy. Now the United States has other priorities.

The Bush administration could certainly have tried harder to avoid the break with European allies, Kagan concedes. As he told a crowd of politicians and notables in London in mid-March, "There has been undoubtedly a lapse of statesmanship on the American side. No one not in the direct employ of the Bush administration could deny that. The way the administration has handled things couldn't be better designed to create ill will."

But Kagan comes down much harder on the Europeans. If they wish to share the responsibility for global security and hence the decision-making, he asserts, they need to "pay the price of admission" by increasing their military spending. As for Iraq, Kagan has advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein since 1996. He told the London gathering: "If the Europeans have a better disarmament policy, they should get it on the table, rather than just giving us this running Talmudic commentary."

Without hard military power and the willingness to use it, in Kagan's view, the Europeans are out of the game. But Kagan does not envision a world governed solely by *realpolitik*. Neoconservative foreign policy "marries American power to American idealism," he explains. By these lights, the projection of American power derives its legitimacy not from, say, Security Council resolutions, but from the projection of American democratic values along with it.

Kagan's commitment to this hawkish brand of democratic idealism runs deeper, he says, than any partisan affinity. "Republicans are good at wielding power, but they're not so wonderful when it comes to the more idealistic motives of liberal internationalism," says Kagan, who supported interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo that many Republican colleagues opposed. "The Democrats are better at liberal internationalism, but they're not so good at wielding power. I would say that if there were a Joe Lieberman/John McCain party, I'm in the Joe Lieberman/John McCain party."

Nonetheless, Kagan's political roots lie in the activist conservative foreign policy of the Reagan era. The son of the classical historian and former dean of Yale College Donald Kagan, Robert Kagan was born in Athens and grew up in Ithaca, New York and New Haven, where he attended Yale. After graduation, a stint in New York as an editor at Irving Kristol's magazine The Public Interest cemented Kagan's ties to the intellectual circles of the American right. "It's possible that I discovered him," hazards neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz, who first met Kagan through his son, the journalist John Podhoretz. "I came to believe that of his generation, Kagan was the best writer on foreign policy."

From New York, Kagan went first to the Kennedy School at Harvard and then in 1983 to Washington, where he cut his teeth as a speechwriter for former Secretary of State George Schultz. He got a chance to try his hand at policy-making in 1985, when Elliott Abrams (Norman Podhoretz's son-in-law) offered him a job as his deputy in the bureau of Inter-American Affairs. There, Kagan became embroiled in what was possibly the most controversial foreign policy the Reagan administration pursued: its support for the Contra guerillas in an effort to unseat Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

Critics charge that support for Nicaragua's civilian opposition could have produced the same outcome without the bloodshed, and that the possibility that the human rights-abusing Contras would actually win Nicaragua's civil war was an unconscionable one. But Kagan still defends the Reagan policy in Nicaragua, insisting that support for the Contras was a crucial factor leading to the democratic elections that brought Violeta Chamorro to power in 1990. In his 1992 book, "A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990," Kagan concludes that "the only outcome of intervention deemed legitimate by the conscience of the American people has been one that leaves elected government behind."

Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives emerged from the Cold War with a peculiar mix of idealism and fear. The United States now dominated the international order. This was undoubtedly a good thing, they felt, not only for America but for the future of democracy in the world. But it was also precarious. What if the United States fell asleep at the wheel, allowing rogue states and hostile tyrannies to regroup, re-arm, and eventually dominate their regions?

In an essay they co-wrote in 2000, Kagan and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol conjured a dark alternative to American predominance: a balance of power shared with authoritarian rivals like China and Russia. To avoid this, the United States must show that it possesses overwhelming force and is willing to project it: "In Europe, in Asia and in the Middle East, the message we should be sending to potential foes is: `Don't even think about it.' " Wherever hostile regimes challenged American interests, Kagan and Kristol recommended a strategy of "regime change."

It has all come to sound very familiar. But Kagan notes that when the current Bush administration came to power, it wanted little to do with international affairs. It was Sept. 11 that perhaps revealed a darker world of menace than key policy makers initially imagined, turning them away from conservative realism and toward the insurgent internationalism Kagan and Kristol had recommended all along.

When Kagan describes the American worldview in his new book, it's clear that he has eloquently explained his own thinking, and that of his increasingly influential Washington circles. But does this really reflect the view of the American public?

Kagan maintains that the dream of promoting American values through international institutions died with Woodrow Wilson. But a German Marshall Fund poll from the summer of 2002 reveals that Americans and Europeans support strengthening the United Nations in practically identical numbers.

"If you could take a poll, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin would be with the French and the Germans," says British journalist Will Hutton, author of the forthcoming "A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World."

As for Europe, many observers question both Kagan's presumption of Continental pacifism and his emphasis on increasing European military spending. According to Barry Posen, an MIT political scientist currently on a German Marshall fund fellowship in Brussels, there are only four European countries that are large enough to really make a difference by increasing their military spending as a share of GDP. Britain and France are already serious military powers that can and do project force around the world. The other two, which spend significantly less on their militaries, are Italy and Germany. That these were the aggressors of World War II is not accidental. "We reprogrammed those countries," Posen recalls. "We did it for a reason!"

In his book, Kagan acknowledges that the historical traumas of the 20th century helped weaken the European stomach for warfare. But his explanation for current American and European foreign-policy positions nonetheless strikes some critics as ahistorical and mechanistic: Weakness automatically produces one set of choices; strength, another.

Posen points out that although the United States is vastly more powerful than Europe, Europe is vastly more powerful than the next closest contender. "The disparity between Europe and everybody else is not making Europeans go out and go nuts in terms of wanting to use their own military power," he points out. By the same token, American power doesn't render a martial foreign policy inevitable.

Could the European opposition to American war policy owe less to weakness than to genuine disagreement over strategy? According to John Mearshimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, the Bush administration is prosecuting the war on terrorism using two basic methods: unilateralism and big-stick diplomacy. The Europeans, he points out, simply find this strategy counterproductive. Along with many Americans, they believe that terrorism is best confronted through multilateral efforts that de-emphasize force so as to avoid inflaming Arab militancy.

"That doesn't mean they think military force has no role to play in the world," says Mearshimer, with some exasperation. "It doesn't make them pacifists." It may just mean that they don't believe that invading an Arab country is a very good idea right now.

In his book, Kagan concedes that the trouble with military might is that it comes with a great temptation for its use.

"But he sort of rejoices over that, and I think it's a mistake," says Etienne de Durand, a security analyst at France's Institut des Relations Internationales. "Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick. He didn't say to swing a big stick constantly and smash everyone's head."

Laura Secor is the staff writer for Ideas.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/30/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.





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