The Divergence of America and Europe

John Zvesper

June 1, 2003

Are Americans from Mars, and Europeans from Venus? Many recent commentaries on the political divergence between the United States and Europe since the end of the Cold War suggest that Americans and Europeans think so differently that they must come from different planets. These commentaries are often thought-provoking, and they contain some important truths, but they also contain some misleading assertions and assumptions.

In the first place, they distort the subject by asserting or assuming that the term “postmodern” accurately describes current European political thinking. In an influential article in Policy Review (June 2002), Robert Kagan circulated the idea (crediting it to the British diplomat Robert Cooper’s article in the Observer, April 7th, 2002) that what lies behind the American-European divergence is Europeans’ “postmodern” political philosophy, which makes them oppose the use of military force, except when it is clearly sanctioned by international law. While Kagan’s detailed description of the divergence is quite persuasive, the label “postmodern” is inaccurate and misleading, and it has skewed subsequent discussion of the divergence.

The inaccuracy can be seen most clearly when Kagan argues that the reason why American unilateral or extralegal military action deeply disturbs Europeans is because it “represents an assault on the essence of ‘postmodern’ Europe. It is an assault on Europe’s new ideals, a denial of their universal validity, much as the monarchies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe were an assault on American republican ideals.”

This statement overlooks the fact that if there is anything essential to postmodern philosophy, it is that there is no such thing as a political principle with “universal validity.” This radical character of postmodern philosophy is a vital point missed by Kagan and some other recent commentators on American-European differences. Postmodernism is not (as Cooper and Kagan suppose) some mild extension of modern constitutional democratic thinking, such as the thinking built into the American regime at its founding. Postmodernism is strong stuff, and hostile to constitutional democracy. Postmodernism embraces moral relativism, and rejects modern democratic principles such as human rights and government by consent of the governed (or any other political principle that claims universal validity). If postmodernism were truly the defining difference between Americans and Europeans, they might as well be from different planets, as far as prospects for their mutual comprehension and cooperation go.

In fact, however, the situation is less dire than that. Moral relativism, and postmodernity more generally, although fashionable among many (by no means all) European intellectuals, characterize neither the everyday conversations within European countries nor the politics of the European Community or of its member states. The postmodern nihilism, pessimism and angst of a few intellectuals does not infect these larger communities, whose proceedings are therefore criticized by the postmodernists as drab and dull, and as too infected by the assumption that there are universal political truths.

It is worth remembering that Americans themselves are hardly innocent of postmodernist opinions. As some American conservatives rightly point out, postmodern moral relativism is taught—or just assumed—in many American families, schools, colleges and even churches. When Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush talked about “evil” political regimes, Americans’ expressions of doubts about such language were at least as noticeable as Europeans’. The conflict between modern democracy and postmodern philosophy is a conflict within Europe and within America, not a conflict between Europe and America.

While the gap between Americans and Europeans is thus not as unbridgeable as the gap between modern democratic principles and postmodern philosophy, there is nevertheless clearly a large gap, just as Kagan and others have noted. After the end of the Cold War, and for several years before the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001, many Europeans became wary of America’s growing impatience with international organizations and international law. They began to portray America more and more as the land of capital punishment at home and military coercion abroad. Even when the military action was not unilateral, America, with its much greater military capacity, was seen as the initiator of the action, and as much happier than its allies to rely on military power.

There had been precursors to this European attitude to American policy during the Cold War. But ending the Cold War made it easier for Europeans to think of themselves as less dependent on America. (Some Europeans even returned to the old ideal of a unified Europe with its own military force and foreign policy, able to make good on European claims to independence from America.) Therefore Europeans—especially but not exclusively on the political left—became more confident about criticizing American attitudes.

In turn, Americans—especially since some of the “old” European states opposed the American decision to invade Iraq—have become more willing to confront this European criticism. Many Americans—especially but not only conservatives—have drawn a very unflattering portrait of European political attitudes. In this view, Europeans are ungrateful hypocrites, complaining about American military power even while continuing to shelter behind it. Europeans, having chosen to spend their wealth not on military power but on their welfare states, have had to rely on America to deal with tyrannical threats not only outside Europe but even on the European continent. Europeans, to an impressive extent, actually inhabit a world in which political relations among different countries are conducted without a constant background threat of coercion. Yet they can do this only because the United States continues to guarantee their security in a hostile world.

Both of these portraits contain caricatures, but both sides can profitably reflect on them.

Kagan invites Americans to consider whether it is in fact good that Europe should be so hostile to martial politics (and therefore inevitably prone to be critical of the more martial American view). After all, for six decades one of the major purposes of American foreign policy has been to avoid any return to the bloody wars among European powers that had so grievously afflicted the world (including America) for so many previous decades. There has been a long and successful peace process that, although it started with the military defeat of Nazi Germany, has relied largely on economic integration and incentives, and seems to have required Europeans to cultivate a vision of a political world in which military power plays no significant part. Not a bad model for successful peace processes in other parts of the world? It would place much responsibility on American military power, and would virtually guarantee that acceptance of that responsibility would meet with ingratitude by the beneficiaries, but America could benefit as well.

At least Americans need have little fear that Europeans are about to combine into a politically integrated state that would in any way be able to “counterbalance” America. It is not just that Europe, compared to America, is militarily weak, and not just that the divisions between “old” and “new” Europe—even without being encouraged by American provocations—are likely to endure. It is also that, in spite of public professions of faith in transnational, “European” citizenship, most Europeans continue to think of themselves as German, French, and so on. European intellectuals’ calls for the construction of a common European identity, on which to build a common European foreign policy, are pretty forlorn. National (premodern) loyalties continue to challenge modern democracy at the European Community level.

Americans could also note that the anti-military tendency of European thinking is akin to (though also a distortion of) the desire for honorable peace that is part of the modern democratic thinking that has characterized America at its best. It is not premodernity or postmodernity but modern democratic politics that has made peace and prosperity central political purposes. Both premodernity and postmodernity are more bellicose.

For their part, Europeans could admit that American military power has been used mainly for peaceful purposes. Perhaps they could even acknowledge more frequently that the unmartial European political world depends on the more readily martial Americans. Americans should not expect that Europeans will ever stop sniping at American military styles and manners. (When American soldiers marched into Paris in 1945, one French intellectual exclaimed: “But they are so badly dressed!”) But Europeans could be less hesitant to recognize that the American military do a necessary and honorable job.

However, whatever improvements Europeans can muster in their attitudes to America, Americans are far better placed to be patient and generous. Americans have it better. We not only have—at least at the moment—a more comprehensive view of the relationship between politics and military power, an appreciation that Mars and Venus are complementary. We also have a regime—if we can keep it—in which ethnic or national loyalties are expected to be subordinate to the constitutional democratic principles that define the regime. Not even other immigrant societies have enjoyed such a blessing as this. If Europeans had (impossibly) enjoyed such a blessing, their several centuries of troubles would not have landed them in their current situation, in which anti-martial thinking seems imperative to them and may on balance benefit us and the rest of the world.

These European disadvantages and inferiorities deserve our sympathy. We should be magnanimous when drawing Europeans’ attention to their shortcomings, however much they continue—as they will—to criticize us. Shrill sarcasm becomes us less than confident explanations of our different and better way of thinking.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.