As America Declines, Can Europe take its Place?

As America Declines, Can Europe take its Place?
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Robert Kagan- a neoconservative scholar and one of the intellectual architects of the Second Gulf War- wrote a short book titled, “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order” in the year 2003. The mention of the year is significant because it was the time when the United States embarked on a pre-emptive “War of Choice” against Iraq. Kagan’s book highlighted and illustrated the contrasting understanding, approach and use of power and thereby foreign policy choices Europe and the United States. In his words, Kagan, while drawing the contrast in the context of the prelude to or in the midst the Second Gulf War, stated:
“Strong powers naturally view the world differently than weaker powers. They measure risks and threats differently, they define security differently, and they have different levels of tolerance for insecurity. Iraq is a threat to Washington not only because Americans have a lower risk tolerance than Europeans, long accustomed to their own vulnerability, but also because America’s overwhelming power gives it the means to do something about it. Europe, on the other hand, lacks the power to eradicate the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and it is therefore more inclined to rely on engagement and diplomacy rather than force”(
While the reference to Iraq’s so called “weapons of destruction” is a patent lie and reflects Kagan’s ideological predilections, but the tone and tenor of the passage is clear: the neo –con ideologue is articulating the difference between America and Europe , their values and the approach to international relations and global security thereof. The implication(s) that flow from these contrasts is that Europeans are “soft” and Americans “hard” which is then reflected in either’s approach. While Europe, given its historical experience views multilateralism and diplomacy as the solutions to the problems that the world presents, America takes a no holds barred, hard power approach to these matters. Kagan, it may be pointed out here, was not wrong. His views were eloquently expressed, reified and reflected in America’s hard power approach to Iraq.
This essay is not a book review but is in the nature of a contrast I aim to draw( or illustrate) between Europe and the United States employing the reasoning and arguments by an American- albeit a neo-conservative intellectual. I may state here that the American politico-intellectual landscape is neither monotonous nor is it homogenous. There are differences within and without in the overall American intellectual discourse and , in terms of the nature and uses of power. In fact, an American scholar or repute, Joseph Nye, articulated the converse of the Kaganian view of power. Nye termed it “ soft power” and it could be an eerie echo of the European approach to power , in some senses, but , in the final analysis, Nye’s coinage and formulation was meant to inject sobriety and perhaps even prudence in the massive reservoirs of power that America enjoyed. At best, it was in the nature of a corrective and , at worse, a self serving coinage.
The debate within America, in the beginning of the 21st century was , regardless of the difference(s), resolved in favor of the unabashed use of power which, in turn , led to the Second Gulf War, and broader and wider disorder in the Middle East. So, Kagan’s formulation , even though, rooting for security through the use of power and security’ had a paradoxical result: insecurity and disorder not only in the Middle East but also across the world. From this perspective then the European approach was far better and more prudent than the American one. But, the question is, why could not or did not Europe assert itself? Why does Europe still , kind of, wallow in its inwardness?
Europe’s peculiarity, in terms of its approach to international relations and politics , appears to lie in its aversion to and coyness about power. This is not to echo Kagan but to merely state the obvious: historically, the architects of post war Europe, appeared to draw the conclusion that balance of power politics had not only fractured Europe but made it descend into an orgy of internecine , fratricidal violence. The World Wars were a case in point here. So, in an instance of never again, Europe chose to lock itself into a Union where power and its use was not only frowned upon but a certain taboo was attached to it. Even though, when Europe expanded, “widened and deepened”, through functionalist, neo functionalist and network paradigms, the deep aversion to power remained. Plus, Europe engaged the world in an idiom of multilateral diplomacy which underplayed or even ignored the power dimension. While Europe, created a kind of a “ blissful union “ within, it mistook the world to be the same. But, the dark reality is that the world “out there” is messy, cruel and ruthless where power and power differentials matter and determine outcomes. It is here that Europe was and is remiss.
The question is: can and should Europe reassert itself in world affairs? And, more importantly, can Europe replace the United States?
It sure can. This assertion is not based on wild optimism but is actually informed by sobriety. Yes, Europe is plagued by multiple issues and problems, but it can get its act together. The first step towards this would be to internalize a realist( not in the International Relations sense of the term) understanding of power and then reify it in the structures of Europe. Specifically, it could mean getting a grip on power dynamics within and clearly recognizing and accepting a fact: that it is actually core Europe- Germany and France- that lie at the heart of Europe. Once this is recognized, what could follow is a compact between the two countries to both rejuvenate Europe , deal with and engage the world in what may be called “ enlightened realism”. Disaggregated, it could mean accepting the world , as it is, and dealing with it along these lines but , at the same , elevating multilateralism and attendant politics, as the principle(s ) of European statecraft. If and when Europe internalizes these ideas and themes, it could be a player in its own right on the world stage.
But, more importantly, Europe can also get rid of its somewhat of a self image of a countervailing force in world politics that acts as a check on America’s excesses. Clearly, as the Gulf War demonstrated and as things are panning out now, this has always been a chimera. What Europe must do and aspire to is to replace the United States. Trump’s America, which is an America in decline, presents an opportunity here. As America declines – both relatively and absolutely, Europe can and must fill in the vacuum and void. America, by its omissions and commissions, and by virtue of the unprecedented power it enjoyed, gave the West a bad name. Perhaps, it is about time that Europe redeems the West by claiming its rightful place in the comity of nations.

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