Clash of civilisations

In the battle between America and Europe, we better hope the latter prevails.

Bush vs. World

George W Bush may believe he has the mandate of heaven for what, as I write, is still the looming
war in Iraq, but he’s not doing very well on earth. Indeed, he’s all but unified the planet in opposition to the notion of a US-led pre-emptive war.

Governments that support the war do so at their own risk. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair is in danger of losing the support of his own party. In Spain, the Popular Party of Prime Minister José María Aznar has fallen behind the opposition Socialists for the first time in seven years. In Eastern Europe — a particularly pro-American part of the world where most governments back the US position on Iraq — huge majorities nonetheless reject the war: 75 per cent of Poles, 82 per cent of Hungarians, 76 per cent of Czechs.

These numbers directly reflect the failure of the administration to convince the world that Iraq poses the kind of imminent threat that justifies a preventive war. But plainly they also reflect a more fundamental rift than that, as the answers to an international Gallup Poll taken in January make clear. When respondents were asked whether American foreign policy had a positive or negative effect on their countries, what was stunning was the uniformity of their answers: In Spain, the margin was 57 per cent negative to 9 per cent positive; in Russia, the margin was 55 perc ent to 11 per cent; in Argentina, 58 per cent to 13 per cent; in Pakistan, 46 per cent to 8 per cent.

This global rejection is breathtaking, but not all that surprising. Under Bush, America has become a hegemon with a chip on its shoulder, at once belligerent and xenophobic. The United States has been seceding from a new world order of interdependence that, until recently, it had helped construct. At the very moment when the world’s peoples have recognised the need to build global institutions to deal with a global economy and environment, with globalised crime and weapons proliferation and stateless terrorism, the United States has arrogated to itself the right to ignore and undermine those parts of the emerging global architecture that fail to please its eye.

In Bush’s Washington, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is good so long as US investors don’t have profits diminished by onerous labour and environmental standards; the Kyoto Protocol on global warming posed such a threat and was rejected; the International Criminal Court was fine for deterring other nations’ war crimes but not our own; the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty threatened a new Pentagon programme and had to be scrapped. The United Nations — well, we’ll just have to see about that.

And then there’s the European Union, which is well on its way to becoming a supranational entity — more than a federation but not quite a state — that would be something new in the world. At first glance this convergence of America’s long-time allies might not seem threatening to the United States. But of all the entities aborning at the dawn of the 21st century, a unified Europe poses the greatest threat to the unholy alliance of neo-conservatives and xenophobes who dominate the Bush administration. For them the 21st century has already been stamped as American property. The one obstacle in their path is Europe — an emerging power bloc committed to a different kind of capitalism than ours and the primary champion of the very global institutions that impede the construction of an American-dominated order.

On the whole this is an assessment with which Europe — masses and elites alike — concurs. As Michael Emerson of the Centre for European Policy Studies has written, "Europe understands that the future governance of this world has to be some system of cosmopolitan democracy." And, he might have added, Europeans understand that such a system will never win the blessing of the Bush White House. (Indeed, it’s hard to say which of those notions troubles the administration more — a democratic world order or a cosmopolitan one.)

And so, at the outset of the 21st century, the battle between Europe and America for the power to shape the century, and on behalf of different models of social organisation, is already joined. And may I gently suggest that the best possible outcome for the American democratic republic — for the America of Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — would be an American (or more precisely, Bushian) defeat. But not an unconditional one.

Europe vs. America

I doubt that many, if any, European leaders at the time the Berlin Wall fell envisioned this clash. Though many took umbrage when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed history’s end, the idea that Europe would be so fundamentally opposed to the United States within a scant 14 years would have taken them by surprise. The European left, after all, had long since acclimated itself to capitalism; the socialists, social democrats and British Labourites were all heirs of Edward Bernstein, the fin de siècle meliorative socialist for whom the very idea of a final conflict was anathema.

In his new book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, which Stephen Holmes reviews elsewhere in this issue (see "Why We Need Europe," page 47 —see Link given below), Robert Kagan adduces some of the reasons for the rift that has opened up within the erstwhile Atlantic alliance. Kagan depicts a Europe enmeshed in unification (and the worlds of diplomacy and social harmonisation that attend such a project) and an America that has chosen instead to be the lone sentinel guarding against external threats and disorder. He omits, however, any discussion of the diverging economic visions and realities that increasingly separate the two great continental democracies. He especially omits any thought that the European model might be the more compelling.

When the Western alliance formed at the conclusion of World War II, it was unified by more than a common commitment to democracy and opposition to Soviet communism. Until roughly the early 1980s and the advent of Ronald Reagan, both Europe and America shared a commitment to a mixed economy in which unions, government regulations, a growing public sector and Keynesian economics all mitigated laissez-faire capitalism’s tendencies toward inequality and cycles of boom-and-bust. The US economy was never nearly as mixed as the European one — its unions were less powerful, its public sector smaller, its health insurance spotty, its family policy non-existent — but from FDR through Richard Nixon, the public sphere would, in fits and starts, expand.

Then the two economies began to diverge. While the welfare state continued to grow in Europe, its already smaller American version grew smaller still. Under constant attack from business, US unions went into steep decline, and the balance of power within the Democratic Party shifted sharply toward business and, more particularly, finance. Decent-paying blue-collar jobs vanished by the millions in the states, and inequality grew steeply here while continuing to decline in Europe. American firms elevated shareholder value above all other indices of success (including long-term profitability), European firms put more funding into research and development and capital investment, and the productivity rates of northern European nations surpassed ours. For better and worse, the economic lives of Europeans remained stable while Americans found themselves in an increasingly dynamic and Darwinian economy.

European egalitarianism existed between nations as well as within them. In the course of building a unified Europe, the wealthier nations of northern Europe transferred resources to their poorer cousins in the south: If they were to be in an open market with Portugal and Greece, the pay scales and educational standards of such nations would have to rise. Likewise, the nations of northern Europe were the world’s most generous when it came to providing aid to developing nations on other continents.

For its part, the United States never evinced much interest in the upward harmonisation of other nations, and the policies of the US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) tended only to worsen recessions in the less developed world. And in the National Security Strategy that the Bush administration unveiled last summer, the United States created a new foreign-aid programme intended to remake the world more to its liking. Alongside its traditional foreign-aid programme, the White House announced a grant programme in which money would flow to those nations that embraced the administration’s economics (free markets, low marginal tax rates, not much regulation).

If the United States is a force for global laissez-faire, however, it would be a gross overstatement to say that Europe is a force for global social democracy. Such figures as Willy Brandt and Olof Palme, who provided crucial assistance for the African National Congress and who quietly initiated the steps that led to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are gone from the scene, and of today’s generation of Euro leaders, only a few — most notably German foreign minister Joschka Fischer — show much concern for the world beyond Europe. The United States may dominate the IMF but it’s hard to find a European finance ministry that has taken issue with the fund’s draconian remedies for financially troubled developing nations.

Kagan argues that Europe is too inwardly focussed to pay heed to crises in distant lands that may require a resolution involving armed force, and that advocating force abroad while renouncing it at home seems beyond Europe’s inclinations — or capacities. But Europe’s inwardness has also led it to champion workers’ rights at home while effectively dismissing them abroad. Perhaps because European workers have been so much better protected than their American counterparts from the shocks of the world market, it is — at the level of national leadership at least — American liberals more than Europeans who have stood up for labour and environmental standards in the developing world. European governments have never insisted that workers’ rights be made a priority of the WTO, and it was in the United States, not Europe, that opposition emerged to China’s unconditional entry to the WTO. The idea of a variable international minimum wage is even now being advanced not by a Scandinavian socialist but by a Missourian Democrat (Dick Gephardt).

The European challenge to the American version of globalism, then, is a sometime thing. If Europe does not provide much resistance to the rule of American laissez-faire in global economics, however, it does provide in itself a model for a more humane form of capitalism. And when other nations go comparison shopping between the European and American models, Europe tends to do pretty well. When the iron curtain crumbled, the newly post-communist nations of Eastern Europe adopted Europe’s electoral and health systems rather than America’s money-dominated ones. All well and good for those repulsed by a society organised around the principle of one dollar-one vote. But if workers outside Europe are to experience the global economy as something other than a race to the bottom, Europe must do more to apply its principles beyond its borders.

EU and Whose Army?

On matters of military force, Europe needs to realise that it actually has conflicting principles. In late January, I met in Brussels with some leading members of the European Parliament, who explained why the notion of pre-emptive war was particularly repugnant to them. (As if anyone representing a continent that had experienced the pre-emptive wars of 1914 and 1939 needed to explain that.) "All our experience leads us to say, ‘Never again’ to war and holocaust," one legislator said. But holocausts are seldom averted absent the use of force, and Europe’s inability to block the massacres of Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo reveal the shortcomings of its non-military preferences when faced with a challenge to its own moral imperatives.

The policy of saying "no" to America’s unilateral use of pre-emptive force may be morally satisfying and strategically sound. But it has failed to deter the United States or to weaken Saddam Hussein’s resistance to inspections, which has eroded only under threat of imminent war. The alternative to this war is inspection and containment, in the manner laid out by former Clinton State Department official Morton H. Halperin in these pages last year (see "Deter and Contain," tap, Nov. 4, 2002 — see Link given below): an aggressive inspection regime, in control of all the skies over Iraq and with a mandate to destroy from the air all buildings from which inspectors are denied entry by Hussein’s government.

But both these kinds of interventions (Bosnia and Iraq), as well as more conventional conflicts, would require of Europe some things it does not have: a rapid reaction force and a will to use it. In the late 1990s, Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac called for establishing such a force, but Europe’s attention has been directed inward, and no such force as yet exists. What’s more telling is that the United States, for all its claims that it would like more allies, is dead set against such a force. Indeed, as the Cato Institute’s Christopher Layne has noted, the United States is arguing that each European nation should develop some niche military capability rather than have Europe develop an autonomous force. By the same token, the United States encouraged the European Union to expand eastward in hopes that the new nations would bring perspectives widely variant from those of the western states. It has also voiced concerns that in the preliminary plans for a European Constitution, individual nations will not be able to veto a foreign policy agreed upon by a majority vote. The White House’s ability to pick off a Blair here, a Berlusconi there, would be totally undermined.

In short, the United States has been conducting a pre-emptive war against a unified Europe for some time now.

And yet the Bush and neocon model of an America First century is either undesirable or unsustainable — or both. Even if we accept the wholly implausible thesis that a US overthrow of Hussein and subsequent occupation and reconstruction of Iraq would democratise the Middle East, for instance, the willingness of the American people to support such a project would run counter to the vision of a privatised America that the conservatives commend here at home. The generation of Americans who supported the Marshall Plan had themselves benefited from an activist government; they were accustomed to a government that undertook major public works and that put millions of Americans on public payrolls. Today, state and local governments are slashing basic services while the Bush administration is throwing money at the rich. Why, under these conditions, conservatives expect Americans to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq is anyone’s guess. The kind of solidaristic values and confidence in the public sphere needed to support such an ambitious, enlightened project can be found today, ironically, only in Europe.

Americans must hope that, in this era of global integration, we are not at the brink of the American century. If anything, the Europeans should take some time out from perfecting Europe to project their values more forcefully on the wider world. We need Europe to save us from ourselves.

(Courtesy: The American Prospect; vol. 14 no. 4, April 1, 2003).

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2003 Year 9  No. 85, Clash of Civilisation



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