Michael Kelly, the late editor-at-large of the Atlantic Monthly, had a way with words. In his final magazine dispatch, which he sent from somewhere just outside the Iraqi border before he died on April 4, Kelly defined, in two sentences, the current debate over American foreign policy that has engulfed Washington. “The argument,” he writes, “concerns whether the employment of this almost unfathomable power will be largely for good, leading to the liberation of a tyrannized people and the spread of freedom, or largely for bad, leading to imperialism and colonialism, with a consequent corruption of America’s own values and freedoms. This question is real enough and more: Probably the next hundred years hinges on the answer.”
Sure, America is the world’s most powerful nation, perhaps the most powerful political entity in world history. And, yes, we just conquered an entire nation with only a few hundred casualties. But foreign policy doesn’t allow much time for laurel-resting. What do we do about Europe? What about terrorism? Weapons of mass destruction? Encouraging democracy? While the White House plans photo ops on aircraft carriers, these questions are keeping the policy wonks up at night.
Not coincidentally, this spring has seen the release of an armload of books on just these questions, written by some of the most influential minds inside the Beltway. One of the first Big Policy books to emerge was a slim tome entitled Of Paradise and Power by Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The book is an expansion of an essay Kagan wrote last summer in the journal Policy Review, in which he argued that the current rift in transatlantic relations is deeply rooted in the histories of the two continents and, therefore, unlikely to be cured anytime soon. Building on the catchphrase “America is from Mars, Europe is from Venus,” Kagan predicts that the militarily weak Europe will always favor diplomatic solutions to counterbalance the United States, which will, because it is more powerful and geographically more isolated, consistently pursue aggressive foreign policies. Resisting this reality, he argues, will only cause tensionbetter to let the United States provide the muscle and Europe the diplomacy.
Kagan has been attacked and defended vociferously, but even his critics admit he accurately prophesied the Iraq split and that he has, in turn, framed the debate over what to do next. But Of Paradise and Power is less prophetic than its critics or its admirers believe. Working off a simplified understanding of political theory, Kagan takes a snapshot of a moment in transatlantic affairs and assumes that things will always be so, that because Europe largely opposed this particular war, it will always oppose war everywhere. He ignores, for example, the support Europe gave to the war in Afghanistan or the frequent, if smaller-scale, forays by the French military in western Africa. And he ignores completely the possibility that Europe may have specific reasons for opposing American militarism in the Middle East.
The Kagan debate has split largely along political lines, giving weight to the conventional wisdom that liberals will always be soft on Europe and against aggressively pushing democracy abroad, while conservatives will pitch anti-French diatribes and look to invade as many countries as possible. But it’s not so simplePat Buchanan holds no love for Europe, but he wants our troops out of Iraq as well. And the Washington Post editorial page and The New Republic, both liberal bastions, supported the war and criticized its European detractors.
In fact, as the liberal Paul Berman argues in Terror and Liberalism, progressives have an obligation to support the aggressive spread of democracy in the Middle East. Berman’s view is that, since Sept. 11, we’ve been engaged in nothing less than a new war of ideologies, as important as those against Nazism and communism. In fact, he argues, Islamism, a volatile mix of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, is a direct descendant of European totalitarian doctrinesmany of the early proponents of anti-Western religious and political movements in the Arab world, he explains, drew their inspiration from Nazis and Marxists.
To Berman, Islamism isn’t simply a threat to American interests, but a challenge to the tolerant, progressive ideals that the left holds so dear. And, even more than Kagan, he takes Europe to task for its failure to defend liberalism; Europe is tired and weak, a place where, long ago, “liberal democracy in its pure form came to seem mediocre, corrupt, tired and aimless, a middling compromise, pale and unappealing.” Only the United States can lead the intellectual and military struggle against fundamentalism. The problem, though, is that while Nazism and communism have founding texts and clearly defined doctrines, Islamism can mean a whole lot of thingsit includes Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Berman’s declaration of war assumes we know our enemysomething that, at least in Washington, is far from obvious.
If Kagan and Berman establish the intellectual arguments for an American-led effort to spread democracy, then Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom investigates some of the challenges and strategies such a course involves. Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, warns against the urge to promote cheap, rootless democracy in places where the building blocks of democratic societyconstitutions, the rule of law, civilian control of the militarydon’t exist. Anyone can hold elections, Zakaria writes, but there are countless countries where democracy is simply a cover for otherwise brutal regimes. “Newly democratic countries,” he writes, “too often become sham democracies, which produces disenchantment, disarray, violence and new forms of tyranny.”
Instead of rushing to impose elections, Zakaria says, the world would be better served by a slow emergence of civil institutions under the control of a benevolent autocrat. In Iraq, that would mean putting someone like Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress in power to oversee the construction of courthouses, the establishment of an army, the writing of a constitutionall things that will provide for a stable, free Iraqi society. Elections should be the last, not the first, item on the list. But in his rush to warn against repeating the disasters of sham democracies like Zimbabwe or Nigeria, he overlooks the catastrophes that befell some of the countries he singles out for praise. What about Chile, where Augusto Pinochet built a vibrant economy but also killed thousands of dissidents; or Indonesia, where Suharto brought his country out of colonial misrule but brutally crushed ethnic minorities; or South Korea, which while becoming a regional powerhouse massacred hundreds of student protesters?
But not all foreign policy thinkers agree with the “strong on Europe, strong on democracy” school. Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown and a former Clinton adviser, argues in The End of the American Era that we should instead be preparing for the slow decline of America’s global dominance. Kupchan’s position seems counterintuitive, but his argument is more than a parlor game. Through a well-researched inspection of American history, he argues that in the wake of the Cold War we have been steadily removing ourselves from the world scene; Sept. 11 and its aftermath was just an unexpected encore. In the long run, America’s isolationist impulse will win out, particularly in the face of an expanding European Union. Rather than spending money on military adventures, he writes that “getting right this devolution of responsibility from America to Europe should be the central objective of U.S. grand strategy.” This means reinforcing transatlantic ties and buffering international institutionsa tall order for an administration looking for ways to punish France for its petulance. Moreover, there is danger in such a determinist point of view preparing for the possibility of decline may end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All sides in the foreign policy debate agree, at least, on one thing: that we are in the midst of radical change comparable to the end of the Cold War. In fact, Berman and Kupchan argue that 2003 is even more of a turning point than 1990that the last decade was just a waiting period while America got its house in order. Now that our power is established, the real questions emerge: Will we engage the world, or shrink away? Will we build ties with Europe, or go it alone? Will we promote democracy abroad, or will another agenda come to the fore? The answers to these questions, when they come, won’t be on the front page, and their historical importance may not be clear for decades. But, thanks to the local bookstore, those outside the Beltway won’t have to wait for the history books to find out for themselves.
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