View Full Version : What Europe Doesn't Understand

05-26-2004, 04:40 PM
What Europe Doesn't Understand
Neoconservatism is neither neo nor conservative. It's just American.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

Americans working and living in Europe are often struck by the preoccupation in defense and security circles with the pernicious influence of "neoconservatives" on U.S. foreign policy. There is a pervasive sense that American foreign policy is being driven down a radically new path by a small band of ideologues who have virtually hijacked the policymaking process.

European defense and foreign policy elites are not the only ones who seem to believe that current U.S. foreign policy is something of an aberration; this view is found more broadly in European public opinion as well. In a 2003 Pew poll, approximately 75% of those surveyed in France and Germany said the current "problem with the U.S." was mainly President Bush, while only 21% said it had more to do with the United States in general. The end result is a dominant opinion in much of Europe that little will be repaired in the trans-Atlantic relationship until there is a new presidential administration in the United States, or at least a marked reduction in the influence of the small group of neoconservative extremists who surround Mr. Bush.

Although there are notable exceptions, many European commentators and much of the public are resorting to conspiratorial theories to explain the direction of U.S. foreign policy and somehow overlook the fact that American public opinion runs in favor of the president's handling of foreign affairs. Perhaps more important, however, they overlook the deep historical roots of the current direction of American foreign policy. It is not driven by a "neocon cabal." Rather, it is that certain individuals associated with the neoconservative label have been particularly articulate in expressing a set of policies that flow from two ideas that resonate deeply in American public opinion. The first is a belief that the United States has a responsibility to spread its vision of individual liberty. The second is that the primary and perhaps exclusive task of the federal government is to protect its citizens from external threats. Whatever the actual causes of U.S. action in any particular instance, those principles loom large in the public debate and shape how and when the United States becomes involved in other countries' affairs.

The first principle is often credited to Woodrow Wilson, but in some ways its roots stretch back into the 18th century. It is founded on the moral assertions that have been part of American political thought since the early days of the republic. Chief among them is the idea that individual liberty is a moral absolute and that a system of governance that enshrines individual liberty is morally and practically superior to all others. This is a very fundamental belief, deeply embedded in American political thought and public opinion. It is a principle, however, that does not necessarily have the same level of importance in modern European political systems, whose constitutions tend to place a greater emphasis on social harmony than on individual liberty.
The second principle conflicts somewhat with the first and serves to moderate the impulse to intervention. Since the republic's founding, there has been a vigorous debate as to the proper role of the federal government, a debate that is still at the heart of most cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. But there has always been a strong trend toward the idea of a limited federal government whose sole exclusive area of responsibility is in foreign affairs and the protection of the nation from external enemies. In fact, the first five numbers of the Federalist focus almost exclusively on foreign affairs and the need for a federal government to protect the nation from foreign influence. The end result of this idea is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that cautions against foreign interventions unless they are required for national security reasons.

We see these contradictory principles at work today. Since the 1970s, there have been those who argue for American military intervention in the Middle East, optimistically promoting what essentially boils down to a set of "American" values for the region. But most Americans have looked askance at such ideas without a national-security justification for direct intervention. September 11, 2001, was the turning point. An increasingly large proportion of public opinion became more certain that the only way to ensure the nation's security against transnational enemies operating from the Middle East was to transform the region. What was previously seen as too risky became acceptable in the aftermath of 9/11.

In essence, public opinion shifted in favor of policies that have been articulated by neoconservatives for at least a decade, and neocons have been very adept at articulating a policy that resonates with longstanding ideas in American public life. Therefore, what many label "neoconservative" is a product of ideas that are neither "neo" nor "conservative," but a worldview that has broad appeal to American citizens in ways that are difficult for many Europeans to fully fathom within the context of their own political systems.

In short, if Europe is waiting for a new administration or a new set of policy professionals to rise to positions of influence, the Continent may be in for a very long wait. The style in which affairs are conducted may change, and the blunt take-it-or-leave-it pronouncements of the current administration might be softened, but the substance of American foreign policy will remain roughly the same. The current direction of U.S. foreign policy--reshaping the Middle East, pre-emptive confrontations with potentially threatening adversaries, and an ambivalent attitude toward international organizations that constrain the use of American power to achieve those ends--is unlikely to change substantially with any new administration that could conceivably come to the White House in the near future.

It is not the case that the president and a small band of advisors are steering America on a radically new path; rather, they are following a pattern in U.S. foreign policy with deep historical roots. If there is to be reconciliation within the trans-Atlantic partnership, it must start with this recognition.

There is no shortage of studies on the roots of American foreign policy or the labels that can be associated with the enduring ideas that continue to guide it. Diplomatic historian Robert W. Tucker views it as a balance between those content to make the United States an exemplar of democratic virtues and those who want to launch crusades to impart those values throughout the world. Arthur Schlesinger sees it as a contest between realism and messianism. Henry Kissinger calls it a balance between isolationism and globalism. Walter McDougall identifies eight guiding principles, and Thomas Bailey finds five. Walter Russell Mead, in his "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World" (Knopf, 2001), notes four tendencies that he labels Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian and Hamiltonian. My purpose here is not to engage in a historical debate, but to highlight the core ideas that historians generally find at the roots of U.S. foreign policy.
Clearly, one set of core ideas is associated with American exceptionalism and, flowing from that idea, a revolutionary or messianic ethos that rises periodically to push the United States into global intervention in the name of individual liberty and freedom. Behind this tendency lies an assumption so prevalent and historically accepted in American political thought that it is rarely questioned: that American liberal values and institutions constitute a generalizable model that promotes human rights and prosperity. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points are a classic example of this messianic belief, but so is the construction of the liberal international order forged out of the detritus of the Second World War.

Many around the world find the idea positively risible. America's interventions in Latin America, its support for dictatorships, its interventions for pure Realpolitik and commercial reasons are all said to expose this belief as a sham. There is no doubt that the United States is guilty of talking idealism and walking realism, but, as Mr. McDougall has written, U.S. foreign policy has always been a mix of "the good, the bad, and the ugly." Regardless, the idea endures and repeatedly captures the public imagination. America as liberator is a powerful popular image that motivates a fair amount of U.S. foreign policy, even if the bad and the ugly often raise their heads as well.

Critics also raise the question of selective intervention. Sub-Saharan Africa is rife with repressive regimes guilty of horrific human rights abuses, yet the United States is not about to become embroiled in that continent. If spreading individual liberty is truly one of the core beliefs of American foreign policy, then why, ask the critics, does the U.S. virtually ignore Africa?

The answer lies in that second core belief shaping U.S. foreign policy: The federal government should be limited in its authority. How does this principle of domestic governance affect foreign policy? In a very basic sense, it shapes a prevalent conviction in American political thought that the primary--and, some would say, only--task of the federal government is to protect its citizens from foreign enemies. To a large extent, the whole framework of the federal government is based on the idea that is necessary to ward off enemies that could otherwise threaten individual states. This was an impetus behind abandoning the original Articles of Confederation and drafting the Constitution in 1787. Of course, investing power in the federal government diminished the power of the individual states, and in many ways this was seen at the time as a necessary evil. Thomas Jefferson spoke (and probably still speaks) for many Americans when he said, "We should be made one nation in every case concerning foreign affairs and separate ones in what is merely domestic."

This idea is also at the root of John Adams's famous assertion that America should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. It is a two-centuries-old statement that probably still reflects a large swath of American public opinion, and it restricts the predilection toward intervention. Foreign adventures would only increase the power of the federal government, diminishing the authority of state and local governments. Becoming too embroiled in world events would mean raising a large standing military and increasing taxes along with other demands on the people and the individual states. For a republic founded on the idea of individual liberty above all else, resting on a Constitution that specifically limits the power of the federal government, this is a dangerous prospect.

In large part, many of these fears have been realized. The power of the federal government has increased dramatically over the past century as the U.S. has become gradually more active and finally dominant in world affairs. But this only makes the principle of limiting the power of the federal government all the more relevant in American politics. Therefore, any American president who seeks to convince the public to back an intervention for purposes that are not explicitly in the interest of national security will face an uphill battle. American public opinion was divided over interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti for precisely this reason.
Even in the abstract, Americans are far less likely to favor committing troops to such operations than Europeans. In the Worldviews 2002 survey, less than half of Americans (48%) favored using the military to "bring peace in a region where there is civil war" while 72% of Europeans favored the same. At the root of American ambivalence lies a fundamental conviction that the federal government should remain within limited powers--not launch crusades that detract from its core purpose.

It takes a significant event to move American public opinion away from supporting a constrained foreign policy to supporting a grand reshaping of the international environment, but such shifts in public opinion can be massive and rapid once the nation is threatened. Woodrow Wilson could not muster popular support for the U.S. entrance into World War i until German U-boat activity convinced the public that Germany constituted a threat to American national security. Franklin Roosevelt failed to stir public opinion to enter World War ii before Pearl Harbor. Here was a clear case of blatant aggression and fascist brutalization of millions of people around the world, but the American impulse toward intervention was checked by a more fundamental question: Does such an intervention fit within the primary task of the federal government? Roosevelt tried for over a year to bring the U.S. into the war, but until Pearl Harbor the American public remained very divided.

President Bush himself evinces these contradictory impulses. As a candidate, Mr. Bush pledged a "humble" approach to global affairs--to refrain from using American forces for the sort of unclear peacekeeping and nation-building exercises that characterized the deployment of the U.S. armed forces in the 1990s. Once the nation was threatened, however, he shifted his rhetoric and policy decisions to support what is probably the largest nation-building exercise since World War ii.

In Robert Kagan's now-famous assessment, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Mr. Kagan traces the differences in attitudes on the use of power in the international environment to the fact that the United States has the ability to project power and Europe does not. In fact, it is precisely America's capability to project power that allowed the great experiment of a united Europe to flourish along with what Mr. Kagan, following the scholar-diplomat Robert Cooper, calls the "postmodern" ideas that clash with America's "Hobbesian" view of the world. But as Mr. Kagan also notes, there are differences between the trans-Atlantic partners that have more to do with the distribution of ideas than the current distribution of power.
At a very basic level, much of Europe fails to appreciate the seriousness of the core principles animating American foreign policy and how deeply they affect popular opinion. Where Europe sees imperialism, America sees the use of power for moral purposes. Where Europe asks by what right America imposes its values, America sees those values as universal and moral absolutes. Where Europe sees hypocrisy, America sees a balance between competing principles.

Those principles are very real and are reflected in the founding documents of the republic and the writings of early observers such as Tocqueville. The messianic aspects of American exceptionalism are found throughout many of the basic texts of American history, although they tend to focus on America as the exemplar of liberty (John Winthrop's "city upon a hill") rather than as a crusading state bringing the benefits of individual liberty to the oppressed. However, the two visions rapidly became conflated in early American history. By his second term as president, Thomas Jefferson began to speak less of America as the "exemplar of liberty" and more of America as the "empire of liberty."

At the same time, the more cautionary and limiting principles regarding how the nation should be governed are readily apparent in the Constitution. Despite the fact that the document explicitly gives all powers not specifically designated as federal responsibilities to the individual states and the people in general, the states demanded additional restrictions on the federal government as found in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

Cynics may be correct that many U.S. citizens are unaware of the actual content of the Constitution, but they are very aware of its basic purpose: to restrict the power of the government in the name of individual liberty. The U.S. Constitution is essentially a product of 18th-century Enlightenment thought that elevates the protection of individual liberty as a core purpose of government. As a result, many of the rights set down in it are protections against the intrusion of the state (e.g., "Congress shall make no law . . ."). Regardless of the number of individuals who can cite chapter and verse from the Constitution, most understand that it is a document designed to protect the citizen from an overreaching government.

This is a very different social contract from what is found in European constitutions. Those documents were generally drafted later and reflect social democratic ideas arising in the 19th century. As a result, they often establish expanded conceptions of what the state will provide its citizens, including social security, housing, and even environmental protection. Often those same constitutions also spell out what the citizen is expected to give the state in return, such as obligatory military service.

The difference is quite fundamental. The U.S. Constitution puts a premium on individual liberty and freedom from governmental interference in the citizens' daily affairs. Most European constitutions place a premium on social harmony, reserving the right of the state to more directly affect the lives of its citizens for the provision of specific public goods. One can argue that those documents are a reflection of the values found in their societies or, conversely, that the values found in society are imposed by the system of governance flowing from the founding document. Either way, the end result is that Europe and the United States hold up different ideas about the role of government and the ideals that undergird the political system.

We should be skeptical of making vast generalizations based on such a cursory look at a few documents--clearly there are exceptions--but the assessment presented here is a condensation of longstanding comparative analyses. What is important to note, however, is that it is precisely those principles that distinguish the United States from Europe that neoconservatives have invoked to argue for the current direction of American foreign policy.

It is difficult to define neoconservative foreign policy or to spell out what distinguishes it from other strains of political thought. Originally the label was applied to former leftists who became anticommunist after World War II and to Democrats who found themselves more in the Republican camp in the post-Vietnam era. But many of the individuals identified as neocons today are too young to have been part of the original group or were never associated with the Democratic Party.

Some turn to a more arcane definition of "the neoconservatives" as the students of the University of Chicago political philosophy professor Leo Strauss. Others note the Jewish surnames of many of the president's foreign affairs and defense advisors and hint darkly that the U.S. government is being manipulated for the benefit of Israel. Once again, these definitions fail to satisfy. Strauss may have been an influence on some, but it is difficult to believe that a relatively obscure philosophy professor dead for 30 years could now suddenly wield such influence over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. By the same token, many of President Bush's advisors may indeed have Jewish roots, but many do not; it is, moreover, truly bizarre to believe that individuals can work their way to the top of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus by advocating the interests of another state to the detriment of the United States.

More often than not, the label is now employed as a pejorative to mean "hawkish on foreign policy." But this description applies to much of the American public since September 11. What has happened is that some commentators and defense intellectuals associated with the neocon label have been successful after 9/11 in articulating ideas that resonate with the general public and deep-seated beliefs that have historically guided the conduct of American foreign policy.

As much as some may have wanted to push the U.S. toward intervention in Iraq and take a firmer line with state supporters of terrorism, it simply was not politically possible until the clear and present danger presented itself. The arguments of Paul Wolfowitz and others were originally made in the early 1990s. They pressed for a more interventionist policy based on the threat to U.S. national security posed by inaction in the Greater Middle East, particularly in Iraq. One does not have to look any further than the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (co-authored by Mr. Wolfowitz), which in part advises removing the Saddam Hussein regime, to see the pattern. Others have long been advocating increased U.S. pressure on other regimes in the region, such as Iran and Syria. But it was not until September 11 that such a policy could have resonance in American public opinion.

There is also a strong misperception in Europe that the ideas ascribed to the neocons represent a small, extreme faction of the Republican Party. Although the so-called neocons may in general be Republicans, their ideas have a fair degree of approval within the ranks of the Democratic Party as well. In my own recollection, the first two individuals to promote the idea of military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power were both Democratic Party figures--one a retired congressman and the other a former Clinton administration official. It also bears repeating that 81 Democrats in the House voted in favor of authorizing the president to use military force in Iraq. Clearly there is more involved here than a handful of Rasputin-like ideologues whispering in the president's ear.
In truth, much of what has been identified as the neoconservative agenda has little to do with Republican versus Democrat; it is more a contest between realists and idealists--with the neocons firmly in the idealist camp. Realists are generally conservative in the true sense of the word. They do not seek to take risks to extend liberal democratic ideals. On the contrary, they seek to maintain American primacy and would not risk diluting finite resources to take on an enormous and protracted mission such as remaking the Middle East.

The realist school of thought contrasts sharply with the neoconservative camp, whose agenda would not be unfamiliar to Woodrow Wilson. He too sought to remake the international system from a position of relative strength, to spread democracy and the rule of law. It is true that today's crusaders are not about to place their trust in international institutions to do the job, but the basic ideals are similar in that they seek to use American power to reshape the global environment in the name of a set of liberal democratic ideals. It is their belief that this will make the United States more secure by reducing the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East, thus getting at some of the root causes of terrorism. In taking up this banner, the neocons play into a very deep and old aspect of American political thought. This is why President Bush could speak for a large majority of the country when he set forth such an ambitious agenda based on their proposals.

Grand conspiracy theories are not needed to explain the direction of American foreign policy. What is needed is an appreciation of the core ideas that have guided it over the years and how those ideas differ from what is found in European political thought. If the trans-Atlantic relationship is to recover from the current rift, it is important to understand the roots of the differences.
Of course, some may argue that the political ideas held by the American public are simply a product of the messages that the national leadership broadcasts. Therefore, the entire idea of looking at core ideas and principles is suspect. There is no doubt that leaders shape and mold public opinion, but it seems extremely unlikely in an age of instant access to information from a variety of sources that the American public could be so held in sway by its leaders if the message those leaders delivered was not in line with their basic sentiments and opinions.

The argument presented here may be a cause for further pessimism about the trans-Atlantic alliance. If the two sides are truly on divergent paths and operating from very different root beliefs, many could say it is time to finalize the divorce and move on. But a few factors counsel against this level of resignation. First, the divergent root beliefs have always been there. The current direction of American foreign policy is not at all out of character with past actions and grows from deep-seated principles. Second, the U.S. may choose to deal with its allies in a somewhat different manner depending on the administration or the particular officials within the current administration.

The current administration's emphasis on pragmatism and frank speaking has a certain cultural appeal to many Americans, but given the hegemonic position of the U.S. in the global environment, frank speaking often sounds dictatorial. Consider some of the international agreements that the U.S. refuses to sign that many in Europe cite as evidence of American intransigence: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol. Many Americans see those agreements as deeply flawed in their current state, and it is safe to say that none would stand a chance of being ratified by the U.S. Senate. Indeed, the Senate voted unanimously to reject the Kyoto Protocol in its current form in a sense of the Senate resolution.

Given the far more independent role of the Congress in foreign policy compared with most European legislatures, an American president faces a very difficult task in moving any international agreement forward without a large degree of congressional support. The Bush administration chose to be blunt in its approach to all four and remove the U.S. from the negotiations. At one level, there is a pragmatic appeal to this approach: Why continue to spend countless hours negotiating agreements that the Senate is unlikely to support? On another level, however, there is certainly room in American foreign policy to maintain the process in the hope that something worthwhile and acceptable will eventually emerge. One can only wonder whether the current state of the trans-Atlantic relationship would be better at this point had the U.S. chosen that path.

In other words, style may change even if substance remains largely the same. This may help alleviate the current rift in trans-Atlantic relations, but it will not erase the basic differences in how and why the United States acts in the international environment. Those causes are deeply rooted in basic principles that have guided American foreign policy for a very long time, and they are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Mr. Selden is the director of the Defense and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. This article appears in the April issue of Policy Review.

05-26-2004, 08:20 PM
I thought this was pretty interesting as well. It's ironic however when he says

It is their belief that this will make the United States more secure by reducing the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East, thus getting at some of the root causes of terrorism. In taking up this banner, the neocons play into a very deep and old aspect of American political thought. This is why President Bush could speak for a large majority of the country when he set forth such an ambitious agenda based on their proposals.
When our leftist friends use this same rhetoric, but only as a mechanism for inaction. Their "getting" to the root causes is placating, jawboning and pretty much doing nothing. Sort of like the rest of the lefts policies they promote.

05-26-2004, 10:02 PM
"When our leftist friends use this same rhetoric, but only as a mechanism for inaction. Their "getting" to the root causes is placating, jawboning and pretty much doing nothing. Sort of like the rest of the lefts policies they promote. "

or perhaps the left is more concerned with their OWN home...the deficit, healthcare, social security..things the right arent concerned over....instead, lets spend 100 billion on Iraq..we will let the democrats clean up our mess when the time comes