Sunday, March 30, 2003
America and the World - 30th March 2003, 21.45

This is the title of Tony Judt's review of five recent texts in the New York Review of Books examining the rationale, the exercising and the prospects of American power now and stretching far into the new century. A description and bilbliography of this French specialist may be found here.

Judt examines commentaries that have been designed to elicit fevered comment from newspaper columnists and op-eds in the last few months, since most of the authors hail from the 'republic of punditry' themselves. They are:

Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagan
The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century by Michael Mandelbaum
Rethinking Europe's Future by David P. Calleo
The End of the American Era: US Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century by Charles A. Kupchan
The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria

All five are a diverse set of authors who span the spectrum from the Wilsonian mission of Mandelbaum to the dark tempered scepticism of both Kupchan and Zakaria, and they are all compared unfavourably with George Kennan, although this undoubtedly applies to Kagan most of all.

Unlike Kennan, however, his would-be heirs nurse metatheoretical aspirations, whereas Kennan was building policy recommendations out of close local observation. They don't write as well as he did; and they have scant desire to hide their authorial light under the bushel of anonymity. Not surprisingly, the implicit comparison is consistently unflattering: kissed only by the shadow of Kennan's achievement, his successors—like Portia's suitors— "have but a shadow's bliss."

Their contradictory speculations demonstrate that the reporting of foreign policy is just as confusing if you are embedded in a think-tank as any correspondent in a field of battle. These five books herald America's century, America's decline, Europe's rise and Europe's fall - a convincing demonstration that they know as much about the future as we do and only hindsight will suggest who wrote the most accurate explanation.

However, some thoughts do suggest themselves from this article.The first is that the current war may signal the weakness of the United States rather than its dominance:

Thus when American leaders throw fits of pique at European dissent, and provoke and encourage internal European divisions, these are signs of incipient weakness, not strength. Real power is influence and example, backed up by understated reminders of military force. When a great power has to buy its allies, bribe its friends, and blackmail its critics, something is amiss. The energetic American response to September 11 is thus misleading, in Kupchan's view. Like Mandelbaum, but for opposite reasons, he treats the "war on terror" as a "surface feature" that does not affect "underlying tectonic forces and the location of fault lines." The bedrock reality is a world from which the US will either retreat in frustration or with which it will have to engage on cooperative terms. Either way, the "American era" is passing.

Although I would disagree with Judt's definition of power, it is clear from the events of the past year that the United States is less able to exercise diplomatic influence within international institutions than it has been since the Cold War, since it faces the same model of an ideolgical opponent with an implacable view of the veto. Moreover, since most states are used to working through the established system of international relations, this provides a window of opportunity for European states to export their perceptions and practices.

But Europe, especially "old Europe," is much more in tune than the US with the thinking of the rest of the world on everything from environmental threats to international law, and its social legislation and economic practices are more congenial to foreigners and more readily exportable than the American variants.

Whatever our view of the current war, it is also certain that local powers from Africa, Asia and Latin America view Europe as an example to emulate rather than the distinctive (a much more accurate term than unilateral) Anglo-American states which place national interest above solidarity. The Bush administration do not understand, as yet, that the model of a constitutional and liberal republic, tempered by democracy is uncongenial to political elites that would prefer to preserve their power through the technocratic and bureaucratic model currently taking shape on the Continent.

Of a more local note, Britain has the worst of all possible worlds since we have the rule of law and the bureaucrats which continentals tend to ignore. There are some who argue that Britain should become more like Italy in order to ignore the state but that does abandon the traditions and the virtues that our system of law and governance has provided over many centuries. No, the answer is to dismantle the state apparatus constructed over the last two centuries and revert to the established institutions from English history, since they will prove far more adaptable to our needs than the state that exists now.


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