Review: Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, by Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan, neoconservative extraordinaire and the man we have to thank for the Project for the New American Century, isn’t quite my usual style, but given my research interests and the apparent importance of well-roundedness in foreign-affairs education, I read Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order anyway. Really more of an extended essay, the book was a bestseller on both continents and examines exactly what the subtitle promises: the US-European relationship immediately post-9/11. Like similar polarizing works—Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, to name the tomes Kagan’s book was immediately compared to—Of Paradise and Power was first published as an essay (in the Policy Review journal) and turned into book form in January 2003, i.e., during the final months of the Bush Administration’s Iraq-invasion propaganda war. That misbegotten invasion’s presence lingers on every page. The Iraq paradigm forms the basis of Kagan’s entire thesis—namely, that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus, with competing (indeed, opposing) ideas over what constitutes legitimate power—but it’s an altogether faulty example, not just because the European Union itself was divided over military action in Iraq, but because Kagan doesn’t give due consideration to the fact that the Iraq war might have been the biggest American foreign policy misstep since that oft-invoked parallel, Vietnam. Isn’t is possible, you want to ask Kagan, that France and Germany’s unwillingness to join the “Coalition of the Willing” had more to do with strategic consideration of national interests than with “idealistic” notions of engendering a Kantian vision for perpetual peace?  

Before I get into all of that, I should mention that this book’s not just for IR geeks, as its sales prove. Of Paradise and Power is quite enjoyable and at times very insightful, and confirmed my decision to position Kagan on the “don’t agree with him but respect him because he’s smart” throne in my mental pantheon.  And much of what he says is true, though admittedly the book seems almost hopelessly out of date when considered in light of the European debt crises and the proliferation of that ultimate fear pervading the West: China taking over the world. After the decimation of the continent during the Second World War, America was the key to Europe’s rebirth. European nations’ relinquishing of their Great Power did have more to do with their confirmed statuses as Weak States in a bipolar world order (dominated, of course, by the two competing ideological behemoths, the US and the USSR) than with a genuine political realignment. And—to paraphrase our own Barack Obama—the US’s “nuclear umbrella” did undergird global security for fifty years. The fact that France and Germany are able to criticize the US for its rampant militarism seems a bit rich, given that it was precisely this hard-power protection that permitted France and Germany to recover and flourish postwar. America is a global hegemon and the world’s only superpower (well, it was when this book was written, anyway). Of course it views its responsibilities as different from Europe’s, because America has more of them. Of course the US is an easy target for whatever Europeans think is wrong with the world. And of course Europe is more averse to war and committed to a permanent peace than is America; if serving as Ground Zero in two world wars didn’t inculcate that lesson fully enough, I don’t know what would have. But the invasion of Iraq doesn’t support these arguments and Kagan’s mostly valid hypothesis about the nature of trans-Atlantic relations. If anything, Kagan’s choice to rely as heavily as he does upon Iraq undermines his entire case.

Kagan claims that “Saddam Hussein was never perceived to be the threat to Europe that he was to the United States. The logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power has been that the task of containing Saddam Hussein always belonged primarily to the United States, not to Europe, and everyone agreed on this—including Saddam, which was why he always considered the United States, not Europe, his principal adversary.” Fine. But he goes on to claim that Europeans did not see their own interests threatened after 9/11, that Europeans’ heartfelt expressions of sympathy and solidarity with the US had more to do with good old-fashioned compassion than with any kind of strategic game plan. “Europeans have never really believed they are next,” Kagan affirms.

I’m not sure where the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings that wreaked havoc on Europeans’ collective sense of security fit in to this thesis, or how Kagan accounts for the fact that European states actually have more to lose from ostracizing the Middle East, given that they haven’t really been able to assimilate large swathes of their Muslim populations into quote-unquote Western society and are thus arguably more at risk for terrorist attacks than is the US. Kagan seems to take as holy writ that a.) Saddam posed a legitimate threat to the US and the entire premise for invasion wasn’t concocted by the Bush Administration for God only knows what reason. (Oil? Remaking the Middle East? Natan Sharansky-style democratization? Bush Junior’s daddy issues? Take your pick.) And b.) that European interests are not threatened by events or potential threats outside its borders. Huh? Chalking up the French and German opposition to unilateral American action in Iraq to “differing perceptions of threats and how to address them” reveals a mendacity that should be beneath a scholar of Kagan’s caliber. Bush manipulated intelligence to distort the threat Iraq actually posed to world order. Period. That European nations should be expected to act against their own interests by putting their troops into harm’s way, dredging up Muslim antagonism and getting bogged down in an unwinnable insurgency for a threat that was vastly exaggerated by the United States seems just . . . ridiculous. Continental Europe, not the US, in fact had an accurate perception of the threat Saddam posed to the international community. (While Kagan takes pains to remind everybody that President Clinton initiated bombing campaigns against Iraq as well, that certainly doesn’t provide cover for Bush 43’s later invasion—an invasion his own advisors, back when they were all working for Bush 41 during the Gulf War, once cautioned would end in disaster.)

I suppose the real question here is whether or not the aforementioned bullshit negates the value of the book altogether. I’d argue no, of course; there’s a lot one can learn from Kagan’s conception of the realities of postwar Europe and Cold War politics. So read it as history, not as anything that has much bearing on making sense of current events—either in 2003 or today.

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3 Responses to Review: Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, by Robert Kagan

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