Today's date:
  Summer 2003


Old Europe Cannot Be a Counterweight to the American Imperium

Paul Kennedy is Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies at Yale University. He is the editor and author of 16 books, including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

New Haven—At last, European intellectuals have produced their own "hot idea" for debate among the foreign policy crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. No more waiting for Americans to come up with slogans like "the Clash of Civilizations" (Huntington), "The End of History" (Fukuyama), or theses like "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus" (Kagan). With the French scholar Jacques Derrida and the German scholar Juergen Habermas combining to argue that American hegemonic world pretensions have to be balanced, and that the only way to do that is through a unified European foreign policy led by the "core European" nations, the trendy debators this year are no longer the denizens of Harvard Square or midtown Manhattan. What is more, the Derrida-Habermas call for a European identity is a vital one in itself, and appears even more significant when it is linked with the thought that steps have to be taken to curb American primacy and unilateralism. This is hardly coffee-house babble, since it says what many others in Europe are thinking.

I have always favored European unity, and campaigned for Britain to remain an EC member when Harold Wilson called for a referendum in the early 1970s. More recently, I have consistently argued against the White House’s "forward" policies. I believed last year it would have been possible to tie Saddam down (like Gulliver in Lilliput) with a vastly-increased inspectorate. I regard the quarrel with much of the rest of the world over Iraq and the UN Security Council as very serious, and hurting both America and Europe. I worry about American hubris. And I worry that if the neo-conservative voices close to the White House continue to get their way, the US really does run the risk of "imperial overstretch" despite even its great power. In sum, I stand somewhere on the liberal and multilateral side of the spectrum of debate among American intellectuals and media.

My basic problem with the Derrida-Habermas proclamation is neither their concern about unrestrained American power, nor their real hope that Europe should have greater unity, identity and common policies. My problem is that their document isn’t practical enough; that is to say, the authors hardly ever indicate what an alternative (European) superpower would do if it existed and, more importantly, what should be done—apart from constitutional "deepening" measures—to get there. The American plans for a Middle East may be floundering right now, but at least they have a "road map." The way to a powerful Europe is not even sketched out. It is an aspiration, not a policy.

One of the chief difficulties of moving forward is that we have a problem of defining who or what constitutes Europe, especially the "core Europe" [France, Germany, Benelux, and few others] that Derrida and Habermas see as being the key players. Obviously, although they talk a lot about Europe’s great cultural achievements, the criterion for membership can’t be a cultural one, since people all over the continent, from Scotland to Estonia, would be in. This is the Europe of a younger, more cosmopolitan generation, so how could all of those who go to study in London or Budapest be outside the core? My niece is teaching in Romania, my eldest son studying at Leuven. Oxford and Cambridge are full of Germans. The road map to superpowerdom for Europe does not go via the cultural route. It must be more specific.

A political and strategic route for Europe is the more likely path to what the authors seem to want, since the subtitle of their proclamation is "A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in the Heart of Europe." But the real issue raised by the Derrida-Habermas appeal is the extent to which the movement should be defined by the mass anti-White House protests that burst out on February, and are seen as historic and symbolic (in fact, the title of their article reads, in English, February 15th, or What Binds Europeans Together). For if the real aim is to create a deliberate counterweight to the United States, the policy is unlikely to succeed—it will lose Britain and Spain, possibly Italy and the Netherlands, and certainly most of the Central and East European states. And here is another obvious problem. The fact that this call for a "core Europe" comes from a French and a German scholar—a sort of philosophical echo of the Chirac and Shroeder criticisms of the White House—will not only amuse or irritate the Americans, but it also will seem to other Europeans like a rehash of the de Gaulle-Adenauer axis, which was not popular outside of Paris and Bonn. All the rather thoughtless assertions by their successors today that France and Germany have a special, elevated and "core" role, with the other European states following, just gives ammunition to the anti-federal critics within Europe itself. To add that this Franco-German biumverate will lead the charge against America will make the discontents all that stronger.

Moreover, all this misses the point. The fact is that, whether Europe is to become an effective counterweight to a unilateralist America in the years to come, or an amiable and near-equal world partner, it really has to make some tough practical decisions, and achieve tough practical policies, in order to move ahead. Constitutional decisions, like creating the office of a single foreign minister, go part of the way, but that is almost like the icing on the cake if Europe itself is not made stronger.

So, here, for consideration, are a half-dozen nettles that might be grasped in order to make Europe stronger, to raise her in the eyes of the world, and to contribute to the greater sense of European identity which professors Derrida and Habermas yearn for:

A. Europe needs to give itself a much better military capacity, especially in airlift and sealift and communications. It needs to spend more on new weapons, scrap national-conscript armies and train for integrated multi-arms fighting in many parts of the world. This all requires more money. Right now, the countries which seem to be doing that best, and take military reform seriously, are Britain and Poland, not "old Europe." Many of them now talk about military reforms, but the low amounts spent on their defense budgets give the game away.

B. If it really wants improved international structures that provide peace and prosperity, Europe needs to push for serious reform of the United Nations, especially in the composition of the permanent veto members of the Security Council so that countries like India, Brazil and South Africa would also achieve that status. Perhaps it should also honestly confront the fact that it is over-represented on that body. There have been proposals from time to time for there to be a single, rotating "European" permanent seat, an idea France always threatens to veto. (Meanwhile, and ironically, if "non-core" Britain lost its veto and permanency, the Security Council itself would suffer from the loss of one of its most effective and experienced supporters, a country really pulling its weight in the UN’s peacekeeping burdens.)

C. Europe needs to make a massive push against protectionism, especially in agricultural goods, to assist poorer countries in Africa and the Caribbean to export their produce and earn money. But France is the biggest and most obstinate foe of free trade in agriculture, and drags a complicit Germany along with it. The Chirac-Schroeder secret deal to slow down structural reforms was just the latest example. Is it any wonder that developing countries are cynical about Europe’s proclamations that world markets should be boosted, and structural obstacles reduced, when most trade experts believe that the single biggest boost to Africa and Caribbean nations would be to scrap Europe’s [and America’s, and Japan’s] agricultural protectionism? But is that high on Chirac’s priorities when he talks of France’s global responsibilities?

D. Europe needs to offer large increases in development assistance, again to help the poorer countries of the globe, such assistance consisting not only of capital and infrastructural investment but also training, technical assistance, scholarships and waiving of intellectual property restrictions. To be sure, European aid is a sight more generous than America’s—the EU provides around twice as much as the US—but if the Derrida-Habermas plan is for Europe to be a shining example to the rest of the world, much more is called for. Why not declare that the EU will devote a full 1 percent of GDP annually to [non-military] development assistance, as a symbol of its leadership? Right now, only the Scandanavians give respectable totals in foreign aid.

E. In that connection, Europe ought to make a special commitment to Africa, not just because it is the poorest of the poor, and not just because of European colonialism there, but also because of geographical proximity and because in Africa it could again be an alternative model to US neglect, or to the American government’s concern chiefly for military-security threats. By contrast, Europe is not a power player in East Asia, it has limited effectiveness in the Middle East or South Asia and has no need to involve itself directly or politically in Latin America. (This once again, though, points to the difference with America: the US is a major player everywhere, yet one doubts that even a united Europe could be, or would want to be?)

F. Finally, it is absolutely vital for Europe to get its economy going again in a sustained way. If its overall growth-rates lag behind those of the US and much of Asia over the next decade or two, then the whole notion of being a "counterweight" is off. But to get, for example, the lumbering German economy back on the track of sustained swifter growth will involve tough reforms and challenges to accepted ways of doing things, especially in regard to bureaucratic habits, trade-union privileges, pensions and other social spending. Europe also needs, frankly, to get its youthful population going again. The astonishingly low fertility rates in much of Europe—in contrast to the healthy but not spectacular population increases forecast for the United States over the next 50 years—are going to be as important as the better-known differences in defense spending. Every long-term demographic forecast for Europe, and perhaps especially "core Europe," points to the build-up of problems when countries suffer from fertility-rates of 1.5 percent or even less. If population trends are a good indicator, Europe shows much more sign of shrinking than advancing on the world stage.

But let us suppose for a moment that Europe was to succeed on all these front. Should that happen, it would indeed come close to the Derrida-Habermas vision of being a strong and influential player in world affairs. It need not be an angry competitor to the US all the time—the present characters occupying the White House and the Elysee Palace will not last for ever—but it would once again have become important enough in military, economic and political terms to be respected and paid attention to by others, even American neo-conservatives. I personally would very much like that outcome.

But, here’s the rub, and why the Derrida-Habermas and Chirac-Schroeder strategies look doubtful. The resistance to these tough reform fields is deepest, not in the so-called "new Europe" and pro-American countries like Britain, Spain and Poland but precisely in the "old" or "core Europe" countries like France, Belgium and Germany. They are the ones who most fiercely cling to agricultural protectionism; the ones who have the deepest structural and ideologiocal objections to modifying their economies to be competitive in today’s globalized world; and the ones (France is a partial exception here) who are spending so little of their GDP on effective armed forces. As for changing the Security Council and rescuing the world body, well, if French diplomats come to regard that place as a battlefield full of mutual vetoes against America, how much reform can we expect? Finally, and ironically, if France and Germany made the spending increases recommended here—increase the defense budget, increase foreign aid, modernize the economy—it would greatly exceed the proportions of government spending to GDP recommended by the Maastricht agreement. Even now, those two pillars of the European Community are in violation of that accord, which Chirac and Schroeder so often portray as a milestone of the "core Europe’s" march towards unity. There is an extraordinary contradiction here. It is the governments of France and Germany that provide the most political rhetoric about making Europe strong and competitive in the modern world, yet it is they who have so much to do in order to stay competitive. But if their governments propose tough fiscal action, those tens of thousands of Frenchmen and Germans who on February 15th marched against a US war against Iraq (and who are almost deified in the Derrida-Habermas text) would be back on the streets, marching against the necessary agriculture and taxation and spending reforms. And everyone knows that their governments will be forced to compromise.

This is the real reason why I think the Derrida-Habermas appeal for a "core Europe" to emerge and balance the US will simply not work. These "old" Europe societies, far from being the front-runners, are in so many ways the laggards in handling the global challenges of the 21st century. It is all very well for French and German philosophers to appeal to Europe’s rich culture, its heritage, and the wonderful growth of "European-ness" as the foundations on which to create a new force in the international power balances. But unless serious structural changes are pushed through, their argument will remain—how should one it put it?—simply academic.