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The Healer

Article by Robert Kagan

September 15, 2006

In the maelstrom of transatlantic relations unleashed by the present Iraq crisis, one question goes begging: Is there a middle path between the increasingly pacifist, Kantian worldview of Europe and the increasingly belligerent Hobbesian worldview of the US, a workable compromise between Europe’s suspicion of power and faith in an international legal order, on the one hand, and America’s belief in power and suspicion of international legal order, on the other? The answer, if there is one, might be found in Britain and in the person of Tony Blair.
The Iraq crisis has cast transatlantic differences in an especially harsh light, but the gulf had been opening for some time. After the cold war, Europeans and Americans no longer share a common view of the world. On the all-important question of power – the utility of power, the morality of power – they have parted ways. Europeans believe they are moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. Europe itself has entered a post-historical paradise, the realisation of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. The US, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international rules are unreliable and where security and the promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.

Europe’s relatively pacific strategic culture is the product of its relative weakness in military terms, but it is also the product of its profound and admirable aspiration to escape its war-like past. Who knows the dangers of Machtpolitik better than a French or German or British citizen? The EU is a monument to Europe’s rejection of the old power politics. As the British diplomat and senior EU official Robert Cooper has noted, Europe today lives in a “postmodern system” that does not rest on a balance of power but on “the rejection of force” and on “self-enforced rules of behaviour”. Raison d’état has been “replaced by a moral consciousness”. The new Europe has succeeded not by balancing power but by transcending power. And now Europeans have become evangelists for their “postmodern” gospel of international relations. The application of the European miracle to the rest of the world has become Europe’s new mission civilisatrice. If Germany can be tamed through gentle rapprochement, why not Iraq?

This has put Europeans and Americans on a collision course. Americans have not lived the European miracle. They have no experience of promoting ideals and order successfully without power. Their memory of the past 60 years is of a world saved from Nazism chiefly by American power and of a cold war struggle that was eventually won by strength and determination, not by the spontaneous triumph of “moral consciousness”. As good children of the Enlightenment, Americans believe in human perfectibility. But Americans from Donald Rumsfeld to Colin Powell to Madeleine Albright also believe that global security and a liberal order depend on the US – that “indispensable nation” – wielding its power in the dangerous, Hobbesian world that still flourishes, at least outside Europe. Especially after September 11, most Americans remember Munich, not Maastricht.

Can the gap be bridged or at least narrowed? Tony Blair has long believed it can, and he is probably the only person on either side of the Atlantic with a strategy for bringing the one-time transatlantic partners back on to common ground.

You would never know it from listening to the pundits. The past week’s pummelling of the British prime minister suggests that Blair may be the most misunderstood leader in the world today. In Britain, across Europe, and even in the American press, he is derided as an unreasoning war-hawk, or caricatured as a man who has almost inexplicably placed his fate in the uncertain hands of George W Bush and in the unfolding of events that are entirely beyond his capacity to control. Why is he doing it, the smart editors at the Economist ask. But their answer is vague and unsatisfying – “Tony Blair prides himself on his country’s special relationship with America. He has worked hard to bond with Mr Bush” – so for pride, friendship, and perhaps a marginal increase in Britain’s global influence, Blair risks all?

This odd portrayal of Blair’s motives and strategy rests, in part, on the presumption that Blair cannot possibly share the American view of Saddam as a deadly menace. His critics assume that Blair is as sanguine about the dangers as they are, and therefore he must have other motives, like “bonding” with Bush.

The majority of Blair’s critics today judge him strictly by whether he successfully impedes Bush’s march to war. But, of course, that is not and never has been Blair’s purpose. The prime minister is one of the few leaders in Europe and the UK to comprehend fully the most dangerous phenomenon of the new era, the potential nexus between international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Britons and Europeans are fond of saying that they have lived with terrorism for decades. Fair enough. But the kind of terrorism they have known is not the kind that struck the US on September 11, 2001, the kind that kills thousands in a single strike. Americans today can imagine terrorism on a cataclysmic scale, and so they can imagine a man like Saddam some day slipping biological or chemical or nuclear weapons to a terrorist organisation. Many Britons and Europeans go to great lengths to avoid imagining the imaginable. Blair sees what lies ahead.

To prepare for this future, or more precisely, to prepare what used to be called “the west” to meet the new challenges, Blair has engaged in a two-fold mission. One part of his strategy, and the part that has received the most attention in Europe, has been to try to convince the wary American hyperpower to play by the rules when it turns to force, to act as much as possible within the constraints of the international legal order that Europeans value so highly. But the other, equally important part of Blair’s strategy has been to convince Europe to behave responsibly and courageously in a still dangerous world, to acquire the military capacity, and the will to use military force, as essential to the defence and promotion of that same international legal order.

The theoretical basis for Blair’s approach to Europe has been set forth most powerfully by Robert Cooper, once a top official in the Foreign Office. A year ago, Cooper wrote that although “within the postmodern world [ie, today’s Europe], there are no security threats in the traditional sense,” nevertheless, throughout the rest of the world – what Cooper calls the “modern and pre-modern zones” – threats abound.

If the postmodern world does not protect itself, it can be destroyed. But how does Europe protect itself without discarding the very ideals and principles that undergird its pacific system? “The challenge to the postmodern world,” Cooper has argued, “is to get used to the idea of double standards.” Among themselves, Europeans may “operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security.” But when dealing with the world outside Europe, “we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary”. This is Cooper’s principle for safeguarding society: “Among ourselves, we keep the law, but when operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.”

Cooper’s notion of an international double standard for power would seem to lie at the heart of Blair’s global strategy. On the one hand, he has tried to lead Britain into the rule-based, Kantian world of the EU. And he has pursed the European interest in trying to convince the US, which stands outside that Kantian world, to respect its norms. But Blair has also tried to lead Europe back out into the Hobbesian world, where military power remains a key feature of international relations.

The irony is that Blair has largely succeeded in the first part of his mission, convincing the American hegemon to act within the international legal framework. It is ironic because that is where his critics suggest he has failed. But it was Blair, and Blair alone, who convinced President Bush last summer to go to the UN security council to seek a new resolution on Iraq. It was Blair who convinced the Bush administration – perhaps the least inclined to multilateral action of any in decades – to allow one final test for Iraq. And it is Blair who today has managed to convince an evidently impatient American president to take the risky course of seeking yet another security council resolution before acting against Iraq. This is despite the possibility of a messy political failure at the UN.

Those who simply oppose the war under any circumstances may judge Blair a failure for not stopping Bush, although the charge is a bit absurd given that Blair himself is not opposed to war. But those who claim their primary concern is the upholding of international law and the strengthening of the UN security council as the only legitimate authority for declaring war against Iraq – as so many of Blair’s Labour party critics do claim – have no business at all being critical of Blair. Rather, if they are sincere in their assertion that the issue is international order and not peace for peace’s sake, then they should be applauding and supporting Blair and turning their anger elsewhere.

For instance, across the channel. The French government today may pose as the great champion of the European vision of world order. But Europeans and Britons should ask themselves whether French policy strengthens or weakens the UN security council? France and Germany, if they hold to their present course, may succeed only in convincing a new generation of Americans that the UN security council is feckless. From a strictly European perspective, this would be a great missed opportunity. For four decades during the cold war, Americans were quite comfortable with the notion that the security council, with the Soviet Union wielding its veto, was no place to look for action or legitimacy. But during the decade after the cold war, Americans began to look again to the security council as a possible forum for the maintenance of international order and security. In the coming weeks, if France and Germany obstruct any serious efforts to implement Resolution 1441, Americans will revert to their earlier disdain for the UN. Is that how France and Germany, and Blair’s British critics propose to strengthen the international order? If the goal is to rein in the US, to convince the hyperpower that it should operate within the international legal structures Europeans value so highly, then Blair’s strategy is the best way to accomplish that goal. That is what Blair meant when he declared to the House of Commons that, “If the UN cannot be the way of resolving this issue, that is a dangerous moment for the world.”

Blair’s problem, in short, has not been his inability to influence the US. It is has been his inability to influence France and Germany. And the risk in Blair’s strategy is not that he has placed his fate in the hands of George W Bush – it is that he has also placed his fate in the hands of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder.

In fact, it is on the European side that Blair’s grand strategy has broken down. Despite Blair’s best efforts, Europe still refuses either to fund or restructure its militaries to make them capable of taking on global or even European security responsibilities. Today, Europe is further than it was a decade ago from an effective common foreign and defence policy. Schroeder has taken his nation “the German way”, and France has led the opposition to any double standard in foreign relations, insisting as a matter of principle as well as defiance to the American hegemon that Iraq and other rogue states must be dealt with as if they were European nations.

But give Blair credit for trying. He is the only world leader today who really is trying to find the synthesis of the American and European worldviews. Were he to succeed, he might find the answer to the seemingly ineluctable transatlantic drift. More than that, he might find the formula for preserving and advancing an international liberal order in the years and decades to come.

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