Robert Kagan: Europe and the U.S. See the World in Vastly Different Ways

Roundup: Media's Take

Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in the NYT (Jan. 24, 2004):

A great philosophical schism has opened within the West, and instead of mutual indifference, mutual antagonism threatens to debilitate both sides of the trans-Atlantic community. Coming at a time in history when new dangers and crises are proliferating, this schism could have serious consequences. For Europe and the United States to decouple strategically has been bad enough. But what if the schism over "world order" infects the rest of what we have known as the liberal West? Will the West still be the West?

It is the legitimacy of American power and American global leadership that has come to be doubted by a majority of Europeans. America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy.

Americans will find that they cannot ignore this problem. The struggle to define and obtain international legitimacy in this new era may prove to be among the critical contests of our time, in some ways as significant in determining the future of the international system and America's place in it as any purely material measure of power and influence.

Americans for much of the past three centuries have considered themselves the vanguard of a worldwide liberal revolution. Their foreign policy from the beginning has not been only about defending and promoting their material national interests. "We fight not just for ourselves but for all mankind," Benjamin Franklin declared of the American Revolution, and whether or not that has always been true, most Americans have always wanted to believe that it is true. There can be no clear dividing line between the domestic and the foreign, therefore, and no clear distinction between what the democratic world thinks about America and what Americans think about themselves.

Every profound foreign policy debate in America's history, from the time when Jefferson squared off against Hamilton, has ultimately been a debate about the nation's identity and has posed for Americans the primal question "Who are we?" Because Americans do care, the steady denial of international legitimacy by fellow democracies will over time become debilitating and perhaps even paralyzing.

Americans therefore cannot ignore the unipolar predicament. ...

Right now many Europeans are betting that the risks from the "axis of evil," from terrorism and tyrants, will never be as great as the risk of an American Leviathan unbound. Perhaps it is in the nature of a postmodern Europe to make such a judgment. But now may be the time for the wisest heads in Europe, including those living in the birthplace of Pascal, to begin asking what will result if that wager proves wrong.

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