A Tougher War for the US Is One of Legitimacy


By Robert Kagan

New York Times
January 24, 2004

"What kind of world order do we want?" That question, posed by Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, has been on the minds of many Europeans these days. Indeed, the great trans-Atlantic debate over the Iraq war was rooted in profound disagreement over "world order." Yes, Americans and Europeans differed on the specific question of what to do about Iraq. They debated whether Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat, and whether war was the right answer. A solid majority of Americans answered yes to both questions; even larger majorities of Europeans answered no.

But these disagreements reflected more than simple tactical and analytical assessments of the situation in Iraq. As the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, put it, the struggle was not so much about Iraq as it was about "two visions of the world." The differences were not only about policy. They were also about first principles. Opinion polls taken before, during and after the war have shown two peoples living on separate strategic and ideological planets. More than 80 percent of Americans believe that war may achieve justice; less than half of Europeans believe that a war — any war — can ever be just. Americans and Europeans disagree about the role of international law and international institutions, and about the nebulous and abstract yet powerful question of international legitimacy.

These different worldviews predate the Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush, although both the war and the Bush administration's conduct of international affairs have deepened and perhaps hardened this trans-Atlantic rift into an enduring feature of the international landscape. "America is different from Europe," Chancellor Gerhard Schrí¶der of Germany declared matter-of-factly months before the war. Who any longer can deny it?

Today a darker possibility looms. 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. Perhaps the singular failure of the Bush administration is that it has been too slow to recognize this. Mr. Bush and his advisers came to office guided by the narrow realism that dominated in Republican foreign policy circles during the Clinton years. The Clinton administration, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, wrote in a famous essay in January 2000, had failed to focus on the "national interest" and instead had addressed itself to "humanitarian interests" or the interests of "the international community." The Bush administration, by contrast, would take a fresh look at all treaties, obligations and alliances and re-evaluate them in terms of America's "national interest."

The notion that the United States could take such a narrow view of its "national interest" has always been mistaken. But besides being an analytical error, the enunciation of this "realist" approach by the sole superpower in a unipolar era was a serious foreign policy error. The global hegemon cannot proclaim to the world that it will be guided only by its own definition of its "national interest."

This is precisely what even America's closest friends fear: that the United States will wield its unprecedented vast power only for itself. In her essay, Ms. Rice derided "the belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else." But for the rest of the world, what other source of legitimacy can there be? When the United States acts in its own interests, Ms. Rice claimed, as would many Americans, it necessarily serves the interests of everyone. "To be sure," she argued, "there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity, but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect." But could even America's closest friends ever be persuaded that an America always pursuing its self-interest could be relied upon to serve their interests, too, as some kind of "second-order effect"?

Both the unipolar predicament and the American character require a much more expansive definition of American interests. The United States can neither appear to be acting only in its self-interest, nor can it in fact act as if its own national interest were all that mattered. Even at times of dire emergency, and perhaps especially at those times, the world's sole superpower needs to demonstrate that it wields its great power on behalf of its principles and all who share them.

The manner in which the United States conducts itself in Iraq today is especially important in this regard. At stake is not only the future of Iraq and the Middle East more generally, but also the future of America's reputation, its reliability and its legitimacy as a world leader. The United States will be judged, and should be judged, by the care and commitment it takes to secure a democratic peace in Iraq. It will be judged by whether it really advances the cause of liberalism, in Iraq and elsewhere, or whether it merely defends its own interests.

No one has made this argument more powerfully, and more presciently, than that quintessential realist, Henry A. Kissinger. The task in Iraq, Mr. Kissinger argued in an essay, was not just to win the war but to convey "to the rest of the world that our first pre-emptive war has been imposed by necessity and that we seek the world's interests, not exclusively our own." America's "special responsibility, as the most powerful nation in the world," he said, "is to work toward an international system that rests on more than military power — indeed, that strives to translate power into cooperation. Any other attitude will gradually isolate and exhaust us."

The United States, in short, must pursue legitimacy in the manner truest to its nature, by promoting the principles of liberal democracy, not only as a means to greater security, but as an end in itself. Success in such endeavors will provide the United States a measure of legitimacy in the liberal, democratic world, and even in Europe. The United States should try to fulfill its part of a new trans-Atlantic bargain by granting Europeans some influence over the exercise of American power — if, that is, the Europeans in turn will wield that influence wisely. The NATO alliance — an alliance of and for liberal democracies — could be the locus of such a bargain. NATO is where the United States has already ceded influence to Europeans, who vote on an equal footing with the American superpower in all the alliance's deliberations. Indeed, NATO has for decades been the one organization capable of reconciling American hegemony with European autonomy and influence. And even today NATO retains a sentimental attraction for Americans, more potent than the attraction they feel for the United Nations.

But can the United States cede some power to Europe without putting American security, and indeed Europe's and the entire liberal democratic world's security, at risk in the process? Here lies the rub. For even with the best of intentions, the United States cannot enlist the cooperation of Europeans if there is no common assessment of the nature of global threats today, and of the means that must be employed to meet them. But it is precisely this gap in perception that has driven the United States and Europe apart in the post-cold-war world.

If it is true, as the British diplomat Robert Cooper suggests, that international legitimacy stems from shared values and a shared history, does such commonality still exist within the West now that the cold war has ended? For while the liberal trans-Atlantic community still shares much in common, the philosophical schism on the fundamental questions of world order may now be overwhelming those commonalities. It is hard to imagine the crisis of legitimacy being resolved as long as this schism persists. For even if the United States were to fulfill its part of the bargain, and grant the Europeans the influence they crave, would the Europeans, with their very different perception of the world, fulfill theirs?

As long as Europeans and Americans do not share a common view of the threat posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, they will not join in a common strategy. Nor will Europeans accord the United States legitimacy when it seeks to address those threats by itself, and by what it regards as sometimes the only means possible, force. And what, then, is the United States to do? Should Americans, in the interest of trans-Atlantic harmony, try to alter their perceptions of global threats to match that of their European friends? To do so would be irresponsible. Not only American security but the security of the liberal democratic world depends today, as it has depended for the past half-century, on American power. Even Europeans, in moments of clarity, know that is true. "The U.S. is the only truly global player," Joschka Fischer has declared, "and I must warn against underestimating its importance for peace and stability in the world. And beware, too, of underestimating what the U.S. means for our own security."

But the United States has played that role not by adopting Europe's postmodern worldview, but by seeing the world through its own eyes. Today most Europeans believe that the United States exaggerates the dangers in the world. After Sept. 11, most Americans fear that they haven't taken those dangers seriously enough. Herein lies the tragedy. To address today's global threats, Americans will need the legitimacy that Europe can provide. But Europeans may well fail to provide it. In their effort to constrain the superpower, they will lose sight of the mounting dangers in the world. In their nervousness about unipolarity, they may forget the dangers of a multipolarity in which nonliberal and nondemocratic powers come to outweigh Europe in the global competition.

Europeans thus may succeed in debilitating the United States, but since they have no intention of supplementing American power with their own, the net result will be a diminution of the total amount of power that the liberal democratic world can bring to bear in its defense — and in defense of liberalism itself. 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.

Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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