On Power and Weakness

Editor’s Note: On the tenth anniversary of the publication of his article Power and Weakness, Robert Kagan reflects on its origins and impact in an essay symposium organized by Tod Lindberg, editor of the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review.

I want to thank Tod Lindberg for putting this little symposium together and also to express my appreciation to the contributors for their thoughtful critiques. Ten years ago, when I wrote the original essay, it would not have occurred to me that anyone would be commenting on it a year later, let alone a decade later. As Tod knows, I only wrote the essay because he had invited me to speak at a conference, and I had to deliver something. No doubt the other contributors will recognize the experience. Therefore from the beginning I have been acutely aware of the essay’s limitations — and have had the good fortune to have all those limitations pointed out to me frequently, in many languages, with greater or lesser kindness over the years, and now again at the scene of the crime a decade later.

I want to take this opportunity to make one point about the historical context in which this essay has been viewed. The essay, and the book that followed, have been viewed as a part of the Bush era, a response to or justification of the transatlantic split that opened over Iraq, a defense or inspiration for Bush’s supposed “unilateralism.” In fact, however, the essay was really a product of the 1990s. The world I was reflecting on was not the world of Bush and de Villepin. It was the world of Clinton and Védrine. Recall that the essay was published in 2002. It was written mostly in 2001, conceived before September 11, and reflected the moods and attitudes not of the early Bush years but of the Clinton years of the late 1990s. I arrived in Brussels in 2000 in a Europe still dealing with Clinton. It was a complicated relationship.

I would also note that the essay was more an observation, and an attempt at an explanation, than a prescription. As some have noted, my only recommendation was that Americans and Europeans had to learn to work together despite their differing perspectives. I still believe that today, and indeed perhaps even more fervently.

The words that I used to characterize the differences between the United States and Europe were, for the most part, not my own. Nor, on the American side, were they the views of any Republican or Bush administration official. The U.S. leader who best expressed the American perspective at the time was Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who in early 1998, at a time of confrontation and possible military conflict — with Iraq — declared, “if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” The countries that, in this leading Democrat’s point of view, did not see far enough were France and Germany and other European powers who, then as later, opposed not only the use of force against Iraq but also the sanctions regime then in place against Saddam Hussein. This Clintonite frustration with the Europeans over Iraq followed closely an earlier frustration over European reluctance to take the lead in Bosnia, and preceded a later Clintonite frustration with European hesitancy during the war over Kosovo. It was then-General Wesley Clark who complained of a “European approach” to war-fighting marked by “doubts and reservations” and too much attention to annoying and (to the Americans) less important “legal issues.”

As for the European perspective on the differences between their approach and the American approach to world affairs, again I did not express my own or an American opinion. I did nothing more than quote Europeans from the 1990s — Gilles Andréani, complaining (in 1999) of a “U.S. mindset” that “tends to emphasize military, technical, and unilateral solutions to international problems, possibly at the expense of co-operative and political ones”; Hubert Védrine (in 1998) complaining about the American “hyperpower”; Steven Everts, in an article written in Clinton’s last year, pointing out the many differences between Americans who saw “threats” and wanted to hammer them with military power and Europeans who saw “challenges” and wanted to manage them through money and diplomacy.

The fact that these were not my views, or the Bush administration’s views, was quickly lost as the Iraq war and the transatlantic argument erupted simultaneously. Both Europeans, and American Democrats, quickly forgot that the gap that opened between the United States and Europe opened well before George W. Bush was elected.

Many also forgot how they once hoped to address that gap. One of my great inspirations as I was completing the essay was Robert Cooper, at the time an aide to Tony Blair. In those days he was warning Europeans not to overlook the importance of military power in a world that still required it. Cooper’s famous and controversial essay on the need for a new “liberal imperialism,” published in 2002, had a huge impact on my thinking. He argued that while Europe lived in a “postmodern world” that had moved beyond power politics, it could not let down its guard in dealing with the rest of the world, which had not. The challenge, he wrote, was “to get used to the idea of double standards.” Europeans in dealing with each other might “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. . . . Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.” The main purpose of his essay was to convince Europeans to cease neglecting their defenses, “both physically and psychologically.”

I still think he was right.