Soft Power, Hard Reality

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

A shorter version of this appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Tuesday 22, 2005.

Recent books have raved that the European Union is the way of the future. In contrast, a supposedly exhausted, broke and post-imperial United States chases the terrorist chimera, running up debts and deficits as it tilts at the autocratic windmills of the Arab World.

That caricature frames the visit of the President to Europe as transatlantic pundits demand a softer George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld. Stop the childish bickering and the tiresome neocon preening, we are lectured ad nauseam by Euro and American elites. Don’t divide Europe, we hear endlessly. Even though the European press, EU leaders, and their wild public have dealt out far more invective than they have received, American circumspection is the order of the day, the expected magnanimity from the more aggressive (and stronger) partner.

Europe is huffy, but strangely tentative in its new prickliness. Short-term positive indicators—trade surpluses, the strong Euro, low inflation and expansion of the EU—are showcased to prove that its statism and pacifism are the preferable Western paradigm. But privately bureaucrats in Brussels are far more worried about different and scarier long-term concomitant signs: high unemployment, static rates of worker productivity, low birthrates, Islamicist minorities, looming unfunded entitlement obligations, and a high-sounding pacifism that is being increasingly seen worldwide as base appeasement by friend and enemy alike.

The adage goes that the European Union counts on a more sophisticated and nuanced “soft power.” In reality, that translates to using transnational organizations and its own economic clout to soothe or buy off potential adversaries, while a formidable cultural engine dresses it all up in high sounding platitudes of internationalism and multilateralism. Everything from idly watching Milosevic and the Hutus butcher unchecked to unilateral intervention in the Ivory Coast or no action in Darfur usually finds either the proper humanitarian exegesis or the culpable American bogeyman. Yet contrary to the mythologies of Michael Moore and the high talk of Kyoto, most of the international sins of the recent age—selling a reactor to Saddam, setting-up a new arms market in China, white-washing Hizbollah, or subsidizing Hamas—were the work of European avatars of peace.

Such opportunism and its accompanying rhetoric were also predicated on the convenient specter of the bad-cop United States. We all knew the fall-guy script: Try as they might, the more sober Europeans could still fail to restrain reckless Americans—or so they used to warn everyone from Saddam to the mullahs, especially more recently in the case of scary George “smoke-‘em-out” Bush. Deal with, or buy from, a sane France or Germany now—or run for cover from the crazy Americans later. When the Europeans did occasionally intervene from Kosovo to the Ivory Coast, there was usually an American supply ship or C-130 somewhere to be found in the shadows.

After September 11 all that one-sided way of doing business is in jeopardy, well aside from eroding American public support for either bases in Western Europe or NATO itself. George Bush turned out not just to be a bombs-away Texan, but a visionary of the Woodrow Wilson and FDR stripe, who risked his reelection, the American economy, world oil markets, and his entire legislative agenda on spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, well beyond the wildest dreams of any European utopian.

If this idealism works, liberated Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, and others might see the US as principled as Europe proved conniving in the days of Oil-for-Food and extracting oil concessions from Saddam. America, in other words, is learning far more about soft power than the still disarmed Europeans have about hard power. The behemoth Abraham Lincoln and its supporting flotilla, not the EU mini-fleet, did the heavy lifting after the Tsunami.

The Europeans worry not just about American muscular idealism usurping their prized role as the backroom moral arbiters of globalized society. Berlin will soon be in range of Teheran’s missiles. Jihadists went to Afghanistan, the West Bank, or Iraq from Marseilles or Amsterdam, not from Detroit and the Bronx. Enemies of the United States—unlike Europe’s—more likely have to get in rather than come from within. Suddenly the old American stereotypes—an integrated rabble at home, an up-armed society foolishly spending its borrowed money on exotic missile defense, and an intrusive fleet turning up everywhere—are not so silly after all.

What happens if a newly aroused United States takes seriously the anti-American rhetoric of the European masses and media rather than the triangulating reassurances of their diplomats? Our elites may lament being cold-shouldered on their hadj to European Oz; yet red-state America is no longer afraid of the suave wizard’s booming voice and image on the big screen, but instead has spied out the tiny functionary with his ridiculous levers and dials behind the curtain at the side.

How, then, can Mr. Bush salvage the old relationship? After the Cold War, we only acerbated an already unwholesome parent-teenager relationship with the Europeans, who bragged of their new independence, snapped at their benefactors, but always counted on our subsidized protection. That simultaneous denial of and insistence on dependency was not healthy for a continent with a larger population and economy than the United States, as contemporary European insecurity always warred with past glories and unrealized potential capabilities.

Yet, if Europeans are ever going to enter into a full partnership with America, then we better let them move out, encourage them to rearm—or hope they find that the world works according to the refined protocols of the Hague. America must have the confidence that the European pan-democratic continent has evolved beyond warring against itself—and us as well. For all the diplomacy of Secretary Rice and President Bush, it is the Europeans’ choice, not our call.

Such a rapprochement can only work with a candid United States willing to drop both the obsequious praise of Europe’s vaunted third way and the bluster of euro-trashing. Do the Europeans really wish to return to the old Rome-Athens model and disingenuousness when in all the key decisions—Pershing missile deployment, German unification, recognition of Soviet Republics, NATO expansion, the removal of Milosevic, and the liberation of Afghanistan—the United States took the lead in near unilateral fashion under the cover of acting soberly under paternal European guidance? Dishonest, yes; sustainable, hardly.

So we are in a dilemma. Until postmodern Europe rightly assumes a role commensurate with its moral rhetoric, population, and economic strength, out of envy or pride it will often seek to undercut and occasionally embarrass the United States—at least up to that fine, though ambiguous, point of not quite alienating its hyperpower patron. For our part, we cannot ridicule Europe’s present military impotence only to oppose its nascent efforts at a unified defense establishment. So go to it, Europe—one voice, one army, one UN Security Council seat!

The United States should ignore all this ankle-biting, praise the EU to the skies, but not take very seriously their views on the world until we learn exactly what is going on inside Europe during these years of its uncertainty. America is watching enormous historical forces being unleashed on the continent from its own depopulation, new anti-Semitism, and rising Islamicism to Turkish demands for EU membership and further expansion of the Union into the backwaters of Eastern Europe that will bring it to the uncertain doorstep of Russia. Whether its politics and economy will evolve to embrace more personal freedom, its popular culture will integrate its minorities, and its military will step up to protect Western values and visions is unclear. But what is certain is that the United States cannot remain a true ally of a militarily weak but shrill Europe should its politics grow even more resentful and neutralist, always nursing old wounds and new conspiracies, amoral in its inability to act, quite ready to preach to those who do.

We keep assuming that Europeans are like Britain and Japan when in fact long ago they devolved more into a Switzerland and Sweden—friendly neutrals, but no longer real allies. In the meantime, let us Americans keep much more quiet, wait, and watch—even as we carry a far bigger stick.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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