Policy Review December 2004/January 2005

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in Beyond Paradise and Power: Europe, America, and the Future of a Troubled Partnership (Routledge, 2004), a collection of essays on transatlantic relationships.

There is no question that the aftermath of September 11, 2001, has laid bare a divergence in view between the United States and Europe over the question of the place of power in international affairs. Insofar as countering terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has become a priority likely to dominate U.S. security policy for a generation or more, and insofar as the United States will likely seek recourse to military measures on occasion in this period, the divergence is likely to persist. Transatlantic relations may go through periods of relative warming in the years ahead, but they seem likely to be punctuated by occasions in which the differences reemerge starkly. We have, in all likelihood, doses of bitterness ahead of us every bit as unpleasant as the bitterness over the Iraq war. 

But what I want to do here is take a large step back from all the disagreement and see if it does not, after all, take place within a frame of broader agreement about fundamental issues — more fundamental, even, than the question of the proper role of the use of force internationally, which is itself a mischaracterization of what was at stake in the dispute over Iraq, as we shall see.  

To show how this is so, I would like to radicalize the discussion by proffering a thesis so contrarian in the current context that I should probably begin by asking readers’ indulgence. It is this: There are no fundamental disagreements or differences between the United States and Europe. Existing differences are often more apparent than real. When real, the differences are in all consequential cases actually agreements to disagree. And in any case, the views of Americans and Europeans have been converging for some time and will continue to do so.

The norm of peace  

Let’s begin with two questions: Will the United States ever go to war with Germany or France? Will France ever go to war with Germany? At one level, the questions are absurd. Who asks such things? If we turn our attention to a consideration of where in the world war might break out, the last countries one would think would meet in combat would be the United States, France, and Germany. Insofar as war is serious business and should be approached accordingly, consideration of such scenarios as these seems to be at best a waste of time.  It is not. I do not, of course, mean to single out France and Germany. The questions under consideration here are really whether war is possible between European countries, or between the United States and any country or countries in Europe or a European collectivity, the European Union. The question is absurd because the answer is clearly “no.” But the implications of a “no” answer are nothing less than profound.  

As it happens, there is no point in human history prior to the end of the Second World War at which one could offer the same answer about any such group of countries. We need not belabor the point. What we are talking about is nothing other than the history of violent political conflict and organized warfare since the beginning of time. When tribes or peoples or states have had contact with one another, the results often have been violent, and even during periods of peace, it seems unlikely that the parties allowed themselves the luxury of thinking that another war was impossible — and that if any such forecasts emerged, serious-minded contemporaries regarded them as delusional, as indeed they proved to be when the next war came.  

Perhaps in light of history, we should modify our “no” answer in such a fashion as to avoid the radical proposition that war is impossible. One could adopt a “never say never” approach to the question. At the same time, however, we probably want to avoid overcompensating by describing matters in such a fashion as to make a wholly implausible war seem more likely than we all know it to be. One might say this: For the foreseeable future, war in Europe or between the United States and Europe is impossible. Because the unforeseen is by definition unforeseeable, we do not know what might change, and so we have an out in case the change turns out to be catastrophic: We hold open the possibility of an unforeseeable war.  

But there is a problem here. The qualification “for the foreseeable future” only seems to offer protection from the charge that the claim is radical. In fact, the claim about war’s impossibility “for the foreseeable future” is itself radical. Historically, at no time have people ever reasonably believed that war is impossible for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, it seems fair to say that, historically, people have foreseen war as a distinct possibility more or less constantly. Helmut Kohl did not regard another European war as an impossibility for the foreseeable future when he took office in 1982 nor when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 nor when the Soviet Union broke up in 1992. His efforts on behalf of European integration were a product of precisely the foreseeability of war to him and were meant to make such a war less likely by knitting Germany ever more tightly to its neighbors.1  

No, I think we must face up to the times in which we live and make radical claims when it is reasonable to do so — when radical changes in the international environment have taken place. If current conditions persist, and there is no reason to think they won’t or are in any way necessarily time-limited — for the foreseeable future, in other words — war in Europe or between the United States and Europe is impossible. The United States and Europe have no disputes between them that any country would think it desirable to try to settle by force.  

By “the United States and Europe,” I mean first of all the American government and governments in Europe, as well as the transnational European Union. But my contention is also broader: it is that the people of the United States and Europe constitute a single transnational ethical community, an Atlanticist community — first and foremost, because of their insistence on settling their disputes peacefully.2 It is, of course, possible to cite any number of surveys of popular attitudes in the United States and Europe on political and moral matters and on public policy preferences indicating that Americans and Europeans are in general not so far apart. Even on such issues as the death penalty, over which elites contend fiercely, public opinion in Europe is not very different from public opinion in the United States.3 Such measures of public opinion are at one level revealing, and probably do reflect the sense of Atlanticist community I am describing. But, of course, public opinion in Europe and the United States sometimes diverges sharply, as it did over Iraq. We must thus probe a little more deeply than the polls do to see what Americans and Europeans have in common. 

At bottom, it is this: In no serious case do we think of each other as entirely “other”; that is, as outsiders who may constitute a willful threat — as potential enemies, in other words. Early in Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, he proposed that “the political” is about a state’s designation of friends and enemies.4 Perhaps in keeping with his Nazi sympathies, he devoted the rest of his essay to a consideration of the enemy and paid no further attention to the question of the friend. The enemy is the exception, the one with whom all juridical relations have been destroyed or are absent and on whom one makes war. In Schmitt’s world, “the political” seems incomplete when the state has no enemy.  

Yet the category of friend is worth attention as well. I will leave aside the question of whether it is meaningful to say that states as such can be friends.5 But people can be friendly across the boundaries of states. If the people who constitute the political decision makers in one state see themselves as friendly toward the people who constitute the political decision makers in another state, then they will shape the political decisions of their states, including questions of war and peace, accordingly. The states under consideration here, namely, the United States and the European countries, are all democratic, which means that their leaders are accountable to the people in periodic elections. Their people are also liberal and bourgeois, which means that they have a strong preference for living in a community whose members settle disputes peacefully and in which, accordingly, disputes are rare and circumscribed. They understand themselves to live in such a community — and they understand that those of other nationality in the North Atlantic area, for example, live in such communities.6 

There are, of course, “rights” that governments are sometimes called upon to enforce. But there is also right conduct, the unity of respect for right and duty toward others, that people are by and large in the habit of practicing among themselves. This sense of right conduct is not necessarily determined or bound by nationality. When people think of each other as having in common a sense of right conduct, they are in this sense members of an ethical community that is similarly unbound by nationality. Members of such a community need not know each other personally, any more than members of ethical communities at the national level must be personally acquainted for bonds of friendship to be in place. Members are, any given one to any given other, friendly strangers.7 In the case of the Atlanticist community, the bourgeois and liberal life lived by the people throughout the community delineates right conduct.  

Any given person is a member of a number of overlapping ethical communities, which are not all the same in terms of the obligations of right conduct they impose on members: the family; the marketplace where one earns one’s living; what Hegel called the “corporation” but what we might find exemplified in a professional association, a political party, or, following Robert D. Putnam, a bowling team — an institution of common purpose in which members attain recognition as individuals insofar as they contribute to the common cause; one’s nation; and groups that extend beyond national borders (the Atlanticist community is one such, the Catholic Church another).  

Now, if it happens that there are conflicts between the obligations imposed by one community and another — if, that is, the person at the center is unsure what “right conduct” is — then there is a problem. And, indeed, the transnational ethical community is the weakest link, precisely because it lacks the immediate ties of face-to-face human contact as well as the power of a state.  

This weakness opens my argument to the charge that it simply presupposes no conflict between the nation and the transnational group, because in the event of such conflict, the transnational community would dissolve, thereby calling into question its existence altogether. But recall that there are no communities apart from the people who sustain them and that people not only conform themselves to right conduct but also by their actions set the norms of right conduct in the future. Far from presupposing an absence of conflict, I am offering a description of how it is that conflict does not arise: with regard to the political decisions made by governments, especially the ultimate political decisions a la Schmitt, decision makers conduct themselves in such a fashion as to avoid conflict.  

For our purposes here, I find it unnecessary to try to specify what, precisely, constitutes the complete body of political decision makers of each state (what Alexandre Kojève called the “exclusive political group”).8 Is it the electorate as a whole, because the governments in question are democratic? Or is it their elected representatives? Or is it some subset of those representatives? Or is it some broader set designed to include unelected persons who nevertheless possess the quality known as “influence”? I need merely note the near unanimity of opinion on the question at hand, namely, transatlantic and European war and peace, across all these categories — and further that any serious deviationism (of which, one should note, there is next to no sign) would quickly be countered, indeed punished. No president or prime minister who valued his or her office would propose such a war, because a more likely outcome than war would be losing office.

Institutions of community  

The preeminent state-to-state manifestation of the Atlanticist community is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (nato), a military alliance that binds members to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. The continuing relevance of nato in the absence of an external threat, such as the Warsaw Pact once posed, is a subject that has been much discussed. But nato is not just a defensive alliance. It is also, in effect, a permanent peace treaty among its own members. One might ask how nato differs from, for example, the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928, in which the signatories permanently foreswore war, to no discernible effect. First, there was little or no sense of ethical community among the signatories to the Kellogg-Briand pact, a treaty between sovereign states that each one might or might not choose to abide by. Second, more than a treaty, nato is an organization, an institution whose members join to find common purpose, to work together on security issues broadly construed. No decision can be taken over the objection of any member, so the organization by and large avoids the danger of working at cross-purposes with itself. nato has thus been a means by which governments and peoples have broadened and deepened their ties. And although Greece and Turkey, to pick an example of two countries whose people have been fighting from time immemorial, did indeed extend their violent contentiousness into the period in which both were members of nato, it seems reasonable to say that over time, nato membership has helped them reduce tensions.

A few remarks about the European Union are in order as well, notwithstanding that European integration is very poorly understood in the United States and is not yet, in my view, much of a factor in sustaining a sense of Atlanticist community among Americans — on the contrary, some Americans view the European Union with deep suspicion. But European integration, as Jacques Delors, Helmut Kohl, and Alexandre Kojève among many others have envisioned, has been a huge force in the emergence of a transnational ethical community in Europe. Indeed, they are two sides of the same coin. One could say that from Brussels, a sense of “Europeanness” has been defined and built one idea at a time. This is not an identity that is meant to supplant national identity — in other words, “Europe” is not an ethical community that is intended to replace the French or German communities. The idea, rather, is an agreed-on overarching structure that is not in conflict with national governments.

The political element of this moves in two directions: Representatives of national governments, meeting in Brussels, decide issue by issue what they can agree on among themselves, and national governments bring their own laws into conformity with the result of these decisions. This is to say that the various constraints operating on each national member dictate the ambitiousness of the overall European agenda at any given point. And in turn the negotiated result in Brussels reshapes the national members.9 The agreed-on criteria for joining the euro, for example, constituted huge leverage for domestic reform in a number of would-be members, and the prospect of membership in the European Union has been a powerful catalyst for sound policy choices in Central and Eastern Europe.

One could say that the creation, extension, and deepening of Europe have correspondingly diminished the extent to which the nations of Europe practice politics as nations. Some have couched this negatively, in terms of giving up sovereignty, and this is in a certain sense undeniable. But another way of looking at it is that a large and growing number of once-political issues — including issues of the sort that might once have led to war — have now been settled. Further controversy about one’s rights and obligations (right conduct, again) will be resolved juridically according to procedures that all parties have agreed to and whose outcome they have agreed to abide by. Note that what binds the parties is not the proceeding itself — in the sense that a domestic court has the full lawful power of the state at its disposal and indeed stands for the state. What binds the parties here, in the international context, is the idea that the proceedings are binding. This idea is at the core of the transnational ethical community under consideration here.

This exercise in social construction may be baffling to Americans (and to many Europeans), but it is striking how much of the European-American relationship already consists of relations of this kind. We are all trading nations, to pick the most obvious example. For trade to work, contracts have to be enforceable based solely on their terms and not on the identity of the contracting party or other extraneous matters. In a dispute with a Belgian in a Belgian court, an American must be treated like a Belgian; there can be no “Belgians win” rule, or the system breaks down. The more secure this relationship is, the more likely are Belgians and Americans to see each other not as American or Belgian but as any given member of a community in which people can trust each other in their business dealings. Likewise, there is a substantial and growing amount of transatlantic rule writing across a vast array of policy areas. Again, one may see this as a diminution of the political sphere or even a loss of sovereignty. But no one in either the United States or Europe, whatever their concerns about sovereignty or Iraq policy, seems to mind that the parties to a trade dispute will go to the World Trade Organization to seek a resolution rather than, for example, mining each other’s harbors. Indeed, when certain hot-headed Americans (and to a lesser degree, Europeans) vented their feelings on Iraq in calls for boycotts and other sanctions, they quickly discovered how interconnected the United States and Europe actually are and how difficult — and costly — it would be to sever ties.

All of which suggests, I submit, that the Atlanticist community is here to stay. Perhaps for the foreseeable future? Well, of course. But it is also possible to say with some precision what would have to happen for war to break out between the United States and France or between France and Germany. In at least one of the countries, the “exclusive political group” would have to be replaced by a group with very different ideas about how Americans should get along with Europeans and how Europeans should get along with each other. Perhaps this could take the form of a coup d’état in one of the countries in question or the emergence of a mass political movement glorifying violent conquest. What happened in Weimar Germany is an illustration of the replacement of one exclusive political group — broadly liberal and the basis for the assessment of many Jews that Germany was a good home — with another of decidedly different view.

That the Nazi power grab took place not so long ago will perhaps make people anxious about how long the foreseeable future will last before a change of this entirely foreseeable character takes place, leading to catastrophe. I can offer no assurances in this regard; any such assurance would necessarily be subject to empirical validation. Unfortunately, although the proposition is falsifiable (by the outbreak of war), it is not provable by the continuation of peace.  Nevertheless, the proposition that the conditions for war with Europe or within Europe will inevitably arise again is no less speculative just because there was a time, until recently, when it held.

But the Europe of today does not at all resemble the Weimar Republic. There is no end to the list of contrasts, but let two examples make the point. Some months before the introduction of the euro, I visited the Bundesbank in Germany. In the lobby was a display case with an exhibit of historical banknotes. The last one on display before the timeline noted the onset of the Nazi regime was a 10 trillion mark note. It’s probably fair to take this as the Bundesbank’s last word on what currency devaluation and hyperinflation can do to social and political stability — and therefore, a crystallization of the bank’s own mission, since extended by the European Central Bank throughout the euro zone. Also, consider the reaction throughout Europe to the prospect of a genuinely right-wing party coming to power in Austria in 2000. It was overwhelmingly negative, including sanctions against Austria at the European Union. A judicious observer would have to note that the Freedom Party in Austria in the 1990s is not the same as the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. The former was objectionable beyond redemption not for its proposed agenda but merely for saying inexcusable things about what the Nazis were actually doing or preparing to do in the 1930s. Similarly, when voters in France in 2002 found to their horror that owing to inattention in the first round of presidential balloting, they had given themselves a second-round choice between the incumbent Jacques Chirac and the right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, they set aside ambivalence about Chirac and turned out overwhelmingly to repudiate Le Pen.

The general point is that any attempt to unmoor national government policy from the Atlanticist ethical community in order to recreate politics in a Schmittian sense is something the community, including governments still acting in conformity with the community’s ethos, will determinedly resist. This resistance would come first from the exclusive political group currently in charge in the country at issue. These groups are large and extraordinarily stable and have vast resources at their command. In a sense one could say that the resistance to the emergence of a violent political alternative to the status quo is ongoing, through such means as the education of children to value peace and the exclusion from respectable forums of public debate ideas that are contrary to the spirit of the Atlanticist community. The resistance would, of course, continue beyond national boundaries, as other community members made clear how high a price a would-be violator of the community’s norms would have to pay.

Others may disagree, but I think the likelihood of success of such an effort is somewhere between minuscule and nil. Nevertheless, in the last contingency, if I am wrong, and a new exclusive political group bent on violence against its neighbors does in fact manage to seize power somewhere, what then? Well, I think the answer is that it would be met with the resistance of the united community, including war. That seems far more likely than a usurper’s discovery of such deep fissures in the supposed community that it is easily able to recruit allies to the cause of war and conquest. The case of the former Yugoslavia is illustrative here. Europe and the United States eventually united in support of military action aimed at stopping the violence-bent but isolated exclusive political group around Slobodan Milosevic, first in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo.

If a future Milosevic emerges in the heart of Europe — and bear in mind that for the purpose of our discussion, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia of the 1990s was located on the doorstep of Europe, not within it — I submit that the ensuing war, the one that would refute my broad claim here, would have a character that in fact reinforces this claim. The war would be fought between someone bent on breaking current transnational norms and the much larger number of countries determined to enforce them. The aim of the war for the latter would not be, for example, ratification of the general proposition that war is once again an accepted and routinely acceptable state practice among the nations in question. The purpose of the war, from the point of view of the remaining community, would be to end war and restore the community — which would entail the restoration in the offending nation of an exclusive political group willing to rejoin it.

From where we are now, it would be a matter of great difficulty to make our way back to the nineteenth century. I am aware of no plausible account of how we might do that, and generalizations about war being the way of the world and organized violence being an essential element of the human condition are no substitutes. Human nature is revealed in the here and now; an account of human nature that disregards its current manifestation is inadequate.

What “we” do  

So now we have a proper context for the recent disagreement between the United States and
Europe over the utility of force. There is, in fact, unanimous agreement that we will not use force against each other. The question, then, becomes under what circumstances “we” will use it elsewhere. James M.
Goldgeier and Michael McFaul usefully described the world situation in terms of a core of modern, developed states including the United States and Europe and a periphery of states that are underdeveloped, often misgoverned, and sometimes failing.10 The core is indeed a zone of peace — whether its source is liberal in the sense of the democratic peace, or Kantian, or the product of the transnational community I have been trying to describe. The periphery is a zone of often-violent conflict that at times threatens to impinge on the tranquility of the core. (Goldgeier and McFaul made this argument many years before 9/11.) Because of its global security responsibilities, the United States has one foot in the core and one foot in the periphery, a position that is likely to persist.  

But to the extent that the core is not merely an aggregation of states but also the organizing principle of their aggregation — namely, a transnational ethical community — it is not quite right to say that only the United States has a foot in both worlds. The footprint in the periphery is that of the community as a whole as well as that of particular state members.

We have already established, for example, that nato can operate “out of area.” The Kosovo campaign was the first such exercise (though arguably designed in part to establish that the Balkans were not to be excluded from the designation “European”). In 2003 the European Union took full charge of the peacekeeping force in Macedonia, and in fact European military units are deployed all over the world as peacekeepers. The United States fully supports these missions. nato invoked Article 5 within days of the 9/11 attacks, and though the United States insisted on waging by itself the war that toppled the Taliban, in 2003 nato took charge of the military peacekeeping presence in Afghanistan (which in fact entailed not infrequent combat with rump Taliban elements). Notwithstanding the contentiousness over Iraq, nato agreed to provide assistance in (really, to administer) the occupation sector for which Poland was assigned responsibility. Moreover, intelligence cooperation in the ongoing war on terrorism, much of which involves murky activity in the periphery by numerous agencies of the core, has by all accounts been very good.

These are all things we are doing together; we agree on them. The agreement at the governmental level is, once again, in my view a product of something more than traditional, Westphalian, state-to-state diplomacy. Here, one begins to see the Atlanticist community pushing outward from its own geographic territory — not only addressing security threats such as terrorist-harboring states or potentially destabilizing refugee flows but also acting out of a shared sense of what constitutes progress and of the desirability of pursuing it: political, social, economic.

Some things, of course, we pursue separately but in an atmosphere of mutual support. Europeans rightly pride themselves on the amount of foreign aid their governments provide around the world. Sometimes, though, separate pursuits do not at first seem to be characterized by mutual support. Nongovernmental organizations active internationally, many of which have their origins in or receive major support from Europe, often speak out in opposition to the United States. But once again, the distinction between disagreement and the agreement to disagree is easy to miss. In almost all cases, these organizations seek to influence the actions of the United States and other governments; “opposition,” such as it is, is very tightly circumscribed. Nongovernmental organizations did not descend on Baghdad in support of the Baathist regime. For an example of an international nongovernmental organization that means business in opposition to the United States, one should look to al-Qaeda, not Médecins sans Frontières or the coalition promoting a ban on land mines. If we are often together in agreeing to use military power abroad, and we are often supportive of one another when we choose not to act in concert, and if we sometimes express disagreement that is circumscribed in such a fashion as to allow it fairly to be characterized as agreement to disagree, then I think we should face up to the fact that we are still “we,” even when the subject is as contentious as Iraq.

An ethical community is characterized not by unanimity of opinion but rather by a shared sense among members of right conduct toward one another. In the case of the Atlanticist community, this formal definition has as its content a liberal, bourgeois respect for freedom and equality. The ongoing contentiousness of democratic politics at the national level is an indication of the sometimes bitter disagreement that remains and of the constraints all parties accept with regard to disagreement. We will argue, but we will settle matters peacefully — by such means as having elections, taking our controversies to disinterested third parties, and drawing straws. Those who obtain power avoid the temptation to treat it as absolute — to infringe on the agreed right conduct of others.

What, then, to make of the disgust — not to mince words — that the American position on Iraq evoked in some quarters in Europe? Was this not a sign of a fundamental division? Well, no, it was not a sign of fundamental division. The precise character of this response is instructive. Disgust is what you feel when you are trying and failing to draw a distinction between yourself and another. Disgust asks, How could you? — when, of course, I could not, and you are enough like me that I would expect you to agree with me. Absolute Otherness, in the form of an enemy, is not disgusting; it evokes a different response, perhaps fear and flight, or a will to kill. Absolute Otherness conjures a vision of annihilate or be annihilated — absolute negation. Disgust actually presupposes a sense of commonality or community. European disgust for Americans (and vice versa) is oddly hopeful: One has failed to measure up, but one could and should.

Europeans sometimes say that they resent Americans’ vision of America as a model of universal applicability and desirability. Is this vision not the height of arrogance? Others might prefer to follow a different model, a path of their own. By what right (apart from sheer coercive power) would Americans deprive them of that right? Yet it is striking that those making these assertions have not, as a general rule, ordered their own lives in a fashion that even the most ardent exporter of “the American way” would find the least deviant from it. In this respect, the American way could perhaps more accurately be characterized as the Atlanticist way.  Americans are arrogant not for their belief in their way but for their belief that the way is exclusively theirs, an American way. Europeans likewise hew to this way — they would not and do not choose to live any other way. Once again, there is no disagreement within the Atlanticist community about the internal arrangements of the community. The dispute that remains concerns the applicability of the norms of the community outside its territory.

And here, Europeans and Americans voice support for universal human rights, freedom, the dignity of the person, equality, and so on. In other words, the content of the Atlanticist community is in principle applicable everywhere. So the difference is not over ends but over how to arrive at them. There is agreement that a world in which human rights were universally respected would be a better world, not only for those who currently believe in and uphold human rights where they can, starting with their own countries, but also for people who do not currently enjoy such respect and even for those who do not currently agree that human rights deserve respect. There is no consequential disagreement between Europeans and Americans on the normative question of the desirability of such a world.

Gilles Andréani has argued persuasively that there is altogether too much loose talk about American empire these days.11 The term is neither a descriptive nor a useful or desirable policy prescription. It is misleading in another sense as well. Those who deploy it, often Europeans against the United States, misconstrue their own role in this supposed empire: If there is any such thing as the empire, Europeans are not to be numbered among its colonial subjects. Rather, they are highly influential citizens. They have a great deal of say in the conduct of its business, not only at home — within the territory of the Atlanticist community — but also abroad, elsewhere in the world. They are not, to be sure, the ruling party, but they are a well-organized, effective, influential, and — I might add — loyal opposition.

In this sense, the description offered by the neo-Marxist theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Empire is far closer to the mark than any reflagging of Pax Britannica. The advanced capitalist system with its state subunits is Empire.12 But this, too, can be misleading, insofar as it encourages people to try to export political concepts that have their utility chiefly in relation to states. There is, precisely, no political unit of which all the residents of Empire are citizens properly so-called; nor is there an emperor of Empire. Rather, there is the transnational community I have been trying to describe and the way the ideas and sentiments swirling within it play out among all the actors coconstituted by members of the community, such as states, however powerful such actors may be in their own right.

Europeans should be careful not to underestimate their influence on the United States. In some cases, accounts of a supposed lack of influence seem to serve an ulterior purpose: If one has no influence, obviously, one cannot be held in any way accountable for outcomes. Yet examples of influence are so abundant that the failure to take note of them seems almost willful, whether by Europeans trying to maintain an artificial distance or by Americans who insist that the United States is powerful enough to do what it pleases regardless of what others think or say.

Two examples, taken not from the fuzzier worlds of commerce or cultural “soft power” but from the front lines of power politics, should demonstrate the point. First, it was largely European pressure that elevated the Israeli-Palestinian peace road map to the top of the Bush administration agenda following the end of the Iraq war. Bush did not arrive spontaneously at his position in favor of a Palestinian state. During the first two years of his administration he seemed content to leave the matter to the parties themselves. Whether this was a product of indifference or a pro-Israel conviction that U.S. inaction served Israeli interests, the Bush administration did very little until pressure from Europe mounted significantly in 2002-03. Thus the road map is every bit as much a European document as an American one.

Second, the Iraq debate has had a huge influence on the United States. To put it as bluntly as possible, in the aftermath of the war, I don’t think anyone in the United States who takes national security policy seriously wants to go through anything like the diplomatic train wreck leading up to it any time soon. It was exhausting and unpleasant. True, the Europeans who opposed the war were not able to stop the United States. But they would be wrong to count their efforts a failure. They were able to make it difficult for the United States to go to war — difficult far beyond what the overwhelming military power of the United States would perhaps lead one to expect. To the extent that there was concern that the United States (or perhaps the Bush administration) was about to embark on a program of willy-nilly regime change, that concern ought to have been allayed. To see this, imagine, if you will, that Europe as a whole had gone along with the Bush administration wholeheartedly on the question of Iraq. Would that have made the likelihood of subsequent U.S.-led military interventions greater or lesser? It seems to me that in depriving the United States of a substantial measure of recognition of the legitimacy of its actions, European opponents of the war have at a minimum driven up the psychic cost of going to war for Americans. The United States has the power to do so again and may yet do so, taking its own authority (and a “coalition of the willing”) as legitimation enough. But something more in the way of legitimacy has been shown to be available by virtue of its absence in the case of Iraq. And U.S. policymakers understand perfectly well that the doctrine of “preemption” or “prevention” spelled out in the Bush National Security Strategy of the United States in 2002 is not a new norm for U.S. action but rather a doctrine that applies only to limit cases.

In sum, it may be the case that the only thing that can really constrain power on the scale the United States possesses is agreement among Americans to be constrained. But Europeans need to understand that they have been and can continue to be quite persuasive in this regard.


The question of European views versus American views inevitably invites objections based on nuance and complexity, if not indeed hairsplitting: what “European” means; whether New Europe is more American than European; what to do in the case of Americans holding “European” views — to say nothing of the status of Canadians, those New World Europeans. One can, however, get past all the difficulty here by speaking of the Atlanticist community as it should be spoken of, namely, as a whole. Europe and America are the two poles of opinion within it; their geographical status is consequential but not decisive. Were this ethical community a polity (and it is not), the respective views of Europe and America would likely each be dominant in one of the two leading political parties. In multiparty democratic states, it is the dynamic interaction of political parties (and not simply the views of one or another, whichever happens to be in power) that shapes the law, which in turn is widely accepted (though some, viewing the process or the outcome or both, may find themselves feeling disgusted). As things stand in the Atlanticist community, what we have is the interaction and at times confrontation of the European and the American poles shaping community norms, including norms for how the community deals with nonmembers. The confrontation is ongoing, but it is not static, a manifestation of merely a permanent tension. It produces results along the way. It is constructive, and the standards of right conduct it constructs, though not law, are rich and durable — and serve as a backdrop against which confrontation moves to a new stage.  

Over time, the workings of this interaction, I submit, have produced convergence and will continue to do so. The scope of confrontation has narrowed and continues to narrow. That the confrontation is often bitter is no indication of the substance of the matters at issue. The fact is that we are arguing over things we never would have argued over before, because there were then so many more important matters to argue over — matters that have now been settled, such as whether we will resolve our disputes peacefully and whether we will bother to try to find a common approach to matters external to our community.

The death penalty often is mentioned as an issue that fundamentally divides the United States and Europe. So it does. But not so long ago, the death penalty was all but universal. It was also probably generally regarded as nobody else’s business — a matter for states to settle for themselves, in good Westphalian fashion. More recently, among European elites, a norm of opposition emerged, leading eventually to the abolition of the death penalty throughout western Europe. The European Union enforces this sentiment by insisting that member states be rid of the death penalty — and of course this means that aspiring members must do away with it to be admitted. Europeans countries not only have gotten rid of the death penalty; Europeans have grown quite accustomed to looking beyond their own national borders in passing judgment on this subject. They have found the United States wanting, and they have said so in no uncertain terms.

But meanwhile, support for the death penalty in the United States has been declining. Domestic American criticism has mounted sharply. Some states have imposed moratoria on executions. Concern about racial disparities in implementation is widespread, and African Americans, who used to support capital punishment by a substantial majority, have in the past decade switched to substantial majority opposition.13 I find it difficult to construe this as evidence of a widening gap. What appears in a snapshot as a gap is actually a moment in a process that is unfolding, one that consists of a reversal of established opinion over time. European opinion has led it. American opinion seems to be following it (albeit at a rate that is unsatisfactory to Europeans). Whether this movement leads in time to the abolition of the death penalty in the United States, I do not know. But it gives every appearance of motion in one direction only. Note that the United States is not making the case that Europeans should reinstate the death penalty, that American states without the death penalty do not seem much inclined to consider adopting it, or that anyone is advocating the broadening of existing death penalty legislation in order to increase the number of executions.

One could add any number of similar examples in which a division manifesting itself at the present moment looks rather different construed over time. This is especially true as the European pole of the debate moves on into the terra incognita of a post-Westphalian exercise in social construction and international or transnational rule making. Note that I am not claiming that where Europe goes, the United States will follow. Rather, it is the constant interaction and confrontation of the poles that produce the community’s standards of right conduct at any given moment. A rule for the community proposed by its European pole or its American pole, even if it is fully accepted by governments associated with one pole or the other, remains empty as a community rule until it is accepted as a rule and followed as a rule by all community members. Such norms are not a social contract to which people and nations nominally agree they should adhere. They are norms only because people and governments actually do adhere to them.

I have confined my analysis here to what I have called the Atlanticist community. That is because it is quite the largest, most robustly developed transnational ethical community in the world today. But it is hardly far-fetched to speak of a broader liberal, bourgeois community of which the Atlanticist community is a part. There is nothing I have said here that does not apply fully to Australia, for example, and in a sense, one might as well change the name of the community to allow for the inclusion of the people of all states whose exclusive political groups conduct affairs according to the peaceable norms of the community. “Atlanticist” is a reflection of its historical roots; it is not a limiting characteristic. It is possible that with regard to nato, the less interesting part is “North Atlantic,” the more interesting being the “Treaty Organization.” And perhaps the European Union is, over time, more interesting as the “Union” than as “European.”

What, then, are the limits?14 I do not know, but I propose that the way to find out is for those of us who enjoy living a perpetual peace among ourselves, as friends and friendly strangers, to work to augment our numbers. But then, if we failed to do that, we would not be ourselves.

Notes     1 See Jeffrey Gedmin, “Helmut Kohl, Giant,” Policy Review 96 (August–September 1999).

2 See Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century (PublicAffairs, 2002).

3 Joshua Micah Marshall, “Death in Venice: Europe’s Death-Penalty Elitism,” New
Republic (July 31, 2000).

4 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 26–27, 35–37.

5 Wendt makes this case. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 298–99.

6 See the discussion of “Collective identity and structural change” in Wendt, 336–43.

7 Kant refers to “hospitality” as the limit of “Cosmopolitan Right”: “In this context hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory.” “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” in Kant: Political Writings, 2nd enlarged ed., ed. H. S. Reiss (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 105. My formulation here is meant to go farther.

8 Alexandre Kojève, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 89-90, 134-35.

9 See J. H. H. Weiler, “Federalism without Constitutionalism: Europe’s Sonderweg,” in Kalypso Nicolaidis and Robert Howse, eds., The Federal Vision: Legitimacy and Levels of Governance in the United States and the European Union (Oxford University Press, 2001), 54–70, especially 68.

10 James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, “A Tale of Two Worlds: Core and Periphery in the Post–Cold War Era,” International Organization (Spring 1992).

11 See Gilles Andréani, “Imperial Loose Talk,” in Tod Lindberg, ed., Beyond Paradise and Power: Europe, America, and the Future of a Troubled Partnership (Routledge, 2004), 63-80.

12 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), 160–203.

13 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus” (July 24, 2003).

14 Kant wrote, “The peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community.” I would amend that to say “people” rather than “peoples” and would take special note of “in varying degrees.” Kant foresaw a universal community, but it is actualized only partially, not fully. Kant: Political Writings, 107.