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Its Own Worst Enemy

But there is more to the breach within the West than squabbles over defense. The cold war and the Atlantic alliance concealed for half a century deep differences between two sharply contrasting sorts of society. The Europeans “underspend” on defense not just because the American guarantee allowed them to enter a garden of Perpetual Peace,15 but because in the third quarter of this century they chose to devote a lot of money to expensive (and very popular) public services. The result is that in many crucial respects Europe and the US are actually less alike than they were fifty years ago.

This observation flies in the face of claims about “globalization” and “Americanization” advanced not just by enthusiastic proponents of the process, but also by its angry critics. Yet there is less to the promise of a new American century than meets the eye. In the first place, we have been here before. It is a cardinal tenet of the prophets of globalization that the logic of economic efficiency must sweep all before it (a characteristically nineteenth-century fallacy they share with Marxists). But that was also how it seemed at the peak of the last great era of globalization, on the eve of World War I, when many observers likewise foresaw the decline of the nation-state and a coming age of international economic integration.

What happened, of course, was something rather different, and 1913 levels of international trade, communication, and mobility would not be reached again until the mid-1970s. The contingencies of domestic politics trumped the “laws” of international economic behavior, and they may do so again. Capitalism is indeed global in its reach, but its local forms have always been richly variable and they still are. This is because economic practices shape national institutions and legal norms and are shaped by them in their turn; they are deeply embedded in very different national and moral cultures.

Partly for this reason, the American model is not obviously more appealing to people elsewhere and its triumph is far from sure. Europeans and Americans live quite different sorts of lives. More than one in five Americans are poor, whereas the figures for continental Western Europe hover around 8 percent. Sixty percent more babies die in their first year of life in the US than in France or Germany. The disparity between rich and poor is vastly greater in the US than anywhere in continental Europe (or than it was in the US twenty years ago); but whereas fewer than one American in three supports significant redistribution of wealth, 63 percent of Britons favor it and the figures are higher still on the European continent.

Even before modern European welfare states were established, most employed Europeans had compulsory health insurance (since 1883 in the German case), and all Western Europeans now take for granted the interlocking mesh of guarantees, protections, and supports whose reduction or abolition they have consistently opposed at the polls. The social and occupational insecurity familiar to tens of millions of Americans has long been politically intolerable anywhere in the European Union. If fascism and communism were the European reactions to the last great wave of laissez-faire globalization (as Joseph Nye and others have proposed), then “welfare capitalism” is Europe’s insurance against a rerun. On prudential grounds if for no other reason, the rest of the West is not about to take the American path.

But what of the claim that Europeans, like everyone else in the world, will have little choice? Much is said about the coming ineluctable triumph of American economic practice at the expense of the lumbering, unproductive, inflexible European variant. Yet handicapped as they are by all the supposed impedimenta of their statist past, the economies of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands last year were actually more productive for each hour worked than that of the US, while the Irish, the Austrians, the Danes, and the Germans were very close behind.16

Between 1991 and 1998 productivity on average actually grew faster in Europe than in the US. The US nonetheless outpaces Europe in gross terms. This is because more Americans work; the state takes less from their wages (and provides less in return); they work longer hours—28 percent more than Germans, 43 percent more than the French; and they take shorter vacations or none at all.

Whether Europe (or anywhere else) would look more like America if the American economic model were adopted there is a moot point. The modern American economy is not replicable elsewhere. The “war on terror” is not the only matter in which the US is critically dependent upon foreigners. The American economic “miracle” of the past decade has been fueled by the $1.2 billion per day in foreign capital inflow that is needed to cover the country’s foreign trade deficit, currently running at $450 billion per year. It is these huge inward investment flows that have kept share prices up, inflation and interest rates down, and domestic consumption booming.

If a European, Asian, or Latin American country ran comparable trade deficits, it would long since be in the hands of the International Monetary Fund. The US is uniquely placed to indulge such crippling dependence on foreign investors because the dollar has been the world’s reserve currency since World War II. How long the American economy can operate thus before it is brought painfully to earth by a loss of overseas confidence is a much-debated topic; as is the related claim that it was these rivers of foreign cash, rather than the unprecedented productivity of the new high-tech sectors, that drove the prosperity of the 1990s.17 What is clear is that for all its recent allure, the American model is unique and not for export.

Far from universalizing its appeal, globalization has if anything diminished foreign enthusiasm for the American model: the reduction in public ownership of goods and services in Europe over the past twenty years has not been accompanied by any reduction in the state’s social obligations—except in Britain where, tellingly, governments have had to backtrack in the face of public opposition. And it is because they inhabit such very different societies that Europeans and Americans see the world so differently and value sharply contrasting international processes and outcomes.

Just as modern American leaders typically believe that in domestic public life citizens are best left to their own devices, with limited government intervention, so they project this view onto international affairs as well. Seen from Washington, the world is a series of discrete challenges or threats, calibrated according to their implications for America. Since the US is a global power, almost anything that happens in the world is of concern to it; but the American instinct is to address and resolve any given problem in isolation.

There is also a refreshingly American confidence that problems may indeed be resolved—at which point the US can return home. This emphasis upon an “exit strategy,” upon being in the world but not quite of it, always at liberty to retire from the fray, has its domestic analogue in modern American life. Like many of its citizens, especially since September 11, the United States feels most comfortable when retreating to its “gated community.”

This is not an option for Europeans and others, for whom today’s world is a spiderweb of interlocking legal regimes and agencies, regulating and overseeing almost every aspect of life. The problems facing Europe today—crime, immigration, refugees, environmental hazards, institutional integration—are inherently chronic and they all transcend borders. Governments habitually work in concert or through multilateral institutions. Just as the public sector has displaced individual initiative in many parts of national life, so the habit of collaboration shapes European approaches to international affairs. In these respects it is Europe that has successfully “globalized” and the United States that lags far behind.

For all these reasons, and because so much of American foreign policy is driven by insular considerations that will not soon change, it is hard to share Joseph Nye’s optimistic conclusions about the future of Ameri-can “soft power.” The US is quite literally its own worst enemy: it is when pandering to domestic constituencies that American presidents most often alienate foreign opinion. Bombastic rhetoric and unilateralist posturing go down well at home and may even intimidate foreign foes (though this seems uncertain). But they surely terrify and estrange a third constituency, America’s many friends and admirers abroad.

And yet America is still esteemed and even revered overseas, not because of globalization but in spite of it. America is not epitomized by MTV and McDonald’s, or by Enron or by Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom. America is not even particularly admired abroad for its awesome military establishment, any more than it is respected for its unparalleled wealth. American power and influence are actually very fragile, because they rest upon an idea, a unique and irreplaceable myth: that the United States really does stand for a better world and is still the best hope of all who seek it.

The real threat to America, which the Bush administration has not even begun to comprehend, is that in the face of American neglect and indifference this myth will fade and “large proportions of key societies [will] turn against the US and the global values of free trade and free society.”18 This would spell the end of “the West” as we have understood it for half a century. The postwar North Atlantic community of interest and mutual friendship was unprecedented and invaluable: its loss would be a disaster for everyone.19

What gives America its formidable international influence is not its unequaled capacity for war but the trust of others in its good intentions. That is why Washington’s opposition to the International Criminal Court does so much damage. It suggests that the US does not trust the rest of the world to treat Americans fairly. But if America displays a lack of trust in others, the time may come when they will return the compliment.

In the spring of 2001 the tiny south Balkan state of Macedonia was on the verge of civil war. Its Macedonian Slav majority confronted a rebellion by the frustrated, disadvantaged Albanian minority; the government, led by unreconstructed National-Communists, was itching to unleash a brutal and bloody “police action.” With great difficulty, intermediaries from Britain and elsewhere negotiated a fragile agreement: the insurgents would disarm and, in return, parliament would pass laws to protect and enfranchise the country’s Albanian citizens. For a few weeks everyone held their breath—if Macedonia “blew,” the South Balkans might explode, sucking Greece, Turkey, and NATO into the cauldron.

But Macedonia did not “blow” and the agreement held and still holds. At the crest of the emergency I asked an Albanian friend what was stopping the Macedonian government, demonstrably unhappy with the accords, from tearing them up and doing its worst. “Colin Powell’s fax machine,” he replied. The moral authority of America’s secretary of state (and it was only moral—the US had no intention of dispatching soldiers); the fact that Macedonia mattered enough to America for Powell to place his weight on the scales—these considerations sufficed to defuse a significant regional crisis.

So long as such obscure, faraway countries continue to matter to America, America will matter to them and to everyone else, and its power for good will continue. But if America stops caring, it will also cease to count. If Washington stops trusting, it will lose the trust of others. The fax machine will fall silent and we shall all be a lot lonelier and infinitely more vulnerable; the US above all.

  1. 15

    See Robert Kagan, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, No. 113 (June/July 2002), where Europe’s self-indulgent, “Kantian” paradise is unflatteringly contrasted with the Promethean tasks faced by America back in the real world of international anarchy.

  2. 16

    See Financial Times, February 20, 2002.

  3. 17

    For a relentlessly negative account of the deficiencies of the American model, see Will Hutton, The World We’re In (Little, Brown, 2002), to which I am indebted for some of the figures cited above. Hutton’s critique would be more convincing if he did not paint quite such a rosy picture of the European alternative.

  4. 18

    Michael J. Mazarr, “Saved from Ourselves?” in What Does the World Want from America? edited by Alexander T.J. Lennon (forthcoming from MIT Press, November 2002), p. 167; first published in The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 2002).

  5. 19

    See William Wallace, “US Unilateralism: A European Perspective,” in Multilateralism and US Foreign Policy: Ambivalent Engagement, edited by Stewart Patrick and Shepard Forman (Lynne Rienner, 2002), pp. 141–166.

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