A Bear Armed with a Gun

David Runciman

  • Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagan
    Atlantic, 104 pp, £10.00, March 2003, ISBN 1 84354 177 7

Thomas Hobbes, in one of the best known and most abused phrases in the English language, described the life of man in a state of nature as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’. Less famous, but almost as notorious, is Hobbes’s contention that the relations between the states that human beings create in order to escape the misery of their natural condition are subject to nothing but the laws that produced that misery in the first place. ‘The Law of Nations,’ Hobbes wrote, ‘and the Law of Nature, is the same thing. And every Soveraign hath the same Right, in procuring the safety of his People, that any particular man can have, in procuring the safety of his own body.’ In other words, states can do what they like. This has led many people to suppose that international relations must replicate the terrible conditions of the original state of nature. The adjective ‘Hobbesian’ has become shorthand for a view that sees international politics as a scene of conflict and strife, in which the law of the jungle prevails. But this view is a mistake, both in Hobbes’s terms, and in ours.

It is wrong because states are not like natural human beings. They are, as Hobbes insisted, artificial, more like giant automata than people, and with very different qualities. They are stronger, larger and more robust. They are, with good reason, less diffident and less fearful. They are not vulnerable to the same kinds of threat. The problem for natural individuals, Hobbes wrote, is that ‘the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others.’ This knowledge is enough to make everyone afraid of everyone else. But it is very difficult to slip a knife between the shoulder blades of a state while its back is turned. You can, of course, try to attack individual rulers, the people Hobbes called sovereign, and no state can guard them with absolute security; but in any state worthy of the name, one sovereign will immediately be replaced by another, allowing the state to live on. This durability makes individual states more certain in their dealings with one another. The social life of states is as a result very different from the natural misery of man.

The life of a state, for example, is not solitary. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a more clubbable bunch than the society of nations, with their endless get-togethers and busman’s holidays. States are not poor. Even poor states are not poor, relatively speaking (relative, that is, to the poverty of the people who have to live in them). States, both rich and poor, are likely to be heavily indebted, but it is precisely the ability of states to sustain these huge levels of debt that marks them out from persons. States can, it is true, be pretty nasty, or at least they can allow unspeakably nasty things to be done on their behalf. It was for Nietzsche one of the few things to be said for the modern state that civilised individuals were prepared to undertake acts of cruelty in its name that they would never dare do for themselves. But states are not, for the most part, nasty to each other, and the life of the state is if anything marked by an excessive gentility, as all parties seek to keep up appearances. Robert Mugabe would not have found himself shaking hands with Jacques Chirac in Paris if states were as nasty as the individuals they sometimes throw up. The poisonous Ango-French diplomacy of recent weeks is merely the exception that proves this rule.

It is the whole of Hobbes’s argument that states are not brutish. The law of nations is not the law of the jungle. Because they are not simply men, but machines made in the image of men, states do not share with natural men a tendency to revert to the level of beasts in their dealings with one another. A state is a machine that either works or doesn’t, unlike a man, who can continue to function even when he has lost the ability to make use of his reason. Above all, the life of states is not short. This was the clear message of the highly civilised exchanges that took place between the permanent members of the UN Security Council following Hans Blix’s report on the progress of his weapons inspections on 14 February. ‘Old Europe’ kicked it off, in the person of the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who said that he spoke on behalf of ‘an old country, France, that does not forget . . . all it owes to the freedom fighters that came from the United States of America and everywhere’. Jack Straw took up the theme, declaring: ‘Britain is also a very old country. It was founded in 1066 – by the French.’ Colin Powell had to concede that ‘America is a relatively new country,’ before going on to remind his audience that ‘it is the oldest democracy around this table.’ Here, then, is a society in which being over two hundred years old makes you young. But calling these states ‘old’ barely seems to do them justice. They are practically indestructible, outlasting anything that mere mortal men can do to them. ‘Vive la France immortelle!’ the French press declared the day after Paris was liberated in 1944. This would be going too far for Hobbes, who insisted that the state was merely ‘that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence’. But whatever else is true about a world in which such headlines are possible, it is certainly far removed from Hobbes’s original state of nature.

The forgetfulness or otherwise of the French about what they owe freedom fighters from America forms part of the backdrop to the reception of Robert Kagan’s new book, whose analysis of the tensions that now run through transatlantic relations has been generally greeted in the English-speaking world as both provocative and timely. Paradise and Power, an extended version of an article that originally appeared in Policy Review in the summer of 2002, has gained much of its notoriety from one sentence that appears on its first page. ‘On major strategic and international questions today,’ Kagan writes, ‘Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.’ Kagan does not repeat this remark, though it has been endlessly repeated elsewhere. He is more insistent about another distinction he makes on the first page, and which he reiterates throughout the book. Europeans are now Kantians, seeking to inhabit ‘a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and co-operation’. The United States, by contrast, ‘remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable’. He goes on to clarify this distinction by arguing that ‘one of the things that most clearly divides Europeans and Americans today is a philosophical, even metaphysical disagreement over where exactly mankind stands on the continuum between the laws of the jungle and the laws of reason.’ But this clarifies nothing, because the original distinction makes no sense. Kant is not from Venus and Hobbes is not from Mars. Both were, in their own terms, philosophers of what they each called ‘Peace’. Indeed, to call the Hobbesian world anarchic is to make a mockery of everything Hobbes says. But more than this, the overriding problem with Kagan’s account is that the real Hobbesians are the Europeans.

It is the European way, as Kagan describes it, to trust that international law can be the basis of agreement if only you recognise the appropriate international actors. It is the European way to prefer to deal with the states you know rather than the unspecified threats about which you can only speculate. Europeans insist on their right to be the best judges of what constitutes a threat to their own security, regardless of what the Americans might tell them. All this makes the Europeans good Hobbesians. Kagan notes that in Europe the preference is to talk of ‘failed states’, while in the US the vogue is to describe them as ‘rogue states’. It is in Hobbes’s world, not Kant’s, that states fail or break down, and it is in Hobbes’s world that all other judgments about whether states are good or evil are ruled out of court. State-building, in the new world order, is a European idea, and one of the reasons Bill Clinton is thought to have flirted with being a ‘European’ President is his willingness to flirt with this idea as well (flirting, it might be said, is also opposed to the martial qualities of true American politics). But state-building is also the Hobbesian idea. It was Hobbes’s hope that if you could build enough states, the result would be peace.

It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that if the Europeans are Hobbesians, the Americans must be Kantians, though the idea of the ‘rogue state’ is a lot closer to the work of a neo-Kantian political philosopher like John Rawls than to anything you will find in Hobbes. But it is true that far from being stuck in the past, the Americans have moved beyond Hobbes, and Europe, in one crucial respect. That is in their preoccupation with the new threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, greatly enhanced by their exposure to one single, devastating attack (though not from a WMD), while their back was turned on a sunny September morning. Suddenly, the Hobbesian view that states and states alone have the power and security to operate under conditions of lawfulness is threatened by the knowledge that even the most powerful states are vulnerable to assault from unknown and unpredictable sources. It can now be said that in the international arena ‘the weakest has strength to kill the strongest,’ or they would do, if only they could get their hands on the necessary equipment. This, potentially, changes everything. It means that international law can no longer be relied on, and that its restraining hand can no longer be expected to control the fearfulness even of those who appear from the outside to have least to fear.

The common view that 11 September 2001 marked the return to a Hobbesian world is therefore entirely wrong. It marked the beginning of a post-Hobbesian age, in which a new kind of insecurity threatens the familiar structures of modern political life. In one sense, of course, this insecurity is not new, because it carries echoes of the natural uncertainties of individual human beings. But it is new for states, which were meant to be invulnerable to such paranoid anxieties. And since they are not designed to deal with this sort of threat, even the most powerful states don’t know what to do about it.

What they seem to be attempting, for now, is to fit the new threat back into the old boxes; that is, to fix the threat back onto states. But this is a hard sell. If states such as Iraq are what is important, then the threat is manageable again; but if the threat is manageable again, then there is no need for the world’s most powerful state to feel threatened. It is this paradox – the post-Hobbesian paradox – that explains the rift between Europe and America, not the clash between Hobbesians and Kantians. To many Europeans, and to many citizens of the United States as well, a war against Iraq is inexplicable, because a world in which war against Iraq can be part of the solution is not a world in which the threat posed by Iraq is a real problem. But it is one of the further ironies of the post-Hobbesian world that there now exists a threat which makes some states feel more vulnerable than their subjects. This is something that Hobbes himself could never have foreseen; it is in fact an inversion of the entire Hobbesian order, which supposes that states have less to fear than individuals.

It is unsurprising that the result is a good deal of confusion and uncertainty, though the confusion is not all on one side. The Americans have been persuaded to reconfigure their post-Hobbesian concerns into a form that fits the Hobbesian structure of the United Nations, where it is assumed that states, regardless of their character, can reach agreement on questions of international law. What they have found is that there is no fit, and this has not been good either for America or for the United Nations. But the Europeans, whose more traditional view that international law can work only when states take each other seriously, were persuaded to sign a Resolution which makes a mockery of that assumption. Resolution 1441 demands that Saddam Hussein makes ‘accurate, full, final and complete disclosure’ of any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that Iraq possesses, has possessed in the past, or seeks to possess in the future. Yet Saddam Hussein, all sides agree, is a tyrant, and tyrannical regimes are no more capable of accurate, full, final and complete disclosure about anything than a dog is of talking French. It is not in their nature. The comparison that is sometimes drawn with South Africa’s openness to weapons inspection by the IAEA in 1993 is therefore entirely misleading. South Africa was in the process of becoming a democracy in 1993, which gave it every incentive to pursue democratic levels of disclosure. Resolution 1441 would make sense only if Iraq were in the process of becoming a democracy, though if it were in the process of becoming a democracy, there would have been no need for Resolution 1441. The Europeans, by bringing the US to the UN, have found their own concerns reconfigured in post-Hobbesian language. The French and the Germans would have been truer to their Hobbesian conception of international law if they had refused to sign the Resolution. They should have insisted that the UN only make demands of Iraq that it could meet.

There are no clean lines in the new world order, but Kagan insists on them anyway, which explains both the superficial appeal of his book and the horrible mess he makes of his argument as he tries to stretch it out over a hundred pages. In order to get the new world order to fit the philosophical disagreement he outlines on page one, he is forced into some grotesque contortions. He attributes to the Kantianism of the Europeans, for example, the view that the ‘evil’ of Iraq might be contained in the same way that the ‘evil’ of Germany has been contained within the European Union. ‘Germany was evil once, too. Might not an “indirect approach” work again, as it did in Europe?’ Can there really be anyone in Europe or anywhere else who thinks like this, who thinks that the specific lesson of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent reconstruction and reunification of the German state is that an ‘indirect approach’ is always best? Kagan goes on to describe the ‘integration and taming of Germany’ as ‘perhaps the greatest feat of international politics ever achieved’. Presumably this is intended as a sop to European self-esteem. But why should this be a greater achievement than the taming and integration of Japan? Kagan attributes to Europeans an inflated sense of the possibilities of moral politics, a sentimental attachment to the view that moral politics means the politics of the European Union, and a reluctance to look much beyond our own borders. He then wonders if Europeans are in the best position to judge what should be done about Iraq. No wonder he feels that we need all the sops we can get.

But Kagan doesn’t really believe in this metaphysical stuff anyway. Alongside the Kantian argument he runs another one, in which the difference between the US and Europe is described in the more straightforward language of threat. Europeans, he suggests, refuse to see Saddam as a threat because they don’t have the means to do anything about it; Americans, just because they can take out Saddam, are able to judge that they ought. Kagan offers an analogy:

A man armed only with a knife may decide that a bear prowling the forest is a tolerable danger, inasmuch as the alternative – hunting the bear armed only with a knife – is actually riskier than lying low and hoping the bear never attacks. The same man armed with a rifle, however, will likely make a different calculation of what constitutes a tolerable risk. Why should he risk being mauled to death if he doesn’t have to?

This is hard to square with the view of Europeans as Kantians rather than Hobbesians. But it is also much too simplistic. It would be closer to the truth to say that the Americans seem to have got a glimpse of a bear in the woods armed with a gun. To anyone who hasn’t seen a sight like this, it is likely to sound preposterous. But to anyone who thinks they have, the world is going to look a very different place.

Alongside the arguments that Europeans are too idealistic, and that they are impotent, Kagan runs a third, which may be closer to what he really believes. This is that European idealism is at heart ‘self-interested’, and that American self-interest is ‘at times almost indistinguishable from idealism’. Kagan wants Europe to wake up to the fact that their experiments with Postmodern politics take place in a space that the Americans have bought for them with their willingness to police the world outside. Likewise, he wants the United States to remind the world that the pursuit of American interests can be consistent with the collective interest, something he feels both sides of the transatlantic divide have lost sight of since the end of the Cold War. In a sense, Kagan feels that while the real battles are being fought, the propaganda war is being ignored. Europeans need to be given reason to recognise what Kagan holds to be self-evident, that ‘the United States is a liberal, progressive society through and through.’ But this is very bad propaganda. If Kagan means ‘liberal’ in its American sense, then it is hard to square with the facts, since liberalism in America is on the retreat, and has been for years. If, as seems more likely, he means liberal in something like its European sense, then this can’t be true, because a liberal society would have by definition to contain, and find ways of reconciling, progressive and non-progressive elements. This America does, but the price of such liberalism is that people who look to European eyes like non-progressives sometimes get their turn at running the show.

Of course, not all Europeans see it this way. Tony Blair sees things from America’s point of view, and Kagan has suggested since the publication of his book that only Blair can bridge the ever-widening gap between Europe and the US. In the book itself, he doesn’t devote much attention to the contrast between different European perspectives – ‘old’ or ‘new’ – except to note that Britain is best placed to recognise what Kagan calls the paradox of the new world order, that European paradise rests on American power. But again, this leads him into some strange contortions. Britain, on this account, means Blair, and Tony Blair appears in this book as the only possible representative of the British state on the world stage. ‘The case of Bosnia in the early 1990s,’ Kagan writes in a footnote, ‘stands out as an instance where some Europeans, chiefly British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were at times more forceful in advocating military action than first the Bush and then the Clinton Administration.’ Perhaps Kagan believes that Tony Blair was the Prime Minister in the early 1990s. If not, he must believe that the views of the then Shadow Home Secretary were more consequential than the views of the then British Government. Poor, sad, priapic John Major, liberator of Kuwait, breaker of the Tory Party, a man who may well end up as a longer serving Prime Minister than Blair himself, but who is no longer even considered deserving of a footnote in the history of the new world order.

Kagan, like Blair, is keen to emphasise the continuity in the views of those who champion the use of military force against rogue states. He points out that Iraq, Iran and North Korea had already been identified as future targets of American foreign policy during the Clinton years, and that military programmes to deal with the threat they posed, including a new ballistic missile defence system, were already in train. ‘Had Al Gore been elected, and had there been no terrorist attacks on 11 September, these programmes – aimed squarely at Bush’s “axis of evil” – would still be underway.’ It is in the interests of both sides of the new transatlantic divide to play down the significance of the events of 11 September, because both sides have an incentive to pretend that America’s new anxieties fit into the old patterns of politics. But they don’t, and that is why the world is split. If Al Gore had been elected and the Twin Towers had fallen there is still every chance that American troops would have been sent to deal with Saddam. With George Bush in the White House but no attack on 11 September, it is unlikely that an army would have been mobilised. Perhaps because of the hysterical outpourings that followed 11 September, in Europe as well as the US, there is now a tendency to look back with some embarrassment at the certain predictions that this was The Day That Changed The World. But change the world it did. Europe and America would not have split in the way they have if the attack had not happened, nor would they have split if the attack had taken place in Europe. If Tony Blair sees this, it is not clear that he, any more than anyone else, knows what to do about it.