Politics & Policy

The State of Nature

Why Europeans don't want a foreign policy.

“One of these days,” Irving Kristol wrote five years ago, “the American people are going to awaken to the fact that we have become an imperial nation… It happened because the world wanted it to happen… no European nation can have — or really wants to have — its own foreign policy.” Now, I don’t think Kristol was right about America being imperial (see “Not Getting America”), but he was certainly on to something about the Europeans not wanting a foreign policy.

But before I get into that, let me expand upon a truism about human nature. If you have a fairly limitless supply of food stamps but a very small amount of cash on hand, over time you will not only grow to believe, but will actually become quite self-righteous about, your conviction that food stamps should be as good as cash everywhere — including car dealerships, movie theaters, and casinos. In fact, it won’t be too long before you see food stamps as the only legitimate form of currency.

If your parents tell you that, while you’re in college, they will pay for your “essential needs,” you will eventually come to believe that a vast array of items not normally associated with the liberal arts are in fact essential to your college education. This explains how some college kids have managed to outfit their dorm rooms like one of Saddam’s palaces, using solely a gas credit card.

It is also thus with expertise — which, after all, is really just another form of currency when you think about it. Surgeons, being exceptionally proficient with scalpels, are notorious for always wanting to cut. Some Air Force generals tend to think aerial bombing is the best way to solve any military problem. Conversely, infantrymen tend to believe “boots on the ground” will do the trick. Internet enthusiasts believe that the web is the answer to all sorts of questions (trust me on this). My dog Cosmo thinks more problems can be solved with his mouth than a creature with an opposable thumb might imagine. And so it goes.

This dynamic is not, I believe, simply a function of people (dogs demand a separate conversation) acting on their self-interest, as the Marxists, or whoever else it is that makes such arguments, so often claim. Rather — as in the old joke about the guy who looked for his car keys under the street lamp because the light was better there — we tend to see things in the light of our own experience and knowledge, inflating the salience of those things we have power over and diminishing, or outright ignoring, those things which tend to make us feel irrelevant. The general knows how to do things one way and so he’s inclined to discuss what he knows, rather than what he is ignorant about. The webmonkey, having limited experience with, say, the telephone, human contact, or sunlight, tends to think the web can solve your problems because that’s the only subject he can discuss intelligently (NRO’s webmonkeys being the exception that proves the rule, of course). Wisdom lies in being able to imagine a solution that resides outside the realm of your own expertise.


Anyway, you get the point — and I’ve made it before, I know. So let’s get back to Kristol’s observation. Upon learning this week that North Korea has been lying about its nuclear-weapons program, the South Koreans and the Japanese almost instantly declared that diplomacy and “engagement” must be the only course of action by which to defuse the Pyongyang power keg. Meanwhile, for the last month the French have held a firm line (stop laughing), insisting that “law” must rule the day rather than force. (To appreciate the absurd hypocrisy of this position, see Charles Krauthammer’s column today.)

The point here is that the Europeans, the Japanese, and — to a somewhat lesser extent — the South Koreans argue for talking through their problems because, like a thick wad of food stamps burning a hole in their pockets, talk is pretty much the only currency they have to spend. For nearly five decades, Europe and Japan have been, in effect, living off the military credit card we gave them. We subsidized their defense and, money being fungible, they took their savings and poured it into bloated welfare states. This policy was certainly in America’s interests during the Cold War, and I’m not suggesting our system of alliances is totally obsolete. But there are huge negative consequences to it.

First, like the Air Force general who sees bombing as the solution to every military problem, these nations have developed a culture which views talking as the solution to every threat. Think about Japan’s response to North Korea’s nuclear revelation. They announced almost immediately that talk, diplomacy, and “continued engagement” must continue. Now, talk may be the right answer in this case, but imagine if it wasn’t — what else, exactly, could the Japanese say other than, “Let’s talk”? Their tiny military would bounce off North Korea like a jellybean off a tank — even if their constitution allowed it to leave its shores in the first place. And they can hardly say “sic ‘em” to the United States. In short, words and money are the only tools in the Japanese utility belt, and so talk and dollars are what they’re going to use. This means that even on issues where Japan’s national security is far, far more threatened than our own, Japan must be less hawkish than the United States.

A similar dynamic is at work in Europe. Much of Europe has developed a political culture that tends to see talk as the answer to every problem, because talking is the only option readily available to them. A threat of force from Belgium, for instance, conjures the image of a pasty bureaucrat reaching for an empty holster.

Second, because the Europeans must rely on talk, diplomacy, negotiation, engagement — different words for the same tool — to solve their problems, they are more willing to promise things they otherwise wouldn’t. Psychologically, it’s much easier to think you are making a reasonable accommodation to a bully if, in reality, you have little choice in the matter. Thus, many European nations have encouraged or accommodated all sorts of nasty players in the spirit of “enlightened diplomacy,” in large part because they had no choice.

France, for example, has in the past let terrorists slip away with the “understanding” that so long as they leave the French alone in the future, the French will leave them alone in return. Further, virtually all European nations — in the spirit of sophisticated diplomacy — have joined or encouraged the worldwide chorus of anti-Americanism in part out of resentment at our power, but also as a way to seem both reasonable to nasty regimes around the globe, and in solidarity with their own former colonial subjects.

Not only does this approach result in the U.S. receiving a disproportionate share of grief from the rest of the world, and not only does this represent a level of ingratitude that literally stuns the conscience — but it also represents a terrible strategic choice for our allies, in the long run. “Irresponsibility, resentment, and self-hatred are the inevitable consequences of excessive dependence on others,” wrote Melvyn Krauss in How NATO Weakens the West. Krauss was writing in the late 1980s, when our European allies and Japan were typically spending about half as much as we were on defense (in terms of GNP) and only about a quarter of what the Soviets were spending — despite the fact that our allies were on the front lines of the Cold War. Krauss’s argument was simple: By over-relying on our military welfare, our allies were developing bloated social-welfare programs. Moreover, because they didn’t take defense seriously, they also began to believe that talk — then called “détente” — would be a more effective solution to the Soviet threat.

Well, the Cold War may be gone, but the “irresponsibility, resentment, and self-hatred” Krauss chronicled has a momentum that’s still going strong. France’s position in the U.N. Security Council, like that of the antiwar Democrats here in the U.S., amounts to wanting the results a threat of war might yield — disarmament, regime change, etc. — without even the possibility of actually threatening war, under any circumstances. Meanwhile, should the United States ever hint that it’s tired of paying for the defense of European nations that no longer require defending, diplomats across the continent would up-end their cheese carts in a fury.

All of which points to what Kristol meant when he said that our allies don’t want to have their own foreign policies. Real foreign policies, like it or not, must include the credible use of force as an option — if only a rare one (consider how ineffective police deterrence would be if cops ruled out the use of force at the outset, instead promising to talk bank robbers into turning themselves in). By taking their defense for granted for so long, too many of our allies believe that talk can get them everything they need. Like the kid living off his Chevron card, they’ve come to believe the world is like a giant college campus, where conflicts may erupt in the form of debates and shouting matches but violence is simply “against the rules,” and where being asked to pay your own way in the world seems an absurd injustice.


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