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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

19 July 2005

Changing perspectives (cont’d)

It was suggested to me that my last post was elitist and condescending towards America. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t my intent to portray America’s eagerness as a flaw whilst praising Europe’s unwillingness to do so as a virtue. If America is impatient, Europe is unimpressionable (there, I have offended everyone).

Which is why I find so much hope in the Atlantic alliance; America has the youthful energy (to say nothing of the resources) to bring about change; it is a country that fought for decolonization and championed self-determination when it was unpopular to do; it welcomes change and is willing to experiment with it, domestically and internationally; it is willing to put its troops on the line to defend its national, and often by extension, the global interest. What Europe brings to the equation is stability—the stability of patience, of perseverance; of adhering to laws and process, of managing rather than quick-fixing disputes.

America and Europe have always viewed the world differently—at their core, Americans want a liberal international order founded upon values such as openness, democracy and capitalism; Europeans place a high premium on stability, compromise and law. For lack of better term, Americans are idealists and Europeans realists—Americans are dynamic and risk-taking, Europeans static and risk-averse. Americans regard values as the dominant building block of international politics, with laws codifying those ideals; Europeans hold law and sovereignty as values in themselves. As Robert Kagan wrote,

“The problem is that the modern liberal vision of progress in international affairs has always been bifocal. On the one hand, liberalism has entertained since the Enlightenment a vision of world peace based on an ever-strengthening international legal system. The success of such a system rests on the recognition that all nations, big or small, democratic or tyrannical, humane or barbarous, are equal sovereign entities. As Hugo Grotius, Hans Morgenthau, and many others have asked over the centuries, how would international law survive if states could violate one another’s sovereignty in the name of propagating democracy, human rights, or any other moral good?

On the other hand, modern liberalism cherishes the rights and liberties of the individual and defines progress as the greater protection of these rights and liberties across the globe. In the absence of a sudden global democratic and liberal transformation, that goal can be achieved only by compelling tyrannical or barbarous regimes to behave humanely, sometimes through force” (1).

Europeans find the former more appealing, Americans the latter. However, they trade places when it comes to tactics: Americans are realistic and understand that their vision might require force from time to time, while Europeans often disavow violence as a method for bringing about the order they so treasure.

All these differences are bound to produce antipathies: Americans view Europeans as cowards who will not accept responsibilities, while Europeans view Americans as zealots set out to impose their beliefs on the world. The result is that America exudes an idealistic dynamism with which Europe is and always has been uncomfortable, whilst Europe is tolerant of the status quo and has a higher threshold for action, military or otherwise, often dumbfounding America’s understanding of what foreign policy should be all about.

But what is important is how well Europe and America can complement one another: just as relationships between people need complementarily more than they need commonality, so do alliances among states. Can America and Europe do together what neither of them can do alone?

There is a long answer to this question; but the short answer was given by Dominique Moisi: “Europe is the best protection that the United States has against its inner evils: its isolationist narcissism, its ignorance of the way others feel and think … How, otherwise, will Americans achieve idealism without illusion, realism without cynicism?” (2)

References: (1) Robert Kagan, “America’s Crisis of Legitimacy,” Foreign Affairs, March 2004; (2) Dominique Moisi, “Reinventing the West,” Foreign Affairs, November 2003



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