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The Power of Economics and Public Opinion

Friday, March 30, 2012

In asserting that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” Robert Kagan combined pithiness with productive provocation. Following in the footsteps of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, he stated hard truths that challenged observers of world politics to reconsider their worldviews — even if they disagreed vehemently with his arguments. Writing “Power and Weakness” when he did — after the September 11th attacks, after the seemingly successful ejection of the Taliban from Afghanistan, before Operation Iraqi Freedom — Kagan seemed to crystallize the growing transatlantic rift. In the years immediately after the piece was published, the transatlantic divide grew to a chasm. Spats between American and European leaders became routine. Public attitudes in Europe about the United States worsened, and vice versa.

A decade after this magazine published “Power and Weakness,” I come to praise Kagan’s insights — and then to bury them. As they did with Fukuyama and Huntington before him, critics caricatured the arguments Kagan made in “Power and Weakness.” It would be easy to point out events over the past decade that, on the surface, would appear to contradict Kagan’s thesis. These critics elide the deeper points that Kagan made about the connection between national power and strategic culture. When looked at again, “Power and Weakness” presaged arguments made by academic realists and liberals about the future of international affairs.

Ten years on, however, time has revealed some hidden flaws in the logic. Indeed, while “Power and Weakness” captured the strategic thinking of a decade ago, it also epitomizes the blind spots of those immediate post-9/11 debates. Kagan made two unstated assumptions in “Power and Weakness” that look increasingly dubious with the passage of time. First, he treated power as though it could only be articulated through military force or cultural attraction. This crude dichotomy omits the very significant space where economic power resides. In neglecting this dimension, Kagan underestimated the policy arenas where Europe has mattered to the United States. Just as Europe has thrived under the security umbrella of the United States, Washington has benefited from the support of Brussels’ economic power. Second, in discussing the strategic cultures of Europe and America, Kagan obscured the gap between public attitudes and policy elites — particularly on this side of the Atlantic. In doing so, he failed to note the ways in which these strategic cultures diverged from the attitudes of the mass public. Due to the overreaches of the past decade, this gap leaves minimal margin for error for American policy makers in contemplating the use of force. In the future, the United States may have no choice but to revert back to a strategic culture more simpatico with European elites.

There is an unfortunate tendency in criticism to assume that pithiness cannot be combined with sophistication. “Power and Weakness” is pithy, but it is also more than just Kagan’s Mars/Venus bon mot. He argued that there was a growing rift between the strategic cultures of American and Europe once the Soviet Union disappeared from the global stage. The United States was vastly more comfortable using hard power — in the form of military force — to eliminate foreign threats. Furthermore, the U.S. was more willing to do so preemptively and preventively in far-flung areas of the globe, with little recourse to multilateral institutions or international law along the way. Europeans, in contrast, were far more reluctant to rely on force of arms. They viewed such an approach as militaristic and naïve, doubting that brute force could solve intractable stalemates. European policymakers preferred policies of “subtlety and indirection” according to Kagan. These contrasting views of how to conduct foreign policy were leading to a clash of strategic cultures that threatened to rupture the transatlantic relationship.

Kagan’s description of the transatlantic divide was part of a large chorus of contemporaneous punditry making a similar point. Kagan’s explanation for why this divergence emerged is the primary value-added of “Power and Weakness.” He rejected ephemeral explanations, such as the presidency of George W. Bush, as well as pseudo-cultural claims of inherent differences in national character. He distilled it down to two factors: shifts in the distribution of power and the subsequent effect on political ideas:

[The] power equation has shifted dramatically. When the United States was weak, it practiced the strategies of indirection, the strategies of weakness; now that the United States is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do. When the European great powers were strong, they believed in strength and martial glory. Now, they see the world through the eyes of weaker powers. These very different points of view, weak versus strong, have produced differing strategic judgments, differing assessments of threats and the proper means of addressing threats, and even different calculations of interest.

But this is only part of the answer. For along with these natural consequences of the transatlantic power gap, there has also opened a broad ideological gap. Europe, because of its unique historical experience of the past half-century — culminating in the past decade with the creation of the European Union — has developed a set of ideals and experiences regarding the utility and morality of power different from the ideals and principles of Americans, who have not shared that experience. If the strategic chasm between the United States and Europe appears greater than ever today, and grows still wider at a worrying pace, it is because these material and ideological differences reinforce one another. The divisive trend they together produce may be impossible to reverse.

Kagan was not the only analyst to observe the widening hard power gap between the United States and everyone else. At around the same time “Power and Weakness” appeared, Paul Kennedy was also pointing out in the Financial Times the unprecedented acme of American power. He famously concluded, “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing . . . no other nation comes close.” Kagan’s comparative strength was in teasing out the strategic implications of this gap in military power.

There are quick and easy ways in which the events of the subsequent decade ostensibly undercut Kagan’s hypothesis. It is worth bringing them up in order to knock them down. The most obvious counters to Kagan’s hypotheses are Barack Obama’s presidency and the nato-led operation to oust Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. The election of Barack Obama led to a dramatic increase in America’s standing in Europe and most other regions of the globe, despite the widespread perception that the United States was to blame for the 2008 global financial crisis. Multiple opinion polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Program on International Policy Attitudes, and the Pew Research Center since the beginning of 2009 confirm the restoration of American standing in European capitals and beyond. If Kagan was correct about the underlying sources of anti-Americanism in Europe, then surely America’s popularity should not have recovered so handsomely after 2008.

Libya would also seem to be an even more flagrant violation of Kagan’s argument. As the Arab Spring gathered momentum, Qaddafi cracked down on protestors, consolidated his control over the western half of the country, and dispatched forces to advance on the uprising in Benghazi. As this played out, it was the British and the French who pushed to find a military solution to the crisis. Senior officials in the Obama administration, most prominently Defense Secretary Robert Gates, professed great reluctance to use force in what was clearly a nonvital interest. In the end, the United States only went along with action once the Arab League requested, the United Nations Security Council authorized, and nato allies begged for American action. An anonymous Obama advisor described this decision-making process with the infamous phrase “leading from behind.” Such an attitude would seem to be the antithesis of the American worldview presented in “Power and Weakness.”

The popularity of Obama did not translate into any real kind of policy convergence with Europe when it came to security issues.

A second cut reveals that neither example falsifies the main tenets of Kagan’s argument. In the case of Obama’s popularity, the rebound in American standing abroad was and is quite real. What is important, however, is that this boost did not translate into any kind of policy convergence with Europe on security issues. Indeed, according to multiple officials in the administration, Obama initially counted on his political popularity to get European allies to make a greater contribution to global security questions — such as Afghanistan — as a way for the United States to scale down its own military commitments. As the administration soon discovered, however, its soft power renaissance did not translate into concrete policy concessions. Indeed, the administration grew so frustrated with Europe’s rebuffs that Obama cancelled the scheduled U.S.- eu summit in May 2010. The director of the Center for European Reform explained the decision to the New York Times: “when the Europeans can’t provide much to help America solve global security problems, [Obama] doesn’t want to spend too much time on it.” The decline in anti-Americanism in Europe did not alter the gap in strategic culture across the Atlantic.

Similarly, the Libya intervention might represent the last gasp of force projection for the European countries that have been the most comfortable with military power. Even during the peak of the Libya operation in June 2011, Secretary of Defense Gates blasted European governments that were “willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” He warned about “the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance.” As of January 2012, the trend of European retrenchment on defense has continued unabated. Great Britain had mothballed its only aircraft carrier and announced plans to shrink its army by twenty percent. France announced its intention to withdraw its forces in Afghanistan ahead of schedule, and other European members of nato look set to follow suit. Other nato allies such as Germany and Italy have gone even further in their defense cuts.

While the United States is having a similar debate about austerity in the defense budget, the terms are radically different. The current U.S. defense budget is still significantly greater in real dollar terms than it was ten years ago, and it will be so for the rest of this decade. According to sipri, the United States was responsible for 43 percent of global military spending in 2010. Even if the American military faces significant cuts, the United States will remain the military hegemon for the medium term.

In different guises, Kagan's more general insights about power, ideas, and foreign policy had been expressed before.

Even in an era of austerity, Kagan remains relevant in pointing out Washington’s greater comfort with hard power. Indeed, since President Obama took office, the withdrawal from Iraq has been the exception and not the rule that guides his willingness to use military statecraft. Beyond Libya, his administration will have more troops in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2013 than at the beginning of 2009. He has increased the use of drones and special forces in Pakistan and the Persian Gulf region, used naval power to combat Somali pirates, sent special forces to Uganda to help weaken the Lord’s Resistance Army, and announced plans for a new base in Australia as part of the strategic “pivot” to the Pacific Rim. The continuity in American uses of military power despite the changes of administration demonstrates the durability of Kagan’s hypotheses.

In different guises, Kagan’s more general insights about the relationship between power, ideas, and foreign policy approaches had been expressed before. “Power and Weakness” nevertheless anticipated recent scholarship in paradigms that are seemingly hostile to Kagan’s neoconservatism. Realists in particular have recently made arguments strikingly consistent with elements of Kagan’s logic. Their development of “soft balancing” as a concept posited that European allies, among others, were using multilateral institutions as a low-cost way of raising the costs of American action. 1 Kagan anticipated this gambit in his essay, noting that a primary goal of European actors was the “multilateralising” of the United States to restrain Washington’s unilateralist impulses. He argued that Europeans “hope to constrain American power without wielding power themselves . . . the appeal to multilateralism and international law has a real practical payoff and little cost.”  Similarly, when John Mearsheimer argued last year in the National Interest that the United States had pursued a military-heavy strategy of global dominance since the end of the Cold War, he was agreeing with Kagan’s logic even if he disagreed about its wisdom.

Nor has it been only realists who have echoed Kagan — liberals have made similar points about the relationship between relative power and preferences on multilateralism. In Liberal Leviathan, John Ikenberry acknowledged that “the rise of unipolarity has altered — and to some extent diminished — the incentives that the United States has to bind itself to global rules and institutions.” In The Future of Power, Joseph Nye observed that international institutions benefited weaker actors by acting as a brake on the ability of great powers to exercise coercion without constraint.2  Contrary to perceptions that Kagan’s arguments were outside the mainstream, international relations scholars have pursued similar lines of argument over the past decade.

Kagan’s essay contains hidden flaws as well as hidden strengths. His concept of power was two-dimensional. Kagan polished the contrast between America and Europe to a high sheen. In discussing American strengths, he offered multiple variations of his basic point, that “America’s military power and particularly its ability to project that power to all corners of the globe remained unprecedented.” In contrast, his discussion of European strengths focused on its “emphasis on negotiation, diplomacy, and commercial ties, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion.” The clash between American military power and European soft power could not have been more stark.

In setting up this dichotomy, however, Kagan committed a conceptual error by conflating economic and commercial influence with soft power. When Joseph Nye developed the latter concept, he was careful to stress that economic might straddled the border between hard and soft power. The relative allure of an economic model falls under the rubric of soft power. Governments that promote sustainable growth, attract high-quality labor and capital, and capably provide for social welfare are clearly soft power magnets: Other countries will see their economic model as a template to pursue. In doing so, the preferences of these countries would be more likely to converge than diverge.

Nye was also careful, however, to stress the dimensions of economic power that went beyond the definition of “soft power.” There are two ways in which governments can convert economic strength into hard power. First, any country needs a strong economic base to sustain sizeable amounts of military capabilities. This has been a truism in international relations for quite some time: Great powers that overinvest in guns at the expense of butter inevitably burn out. On the other hand, commercial states from Periclean Athens to Victorian Britain enjoyed both power and plenty.  

Second, governments that regulate large markets can use their economic might to cajole and coerce both private and public actors. Markets have a gravitational effect on producers — the larger (and closer) the economy, the stronger the pull for producers. For private actors, obtaining and securing access to a sizeable market encourages acting in accordance with the preferences of the gatekeeper governments. This, in turn, often encourages home governments to adopt similar preferences. Large market jurisdictions can also use their power to coerce more recalcitrant actors into altering their policies. Sometimes the simple existence of asymmetric dependence can compel useful concessions from other actors. In other cases, explicit threats or acts of economic coercion are necessary. Like military statecraft, these forms of economic leverage will not always succeed — but economic statecraft occupies a vital middle ground between Kagan’s extreme poles of force and charm.

Kagan made a conceptual error by conflating economic and commerical influence with soft power.

To be fair, Kagan’s neglect of economic power reflected the post-9/11 American zeitgeist that disdained half-measures to confront threats. Key Bush administration officials shared this contempt of economic power and were widely dismissive of the merits of sanctions. The Iraq case in particular seemed to highlight the futility of economic statecraft, as the U.N. sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein’s regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse a decade ago.

This perception turned out to be incorrect.3 Over time, the Bush administration grew more enthusiastic about the utility of economic statecraft. The administration developed inducements like the Millennium Challenge Corporation to entice developing countries into good governance. As for coercion, Rose Gottemoeller observed in Survival that by early 2008, financial sanctions “had been honed through the ‘war on terror,’ and sanctions are hitting their targets among corrupt elites more often.” Juan Zarate, a deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, concluded in the Washington Quarterly that the tools of financial statecraft “provide the United States and its allies the best source of diplomatic leverage to affect regimes’ behavior and calculus.”

In failing to properly account for economic power, Kagan introduced a key error of omission. According to “Power and Weakness,” Europe’s strategic culture was flawed because European policy makers failed to appreciate that they operated under the American security umbrella. In not discussing economic power, however, Kagan revealed his own blind spot. He failed to realize the extent to which American foreign policy relied on European support. When the United States and European Union have cooperated on matters of economic statecraft, they have been able to dictate terms on matters ranging from market regulation to human rights to regime change. 4  Within the past year alone, transatlantic economic pressure led to regime change in the Ivory Coast and has buckled the autocracies in Syria and Iran. Even in its weakened economic condition, the European Union is still forcing a populist government in Hungary to alter its policies.

If Europe still needs the United States to provide its hard security, then the United States still needs Europe to augment its economic power. Kagan’s failure to recognize this point led to two errors in grand strategy. First, it caused his neoconservative allies in the Bush administration to underestimate the value of having Europe allied with the United States. If force is thought of as the only hard power option, then Kagan was correct to believe that Europe has been somewhat marginalized. Europe is vital to projecting the economic dimension of hard power, however. This requires some compromise with European capitals — a fact the Bush administration discovered in its second term.

Second, overlooking economic power caused neoconservatives to erroneously obsess on the potential military threats and not notice the rising economic power of the advanced developing countries. In recent years American hawks have gotten more desperate on this front, flailing around to find some constellation of threats that justify elevated levels of defense spending. The obsession with military threats is doubly problematic. It calls for a level of military spending that is neither sustainable nor desirable in an era of scarce government revenue; indeed, such expenditures could debilitate America’s economy further. Such a focus also misses a key point: China’s real influence comes from its rising consumer power. In the short to medium term, the primacy of the transatlantic partnership does not face an existential threat from China’s military modernization. The game-changer for the West comes if China’s burgeoning consumer market encourages bandwagoning rather than hedging or balancing by its trading partners.

In examining strategic culture, Kagan was focusing on the elite discourse of America and Europe. This makes sense in the short term — most Americans and Europeans give little thought to matters of grand strategy and military doctrine. They are, to use the language of political science, rationally ignorant. Over the longer term, however, public attitudes about foreign policy priorities and the use of force can act as a binding constraint on policy-making elites. If the status quo policies are perceived as not working, then politicians must face a restive domestic audience. If a country either suffers from significant foreign policy reversals or mounting costs from military action, a previously apathetic public can mobilize to punish failed foreign policy leaders. 5

The dirty little secret of American foreign policy over the past generation is that the views of American foreign policy elites diverge sharply from those of the broader mass public. This is particularly true with respect to foreign policy priorities and the use of force. Surveys conducted by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs over the past three decades show a persistent pattern. The top foreign policy priorities for Americans would best be characterized as defensive and realpolitik in nature: protection against terrorist attacks, protecting the jobs of American workers, stopping flows of illegal immigration and narcotics, and ensuring adequate energy supplies. Similarly, when Americans were polled specifically about the use of force, the mass public’s strongest support for the use of force came in missions close to home — interdicting illicit drugs, combating terrorism, and armed interventions in Latin America. The issues that have animated recent debates about the use of force — improving human rights and democracy promotion — are considered to be low-priority issues for the mass public. Americans do support these ideas in the abstract — but majorities do not want to expend considerable blood and treasure to achieve these aims.

If Europe still needs the U.S. to provide its hard security, then the U.S. still needs Europe to augment its economic power.

The other divergence in public opinion comes with attitudes to multilateralism. On this front, Americans are much more sympathetic to the European policy position. The American public strongly prefers using force in a multilateral context. They are willing to trade off the constraints of multilateralism for the added legitimacy and burden-sharing. Indeed, multilateral backing has a dramatic effect on American support for activities like armed interventions. This was true even when Kagan wrote “Power and Weakness.” For example, the 2002 Chicago Council survey showed that American support for defending South Korea against an invasion from North Korea increased from 36 percent to 57 percent if the effort is un-sponsored. The numbers for defending Saudi Arabia increased from 48 percent to 77 percent. Other surveys found a similar bump in support for aggressive actions in Iran or North Korea if multilateral institutions are involved.

How much do these divergent attitudes between elites and the mass public affect strategic culture? These gaps have persisted between American policymakers and the mass public for three decades. This suggests a lax constraint. Indeed, the first, overriding metric that Americans use to gauge their support for military statecraft is whether the operation appears to be successful. Scholars have found that a “halo effect” comes from successful uses of force — they are deemed successful regardless of public attitudes prior to and during the conflict. In the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, for example, a July 2011 cnn poll found 35 percent support for U.S. military action, with 60 percent opposed. A month later, with the fall of Tripoli, 54 percent supported the operation and 43 percent opposed it. Military victory can create its own supporters.

That said, the long, draining conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on public attitudes about U.S. leadership in the world, as well as the use of force. In 2009 Pew found isolationist sentiments had reached an all-time high in the United States. A January 2012 pipa poll found that Americans strongly prefer cutting defense spending compared to either Medicare or Social Security. According to a January 2012 Pew survey, “Defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade.” Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a December 2011 cnn poll approved of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. The growth of unrest in that country since the U.S. withdrawal has done nothing to alter public attitudes on the matter — which is why Republican challengers to Obama have been rather reticent to talk about it. By the beginning of 2012, majorities opposed the war in Afghanistan and favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible. On Iran, American strongly prefer economic and diplomatic action to military statecraft even as tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf.

As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion. This strategic culture might not resemble Europe’s in every detail — but it does imply a much smaller gap than Kagan predicted a decade ago. Indeed, over the next decade, both the strategic fortunes and the strategic cultures of American and Europe are becoming more, and not less, intertwined.

1 Robert Pape, “Soft Balancing Against the United States,” International Security30 (Summer 2005); T.V. Paul, “Soft Balancing in the Age of U.S. Primacy,” International Security 30 (Summer 2005).

2 G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan (Princeton University Press, 2011), 9, Joseph Nye, The Future of Power (Public Affairs, 2011), 61.

3 David Cortright and George Lopez, “Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked,” Foreign Affairs83 (July-August 2004).

4 Daniel W. Drezner, All Politics Is Global (Princeton University Press, 2007); Emilie Hafner-Burton, Forced To Be Good (Cornell University Press, 2009).

5 This section draws on Daniel W. Drezner, “The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion,” Perspectives on Politics6 (March 2008).

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