Of Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan

Knopf, 2003, 103 pages, C$27.00 hc, ISBN 1-4000-4093-0

In the June/July 2002 edition of Policy Review, Robert Kagan wrote an article titled “Power and Weakness”, in which he tried to explain the growing policy differences between the US and European leaders. It begins with “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” and goes on from there. Lucky readers who consulted the article early on had the rare privilege of prescience over the next few months, as the whole unilateral rush toward the American invasion of Iraq gave proof to Kagan’s theory.

While the article is available on line (and yes, you should read it), its lucid description of Pax Americana geopolitics was deemed worth of expansion and book publication. The resulting work, Of Paradise and Power: American and Europe in the New World Order, may be an exceedingly thin book, but don’t be fooled by its succinctness: It’s a brilliant piece of work.

Kagan argues that since the winner of the Cold War has been decided, the western world is gradually losing its convenient cohesion. National interests are once again taking precedence over global ideological goals. Now that the burden of the “War on Terrorism” has been taken over by America, allies of convenience are looking at each other warily.

But America and Europe (as Kagan explains, the success of the European Union is proof enough that “Europe” can now be considered as a cohesive entity) are dealing with this era in vastly different fashions. America’s thinking is being influenced by its military strength and its economic power, much like Europe’s thinking is being affected by its lack of military strength and its own version of economic success. The tools dictate the ways to perform the work and this has substantial implications in the way those two entities approach conflicts and dangers. If Europe can’t field an effective army, it will depend on economic and diplomatic negotiation to develop a mutually acceptable settlement. If America has unstoppable destructive power, it will try to fix a problem through overwhelming force before bothering with other options.

But it doesn’t stop there: While America is increasingly willing to use power, Europe seems equally complacent in assuming that the United States will come in and solve everyone’s problems. Hence the lack of progress on the notion of unified European armed forces. Europe, in some ways, thinks of itself as beyond history, as living in a sort of postmodern paradise.

Kagan takes great care to point out that this kind of thinking is not recent, nor has it been precipitated uniquely by the inauguration of the Bush Administration or the attacks of September 11, 2001. While the Clinton administration may have soft-pedalled America’s growing hegemony after the fall of the USSR, it established the bases of its successor’s unilateralism. Similarly, Europe’s insistence on multilateralism is an entirely consistent response with past decisions, including the formation of NATO. Then there’s the trifling detail that America is now acting like European powers did when they had power; the players may have changed, but the tactics certainly haven’t. It just depends on who has the most weapons at any given moment.

This book doesn’t think small. Barring catastrophe or singularity, it’s a roadmap to the likely geopolitics of the early twenty-first century. Reading it is like placing the last pieces in an especially difficult puzzle. With clear prose and lucid examples, Kagan manages to link together past events, policy decisions, social trends and news items. Time will tell if it’s a truly important book, but at this moment it reads like one of the most compelling explanations of the way things are at the moment. It’s a perfect tool for anyone looking at international affairs, and can be applied to a surprising number of current events.

There are a few objections, mind you; America’s trend toward self-centred isolationism is not particularly well-debunked (though Kagan does attempt to do so rather than ignore it) and there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement at the economic dimension of power and paradise. It’s unclear whether US military superiority can be maintained without massive amounts of foreign investment, and whether this money flow can be sustained even as foreign investors are figuring out the extent of American hegemony –not to mention the fact that they are the ones paying for it. (More speculative commentators are welcome to ponder whether America has finally put conventional warfare out of financial reach for everyone else. Wouldn’t that be a kickin’ application of lassez-faire market forces? An American monopoly on war!) Finally, the book may offer a cogent thesis of what is happening, but it’s not as successful in explaining what can happen next.

But those are small quibbles. Letting aside the fact that the book is a pure delight to read and understand, its worth is obvious, because it just makes sense. It’s consistent with the evening news: Doesn’t Europe’s relationship toward American power also reflect the attitude of smaller states such as, say, Canada? Granted, Of Paradise and Power doesn’t have the eerily predictive aura of the original article… but chances are that over the next few years, we’ll see plenty of empirical proof for Kagan’s assertions. For better or for worse. Expect this book to be a fixture of political science courses for a while, and the precursor to other work expanding its central thesis.

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