Europe and the Establishment

In Britain, they have admitted the existence of "the establishment" ever since journalist Henry Fairlie coined the term in the mid-fifties.

In Britain, they have admitted the existence of "the establishment" ever since journalist Henry Fairlie coined the term in the mid-fifties. It described those eminent persons -- the heads of professions, business leaders, retired politicians, distinguished judges, foundation executives, trade union notables -- whom the government would occasionally call to serve on boards, commissions and other bodies as non-partisan representatives of the public interest. Their main role on such commissions is to identify a particular public policy as necessary, desirable and, in effect, binding on all political parties. Few British governments can withstand a really determined Royal Commission. Today the British refer to such people, only half in jest, as "the Great and the Good." Americans, cherishing the myth of a classless society, are more reluctant to admit an establishment of their own. The original WASP version is popularly believed to have died away circa 1965. But it is in the nature of establishments that they are accurately identified only in retrospect.  No-one talked about the WASP establishment until it was in visible decline.  And today's establishment, no longer WASP but still WASPish in tone and method, also hibernates much of the year in colleges and boardrooms, emerging only occasionally to instruct Washington on how to deal with some particularly intractable crisis.

Earlier this month, there was a rare sighting of the establishment at one of its regular habitats -- the Council of Foreign Relations in New York -- where it emitted its familiar mating cry: a report on U.S.-European relations. Many such reports have been issued over the decades. But there was a peculiar force and poignancy to this particular cry, as if the establishment sensed a mortal threat to its favorite stamping ground.

The names on the report were in themselves testimony to the establishment's concern. Its joint chairmen were Dr. Henry Kissinger and Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Ordinary members included such stalwarts of official Atlanticism as Gen. Brent Scowcroft from the first Bush National Security Council, Reginald Bartholemew, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and Harold Brown, formerly Defense Secretary in the Carter administration. They were joined by distinguished European counterparts such as the former Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Amato, and the former Polish finance (and foreign) minister, Andrzej Olechowski.

What makes an establishment an establishment, however, is its ability to absorb and digest potential critics from all parts of the spectrum. And the younger members of this committee included such wayward intellects as the neo-conservative Robert Kagan (who popularized the argument that Americans will be the dominant hegemonic power for the indefinite future as Europe declines into moralistic senescence) and the liberal internationalist Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University, the CFR, and the Clinton Administration (whose last book argued that Europe was destined to be a great power that would limit and correct the dangers of U.S. hegemony in a unipolar world. )

Agreement would seem very unlikely in such a heterogeneous group. Again, however, it is in the nature of establishments to blur differences and to smooth edges in the larger interests of bending governments to their will.

In this case, the establishment wants to compel the Bush Administration to take alliance relations more seriously and, in particular, to abandon any hint of unilateralism in rhetoric and policy. And it produced a united report to that solemn effect.

The report's starting point -- that U.S.-European relations are extremely important --  is undeniable. A united Western alliance would shape world institutions in line with values and practices rooted in liberty and democracy and coax rising powers such as India and China into going along with this international status quo for the foreseeable future. Indeed, this is already happening as China accepts liberal economic rules at home in order to enter institutions such as the G7 and the World Trade Organization.

By contrast, a disunited West would tempt such powers to play off Europe and America against each other and foster a global jockeying for power not unlike the maneuvering between a half-dozen great powers that led to 1914.

The Committee also identifies some of the specific underlying problems in the Atlantic relationship and suggests reasonable solutions to them. Thus, it is certainly true that the Iraq war dramatized a difference in outlook on international affairs between the U.S. and continental Europe that had really existed since September 11. And it is equally true, that if Europe and the U.S. were to make greater use of multilateral institutions to define and respond to common threats, then the Atlantic alliance would function more harmoniously (though that would also require neither side employing multilateralism as a device to frustrate the other's policy.)

In the middle of these almost platitudinous proposals, however, there suddenly erupts this point (as quoted in the New York Times): "Europe's leaders must resist the temptation to define its identity in opposition to the United States; American leaders must resolve their long-standing ambivalence about the emerging European entity. As long as the EU frames its policies in complementary terms, Washington should continue to regard Europe's deepening and widening as in America's interest."

As the old academic joke goes, this is like the clock striking thirteen. The thirteenth stroke is not only false in itself, but it casts doubt on all that has gone before.

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