Continental Divides

Continental Divides

Mini Teaser: It took awhile--more than a dozen years, in point of fact--but the natural tendency in international politics for states to balance against the power of a hegemon has emerged. In western Europe, of all places.

by Author(s): Josef Joffe

The implication for U.S. policy is ambiguous. On the one hand, it has lost its former "Continental sword", Germany. Berlin's escape from dependence was the most vivid illustration of system transformation, for the French have opposed the United States in the past without ever completely slamming the door on bandwagoning. True to style, they dispatched their aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle toward the Suez Canal while simultaneously entrapping Washington in the corridors of the UN.

On the other hand, the United States may have gained a large group of new playmates, ranging from Britain to the Black Sea. The Euro 8 and the Vilnius 10 are a motley bunch. Some of them resent the Franco-German tandem's claim to leadership, others would rather depend for their security on a remote superpower than on weaker and nearby neighbors--an urge that seems to increase in direct proportion to geographical proximity to Russia. At any rate, the first victim of the impending war against Iraq has been Europe's pretension to a common foreign and security policy. The game is now wide open for balance and maneuver, and for all comers. As the broadsides of the 18 showed, the United States can play this game, too.

Yet such a strategy--balancing à la Britain--has not been America's greatest forte. Nor will it take care of the underlying dynamics of the post-bipolar world. Great power generates counter-power, for, to paraphrase Freud's remark about biology, the anatomy of the international system is its destiny--if not sooner, then later. Is there an escape from this dour verdict of history and theory? Perhaps--if America learned to soften the edge of its overwhelming power with the soothing balm of trust. In his State of the Union Address of 2003, George W. Bush did not hold out much hope for such an escape when he asserted that, in the end, "the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others."

Real empires routinely crush their rivals. But America is only an "imperial republic", as Raymond Aron mused decades ago. Democracies, as his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us, are fickle and inward-bound. Presumably, they pay "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" because they cherish that respect for themselves. They are better off leading by heeding because they cannot sustain the brutish ways of Rome for any length of time. There is also the practical matter of who will pacify postwar Iraq if not a significant part of the international community. Who will help in the war against terror and proliferation? For such wars cannot be won tout seul, not to speak of the never-ending campaigns against protectionism, drugs and overpopulation.

Unwilling to conquer, this "empire" still needs order beyond its borders. The objective is the right "milieu", as Arnold Wolfers put it forty years ago. To achieve it, America must sometimes use force; to sustain it, however, the sword is not enough--and it is, in the end, too costly to use too often. To build the right coalitions for peace, the United States must not forsake the "co" in "coalition"--as in "consensus" and "cooperation." As Gulliver learned, it is hard enough to live even as a friendly giant among the pygmies. It is even harder to escape their slings and arrows when the giant's strength is untempered by self-restraint. For power, as this last quarter shows, shall be balanced.

Essay Types: Essay