Europe Challenged

Europe Challenged

Mini Teaser: Will the European Union become a peer competitor to the United States? Not likely, thinks Professor Tucker, unless U.S. policy produces self-diminishment by isolating America from others. But well it might.

by Author(s): Robert W. Tucker

By now it is apparent that a significant change has occurred in the
view taken of American power. Whereas before September 11, 2001,
there was an abundance of articles and books on the brief life of
American hegemony, in the aftermath of that event they have radically
declined in number. What the Gulf War failed to do, the war in
Afghanistan succeeded in doing. It has made converts (however
reluctant) of most of those who before were skeptics, not so much of
the fact of American hegemony today but of its durability. The
"unipolar moment", to use Charles Krauthammer's terminology, has
become the "unipolar era." Years have been replaced by decades.

Not all who once doubted have been so persuaded, however. Charles A.
Kupchan is one of a diminishing band. The End of the American Era
presents his case for believing that the days of American dominance
are limited.

Kupchan does not question that the fundamental geopolitical fact
today is American preponderance. That we live in a unipolar world is
indeed his starting point. "The fundamental, inescapable geopolitical
feature of the moment", he writes, "is American predominance." The
stability of today's global landscape, the absence of any major
geopolitical faultlines, follows directly from its unipolar
structure. Terrorism will remain a threat, but the far more dangerous
threat of great power competition is for now in abeyance. This is the
good news. But the bad news is that U.S. unipolarity will be brief:

Two unstoppable trends mean that America's unipolar moment is
unlikely to last the decade. The first is the diffusion of power. No
dominant country has ever been able to sustain power indefinitely.
Over time, other states catch up. The diffusion of economic strength
will today occur more quickly than in most periods. The near term
challenger to America is not a single country trying to play
catch-up--which takes time--but a European Union that is in the
process of aggregating the impressive resources that its member
nations already possess.

Although not a federal state today--perhaps ever--Europe nevertheless
has a collective weight that rivals the United States in trade and
finance. In defense, Europe is forging a common policy and acquiring
the means to act on its own. A new center of global power is thus in
the making and, Kupchan asserts, "America's power will shrink
accordingly." In a couple of decades, Kupchan believes that Europe
will be followed by East Asia. "By 2025, America and Europe may both
be spending much more time worrying about the rise of Asia than about
each other."

The changing character of American internationalism is the second
trend that will soon bring the unipolar moment to an end. Kupchan

Unipolarity rests on the existence of a polity that not only enjoys
preponderance, but also is prepared to expend its dominant resources
to keep everyone in line and to underwrite international order. If
the United States were to tire of being the global protector of last
resort, unipolarity would still come undone even if American
resources were to remain supreme.

Kupchan finds signs that with the end of the Cold War, America no
longer feels compelled--particularly given its favorable geographic
location--to play the role of global guardian. And while he sees the
attacks of September 11 as putting a temporary hold on America's
retreat from global hegemony, he believes that "the political center
of gravity has been quietly but steadily moving toward a more limited

How far may this waning internationalism be expected to go? For a
world still so dependent for its stability on American power and
purpose, it is a vital question. Kupchan does not attempt to answer
it. Instead, he merely notes the huge difference between reining in
our commitments, which he thinks is in any event inevitable and can
be done with minimal risk, and a withdrawal from global affairs
altogether, which would have dire consequences given the fact that
global stability remains so dependent on American power.

Finally, there is the problem of America's unilateralism, which
Kupchan finds likely to increasingly define the nation's modus
operandi, whatever the level of engagement it has in managing
international order in the years ahead. "As in the past, America's
unilateralist bent stems from fear that international institutions
will encroach on the nation's sovereignty and room for maneuver."
Unilateralism was once inseparable from isolationism, but today it is
the corollary of a policy intent on shaping an international order
responsive to American hegemony. The re-emergence of unilateralism,
Kupchan argues, may be traced to the absence of Cold War restraints,
electoral politics (the appeal of unilateralism to conservative
Republicans), and American frustration with its inability to get its
way with putative allies and others as often as in the past. The
conjoined war on terrorism and rogue states only promises to magnify
the impulse to a greater unilateralism. To all the issues that
divided the United States from allies and former adversaries prior to
September 11, issues only momentarily masked over in the immediate
response to that attack, must now be added the problems arising from
the conduct of this war.

Kupchan thinks the best we may hope for is that Washington will begin
to lay the groundwork for a new and more discriminating brand of
American internationalism that will enjoy the public's support. For
the unipolar moment is passing.

Combine the rise in Europe and Asia with a declining and prickly
internationalism in the United States and it becomes clear that
America's unipolar moment is not long for this world. America's
dominance and its political appetite for projecting its power
globally have peaked, and both will be dissipating over the course of
the coming decade.

A return to a more familiar world is in the making, and the central
challenge for American strategy will be coping with the dangers
arising from the new geographical faultlines which, in the final
analysis, look a lot like the old geographical faultlines we have
long read about in history books.

Kupchan supports his themes by relying on history as well as the
logic of contemporary affairs. In a series of essays, Kupchan
examines those historical periods that in his judgment best
illuminate the dilemmas of present policy. The method of historical
analogy is deemed unavoidable. "Unless anchored in the past", he
explains in his preface, "analysis of the present is likely to be of
only fleeting relevance and risks overlooking the potent sources of
change that run beneath the surface and become apparent only in
historical relief." But even if skillfully carried out, the question
persists--particularly in the study of American history--of the
degree to which the past continues to rule over the present.

Kupchan has much to say in criticizing American foreign policy that
is on point. But his principal message concerns the passing of the
American era, and it is on this ground that the work must be largely
judged. In doing so, I use the same realistic yardstick that Kupchan
uses. "According to the book's map of the world", he writes, "the
defining element of the global system is the distribution of power,
not democracy, culture, globalization, or anything else." Power, not
potential but actual power, is the key.

To the extent that the foreseen American decline is attributed to
external causes, there is not much to say that has not already been
said--both in general and in some earlier reviews of The End of the
American Era. It may well be true, as Kupchan tells us, that the
integration of Europe is "one of the most significant geopolitical
events of the twentieth century", and that it represents "a turning
point every bit as momentous as the founding of the United States,
perhaps more so." Even so, there is the matter of time. Kupchan
assumes that the European Union's geopolitical significance will be
substantially realized in the course of the current decade. Yet
nowhere does he give persuasive reasons in support of this contention.

At present, the states that make up the EU possess resources
sufficient to rival the United States. In what period of time they might succeed
in converting that potential power into usable power is anyone's
guess. One need not be a Euroskeptic to see the process taking at
least several decades. If demographic trends unfold as they are now
projected, that day may never come. In any event, the EU's challenge
is above all dependent upon forging a centralized decision-making
body having the authority to act on behalf of Europe in matters of
foreign policy, and this would, of course, mean the surrender by the
separate states of control over foreign policy. The European response
to Iraq has shown that the EU is still a long way from achieving so
revolutionary a change, and, with its expansion to include ten new
member states, that day is even more distant. In its absence,
American domination of the continent may be expected to continue into
an indefinite future, particularly if the Bush Administration's
National Security Strategy prevails. The NSS is designed to widen
still further the immense gap in military spending and capability
that exists today between the United States and any other nation or
feasible combination of nations.

Essay Types: Essay