LONDON — “Go it alone” is clearly the prevailing mood in Washington. Officials and commentators alike argue that with the United States’ overwhelming military might and Europe’s alleged weakness, the world must be set right by unilateral American action, and the international community can either like it or lump it.
There is much to admire and respect about America today. There is no doubt that its economic vigor is unending, that its military spending dwarfs all other nations and that it remains the vital ally for all freedom-loving countries.
Yet could it be that in this case the U.S. attitude is resting on a fatally flawed analysis? Could it be that this vast American power and strength contains, in modern conditions, a kind of weakness, while the weakness of Europe, about which Washington experts speak so disparagingly, is in practice a source of strength.
Such a paradoxical possibility does not seem even to have entered the mind of, for example, Robert Kagan, whose essay on the widening trans-Atlantic power gap is said to have had great influence on the current administration. For him there is no doubt that America is so powerful it can do anything it wants, while militarily weak Europe flops around trying to use diplomacy, compromise and negotiation with the world’s dark forces, since it has no alternative.
Yet there are good reasons why this whole thesis may have got things upside down. Here are some of them.
* Against the asymmetry of terror, sheer military might is very little use. The U.S. may have 13 gigantic carrier fleets and thousands of troops billeted in camps across half of Asia, but that does not mean it has been able to catch Osama bin Laden or pin down the numerous terrorist networks that coil in and out of each and almost every society. Equating military size with power has already been shown to be naive.
* Weapons technology increasingly favors the Davids against the Goliaths and the little ships against the big galleons. Smallness can be strength, as the British know very well from their history. Today, one man, armed with light, shoulder-held equipment, can destroy a 30-ton tank or bring down a $60 million aircraft. One terrorist with a briefcase can paralyze cities or poison millions.
* However brilliant (and expensive) the military’s gadgetry and hardware, operations ultimately depend on the morale, agility and commitment of the men and women of whom a country’s armed forces are composed. Modern U.S. forces seem troubled by low morale, excessive fear of casualties and the need for elephantine support facilities to keep one man on the front line. Europe’s “weak” little armies could turn out to be far more effective in meeting today’s unconventional security demands.
* Addressing today’s threats to global peace and stability, while at the same time protecting one’s own national and local interests (which are increasingly the same thing), requires the deepest and most sophisticated sort of intelligence — the kind that really penetrates into the heart of local cultures, customs and ways of life.
U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the only way to know about coming revolutions or uprisings was to listen to what people were actually saying to each other in the souks, not what they were saying to government officials or foreigners or visiting reporters. This is the kind of work at which the “weak” Europeans excel, especially the British, while the “powerful” American agencies find it hard to follow the plot.
* As a general principle, size increases vulnerability while it reduces flexibility. The factors that finally sealed the fate of the dinosaurs may be in dispute, but no one denies that their cumbersome size and lack of maneuverability helped bring them down.
* Since the global network is a reality, individual nations, however large and dominant, must rely on each other to make any project succeed, whether it is military, financial, commercial or technical. The American option of “going it alone,” backed by the unconstrained American power about which Kagan and others in Washington talk so freely, does not really exist. More than ever we all live in a single security network. For all its size, the U.S. cannot operate round the world or even defend its own soil without the most intimate cooperation of the “weak” European nations.
Ironically, the one way in which the theory of European “weakness” might be validated would be by listening to the advice of Kagan, and many others, on the future structure of the Continent. If Europe’s leaders were unwise enough to succumb to the “bloc” mentality and try to create a single “dinosaur” superpower in attempted emulation (and rivalry) of America, they would destroy the very diversity and ingenuity that Europe’s diversity brings to the global security scene. Such a backward-looking, “two bloc” view of the world would also ignore — with total unrealism — the key roles of Russia, Japan and the rest of Asia in the global network.
Regrettably, influential European voices still call for such a retrograde step. Yet it would surely reinforce the “weakness” that the Americans wrongly diagnose among Europe’s nations and add further to the genuine weakness of the American giant, which is the paradoxical other side of its strength.
If this admittedly complex message can somehow reach the U.S. leadership, then the trans-Atlantic relationship, far from collapsing under current strains, will become a more intimate and subtle partnership than ever.
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