European Affairs

U.S. Can Legitimize its Role     Print Email

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America
By Josef Joffe, W. W. Norton, 256 pages
Reviewed by Joëlle Attinger

The anecdote is apocryphal but telling. A German high school student writes her local newspaper to complain about the growing number of belligerent black squirrels that are threatening the local species—“Americanization in the animal kingdom,” she claims angrily. Never mind that most American squirrels are gray and that there are still ample numbers of their German kin. If it’s negative, then it must be American.

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Anti-Americanism is hardly a new or unexplored phenomenon. After all, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson encountered it repeatedly during their tenures as Ambassadors of the United States to France. However, in the wake of the “official death” of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, anti- Americanism has acquired a deeply troubling virulence that expands far beyond the realm of nihilists and Jihadists. In part, that is because there is no nation of equal stature on the world stage to shoulder criticism for the world’s woes, real and imagined. On the other hand, current American foreign policy has by and large shunned the very alliances that could bolster the international legitimacy of its unique role and position.

What’s an Überpower to do?

First, understand the roots of discontent. Josef Joffe offers a wonderfully textured analysis of why America has become Europe’s favorite whipping boy. Quite provocatively, he posits that anti- Americanism is the most potent force unifying Europe today. “The European Union is fitfully undoing national sovereignty while failing to provide its citizens with a common sense of identity or collective nationhood,” he argues. “If there is a common identity, it defines itself in opposition to the United States—to both its culture and its clout.”

American self-confidence and uncommon patriotism only serve to heighten Europe’s sensibilities about its fledgling identity, according to Joffe. (German-born Josef Joffe owes some of his insights to his exemplary bona fides from both sides of the Atlantic as editor and publisher of Die Zeit after a long stint as foreign editor at Sud-Deutsche Zeitung and as a Harvard graduate and fellow or board-member in several U.S. think tanks.)

Further deepening the Atlantic divide is the failure of key European member states, most notably France and Germany, to address effectively the social and economic realities of the new, more competitive world economic order. Joffe is unsparing about this European failure to see, much less to act. Europe’s fabled social contract is no longer viable. And America is not solely to blame. Welcome to globalization. In addition to the emergence of new economic powerhouses, such as China and India, there are the newer members of the EU, which Joffe labels “Czechia” (works hard, costs less). And “Brussels” steadily erodes vestiges of national economic security. He chides European leaders for failing to overhaul the welfare state, to ease labor market constraints and to live up to their avowed agenda of making Europe more competitive.

The proverbial Trojan horse is being re-enacted in Europe, where the enemy is inside one’s own city, but Europe’s leaders refuse to see it for fear of their own political and electoral undoing. Instead, they fall back on anti-Americanism, suffusing it with a tone of superiority and deprecation. As Joffe points out, such resentment is not new to the old continent when it faces unsettling change. German romantics railed against the reason and secularism of the Age of Enlightenment, and in the early 20th century, the social and economic forces of modernization came under the fierce assaults that produced so much violence.

Most disquieting of all—for Europeans and, to a degree, for Joffe, too— are the fears of instability in a unipolar world and the attendant uncertainties of what the Americans may do, particularly in the wake of 9/11. As the Bush Administration’s decision to eschew a global alliance in its rush to the war in Iraq all too clearly demonstrated, the United States is no longer fettered by the rules of engagement encoded by the post-World War II order. Gone is the great balancing game that provided a measure of global stability and discipline, allowing lesser powers to depend, with varying degrees of comfort or discomfort, on the competing superpowers. In its stead has emerged a redefinition of American foreign- policy goals that aims at ensuring the lasting global supremacy of the United States. While the Clinton Administration embraced what Joffe terms “a soft triumphalism” and found comfort in its view of America as “the indispensable nation,” Al Qaeda’s shattering attack on American sovereignty changed all that. The United States embraced a new policy of “preventive/preemptive war” and warned that it would not hesitate to act alone in defense of the national interest. In March 2003, America acted on its word and, with a fragile coalition, invaded Iraq.

Going it alone is not a sustainable policy, Joffe argues, suggesting that policy- makers in Washington would do well to dust off their European history books to formulate a new strategy that protects America’s primacy through the 21st century. From the annals of the British Empire, Joffe seizes on Britain’s ability to keep her continental rivals from ganging up against her. “Its grand strategy was to stay aloof from the quarrels of Europe. Failing that, it would intervene—always with others—against the hegemonist du jour. But the main game was to reduce other players’ incentives to gang up on Albion,” he writes. A similar balancing strategy, this time designed for a continental nation, was practiced by Germany’s Second Reich under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck on the basis of his three cardinal rules of diplomacy: “Keep out, Keep them busy,” and “Keep them away.” The wily Chancellor’s “pactomania” wove a web of ever-shifting alliances that protected Berlin by restricting the ability of rival powers to surround Germany. While neither model alone can solve the challenges facing America today, Joffe argues that a blend of both could.

Despite the damage to America’s standing wrought by Iraq II (“a war against the wrong foe at the wrong time”), Joffe passionately contends that the United States must also renew its commitment to building a new international order. “History whispers at any rate,” he writes, “that primacy is not a fixture of international life. It has to be conquered anew every day. So balancing and bonding are not enough; these strategies have to be reinforced by building. Balancing dismantles threats; bonding keeps them from arising. But building an international order that turns rivals into stakeholders is the magic catalyst that transmutes raw power into legitimate power,” he counsels.

Indeed, Joffe counsels, the power of enlightened self-interest should propel the United States to reinvest in the very world that shuns it. Learn from America’s hour of triumph at the end of World War II, he recommends: in the postwar era, successive U.S. governments not only secured the nation’s status as a superpower but legitimized it by providing a stunning array of international and regional public goods. The United States needs to do so again.

Joëlle Attinger is the former Chief of Correspondents for Time magazine.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.