Robert Kagan had an op-ed in the Washington Post lamenting the state of the Republican party as the party of Trump. It was interesting and principled food for thought, which is also the opinion I drew when I heard him speak as a law student. He had come to speak at my German law school during my semester there, and what follows is a lightly-edited version of what I posted after hearing his comments. Originally posted November 19, 2005, and interesting little time capsule, especially in light of Brexit.
As part of a continuing series of “Transatlantic Lectures,” Bucerius invited Robert Kagan to speak last week. I admit, I was wary of his presentation going into it. He had been described to me as being a Neocon, and therefore someone whose world views I would often find quite frightening in their obstinate and isolationist arrogance.
But while I think his argument requires rebuttal, I don’t think it requires excoriation. He didn’t present himself as the kind of Neanderthal conservative who threatens allies with “either you’re with us or against us” admonitions, or rushes to rename foodstuffs in protest of those who would resist acquiescing to all of America’s wishes. Rather, Kagan impressed me as one of those all-too-rare Americans who understands there is a world out there beyond our borders and actually has made an effort to get to know it. Moreover, he recognized that Americans and Europeans are different, and that there are very good reasons – historical and cultural – for those differences. He didn’t therefore rabidly insist that Europeans do things the American way, but at the same time, his argument nonetheless recommended Europe be more like America in a key way: by becoming an equivalent military power.
Actually, it’s not quite clear how equivalent Europe would need to be. It would not make sense, for example, to expect a country like Germany to devote the same percentage of its GDP to its military as the US does to its own, particularly not while it is devoting the sums that it is to the development of the former Eastern Bloc regions. When pressed on this point during the Q&A period, Kagan seemed to accept that as long as Europe actually met the targets for military investment that it has already publicly articulated as being its desired policy, he would be satisfied.
However Kagan’s overall point does not rest on quibbling over numbers. It is a much more substantive argument for Europe to expand militarily.
As he laid it out, I was surprised with how comfortable I personally felt with his proposition. I suspect this is partly due to the reasoning that, to the extent I do believe it is necessary for the military to resolve a crisis, it would be better if the US military didn’t have to do it alone. Not only would Europe be able to share in the costs, but the solidarity could also provide more pressure on the opponent, which could potentially speed up the conflict’s resolution.
Still, there are a couple of problems with his militarization suggestion. And one very serious one is the historical irony of asking Europe to militarize. Didn’t we just get done with making them demilitarize? Haven’t we already seen how much destruction always follows when Europe builds up its armies?
Indeed, many Germans in the room seemed to find the prospect of regaining military power extremely disquieting. Several essentially asked him, “Did you not see what we did with our military the last time?”
Even the most well-meaning American, eager to know and understand his German neighbors, can easily underestimate the revulsion many Germans have with the prospect of being a military power again. Thousands of miles away, Americans are better able to relegate the last world war to history’s black and white attic. But the Germans, even those born decades hence, must constantly face the horrible reality that was wrought in their name just a few decades ago. And many of them desperately pleaded with Kagan, “Please don’t give us the capacity to do it again.”
It’s a self-aware pleading that must be acknowledged and responded to. Granted, I’m sure there’s variation among Germans themselves for how much they share this concern. But I have heard it from several quarters, this tremendous trepidation about what it means for Germany to once again unite state and military power.
Perhaps some of this trepidation is arises from the concern that no country can ever be politically unanimous. I am certain that most Germans would not want to repeat their aggression, but at the same time, the NPD (neo-Nazi) party is still alive and well in Germany. There seems to be a fear that combining a little political disaffection with a strong military capability could lead to trouble once again. Whether this fear would might someday actually be realized is of course not certain, but it would be glib for Americans to ignore these concerns just because German militarization might seem to serve our current interests.
On the other hand, Kagan wasn’t specifically asking Germany to be a military power. He was asking Europe on the whole to. And he explained that it was this pan-European sense of cooperation and consensus-building that made us as Americans feel so comfortable with the prospect of Europe on a whole to being a military power.
And he’s right: it is impressive. Who can look at the European history of war upon war and not be impressed by the maturity, stability, and peacefulness of the modern European project. Were it only that Europe had figured this out years ago… But of course it didn’t. This harmony is an incredibly recent development. Europe has spent far more of its history warring that working together. Might it not then be wise to make sure that Europe can sustain this transformation for some period longer than the historical blink of an eye it so far has before re-arming it?
Answering that question brings us to the second objection to Kagan’s request. To the extent that European unity is durable, it may well be because of that modern European tendency to resolve conflicts through multilateral agreements rather than military engagements. It is a tendency that Americans do not seem to possess, or at least not on the same scale. From the first coal and steel agreement between Germany and France, which ensured mutual protection from each other by sharing control of the resources either would need to go to war with the other again, necessity dictated that Europe develop this tendency. And, as Kagan acknowledges, it has developed it expertly, providing a sphere of stability adjacent to a world of conflicts.
Still, it seems that Kagan would ignore the true value of this tendency by instead recommending that European return to its more belligerent instincts. Because it’s not just that he wants Europe to have a military; naturally he also wants Europe to use it.
The presumption, of course, is that Europe would only use it judiciously. “I trust Europe not to conquer Africa,” Kagan commented. But does Europe trust the US not to? Particularly with the Iraq war, Europe has looked on with grave concern at the American tendency to take it upon itself to militarily address conflicts in other parts of the world. Now, perhaps if Europe were a military power itself, it might actually put a check on America’s aggressive foreign policy. Not only might the US might have to act more judiciously if it thought it could be stopped, but because there would be two military forces, if America acted alone, the lack of solidarity could inadvertently send an encouraging message to its opponents and therefore make America’s military goals that much harder to achieve.
But I think what Europe really wants from the America is much like what America, as articulated by Kagan, wants from Europe: for the other to do things its way. Some European Kagan-equivalent could be making a similar impassioned plea in the US: for the sake of the world, please equip yourself as we have and engage in the world in the same non-military-driven way we do.
And there was no reason raised by Kagan, nor one that would otherwise be apparent, why the European way not might turn out to be the better one after all.