The Mud is Up To Our Necks
Two Understandings of International Order
Political scientist Charles Kupchan on the threatening war against Iraq, the approaching end of American supremacy and Europe’s rise as the only opponent
[This interview is translated from the German in: Spiegel 2/2003. Charles Kupchan, 44, teaches political science at Georgetown University in Washington.]
Spiegel: The United States is in a phase of uncontested global dominance. How long can that last?
Kupchan: Up to far beyond the middle of this century, according to prevailing opinion. Many Americans even believe forever and ever. Some including myself see the first signs of a descent.
Spiegel: What are these signs?
Kupchan: The US cannot get away with many things. The differences with the European Union become clearer and clearer.
Spiegel: Can the militarily weak, politically divided and economically shaken Europe challenge the US?
Kopchan: There is only one group of states in the world that can maintain its position in relation to America, measured by prosperity, vast population and diplomatic influence: the EU (European Union).
Spiegel: Your Secretary of Defense doesn’t seem to put much weight in that. For him, Europe is a continent that can be ignored, a continent that lacks any common identity.
Kupchan: This attitude is wrong and dangerous and depends the transatlantic gulf. As representatives of this position regard Europeans as anxious brakemen and cowards, they foment anti-American reservations in the Old World and further their unity against the world power. In a paradoxical way, the administration of George W. Bush is the best thing that has happened to Europe.
Spiegel: Will the threatened war in Iraq intensify the drifting apart of the transatlantic partners?
Kupchan: Many things suggest this. The question is less whether war will occur than how this decision is made. The US must convince the European public of the necessity of an exchange of fire. If they don’t present any convincing or irrefutable evidence, they will march into the wilderness alone or only with the British. The American-European relationship will be irreparably damaged.
Spiegel: Don’t Europeans run the risk of looking quite crestfallen if the US successfully marches into Bagdad after a quick victory under the jubilation of a liberated population?
Kupchan: Without doubt, we will win the war but not the occupation peace afterwards. Bush vastly overrates what military power can achieve. We cannot form the political future of a country with our bayonnettes. Iraqis could dance in the streets for 48 hours or even 48 days but hardly any longer.
Spiegel: Then what will happen?
Kupchan: A dangerous setback threatens a month or even a year after a victory. Then the Iraqis will not throw flowers but will shoot bullets at American soldiers. When the first GIs return home in body bags, loyal republicans will also revolt and press for withdrawal. Most Bush voters are not interventionists. They follow the foreign policy of their president on account of the patriotic overdrive that we applied since September 11.
Spiegel: Isn’t this risk seen in Washington?
Kupchan: The naïve idea still prevails there that we will occupy Iraq and the blossoms of liberalism and democracy will immediately unfold in the whole Middle East – as though the greedy caterpillar of militant Islam could turn into a colorful butterfly that only brings peaceful messages of faith in the world. The Bush administration firmly believes in its dreams of solving deeply rooted long-term problems in coups or coup d’ etats. When the dreamers awake, they will see that the mud is up to their necks.
Spiegel: Is Europe’s diplomacy more realistic or simply wavering?
Kupchan: International order is understood differently. Washington presently sees international organizations as an impairment of American sovereignty. For Europeans, international organizations are indispensable instruments for organizing the international system. While Europe focuses more on rules of global coexistence, the Bush administration is interested most of all in the distribution of power. In the meantime, the president entirely espouses the neoconservative vision of a world divided in good and evil – and in which we are naturally the good – and must expel the evil with all our power.
Spiegel: America flies past the rest of the world militarily, economically and in exercising political power. How can Europe stop Big Brother?
Kupchan: No one will catch the US. However this is not the question but rather whether this American supremacy can remain unrivalled. This is impossible in the long run. Europe’s strengthening will not enable the old continent to overtake the US. Europe will have additional weight to enforce divergent opinions against the US. Consider only Iraq resolution 1441. This resolution was passed unanimously by the Security Council after an eight-week struggle over essential changes of the American draft…
Spiegel: Washington should ultimately desist from its single-handed effort. Can the US be bound in the system of international organizations?
Kupchan: I can only advise Europeans to hold their present position. The world is presently out of balance through the overpowering US. Even in domestic policy, any counter-weight is lacking among us given the predominance of the neoconservatives in government and Congress and the weakening democrats. Only the EU can be a counterbalance.
Spiegel: Still Europe is far removed from speaking with one voice and hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory in international crises in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.
Kupchan: Europeans had more soldiers than the US in the Balkans and with the peace troops in Afghanistan. The technological lead of the US armed forces may remain unsurpassable. Nevertheless a strengthened Europe can contribute so international relations will not be further militarized and the importance of armed force decreases.
Spiegel: What do you advise your government that doesn’t seem to fear the brewing competition from Europe?
Kupchan: The US government still has a chance of giving a friendly-peaceful direction to the whole development. However a hostile confrontation can quickly develop out of fruitful competition if it sticks its head in the sand.
Spiegel: Has a superpower ever voluntarily abandoned its rank?
Kupchan: Absolutely. At the end of the 19th century, the British began to leave their world power position. They abandoned this position to the aspiring upcoming Americans without a shot fired or hostility arising. Then we said, Make way, Europe. Now Europe is there and it is up to us to give way.
Spiegel: Do you see any signs for this attitude with the current government?
Kupchan: The Bush administration seems firmly committed to remaining the only superpower forever and ever. Its strategy only aims at maintaining this state and keeping tabs on every potential social climber with all its power.
If I am right that change is already underway, this is the wrong strategy. My practical advice to President Bush would be: Do the exact opposite of what you are doing – practice reserve and don’t go on your own initiative. If the impression is strengthened that the US is not a friendly giant but a predatory heavyweight, the resistance will grow and we will fall into a dangerous turbulence.