PhiN 47/2009: 85

Thomas Claviez (Stavanger)

Pragmatic Transcendence: "Power and Weakness" and the Solar System
According to Robert Kagan

Pragmatic Transcendence: "Power and Weakness" and the Solar System
Hardly any one of the many articles published after 9/11 about the ailing North Atlantic relationship between the US and Europe – or rather, the New US and Old Europe – has caused as controversial a debate as Robert Kagan's article "Power and Weakness," which appeared 2002. Some have praised Kagan's attempt to put the roots of the diverging outlooks of the Europeans and the North Americans in comprehensible, cultural-historical terms; its influence is attested to by the (quite surprising) fact that Javier Solana, after all, has made Kagan's text required reading for his employees. Others have deemed these terms too simplistic, and the dichotomies they embrace too neat, to be of any heuristic or long-term value. I like to propose a rhetorical analysis of Kagan's essay, and I will attempt – by means of this analysis – to situate this article in the tradition that the title of my talk refers to: that of Pragmatic Transcendence. This concept, to note, has nothing to do with a philosophical approach like Transcendental Pragmatics as it was developed by Jürgen Habermas. It rather alludes to the complex interplay between two terms that in themselves form a tradition not only of philosophical thinking ranging from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism – a family tree that has been sketched by various intellectuals in recent years. I will argue that Kagan's essay prolongs a line of thinking that sees America itself as a transcendent concept and symbol.


Hardly any one of the many articles recently published after 9/11 about the ailing North Atlantic relationship between the US and Europe – or rather, the New US and Old Europe – has caused as controversial a debate as Robert Kagan's article "Power and Weakness," which appeared in Policy Review (Kagan 2002).1 Some have praised Kagan's attempt to put the roots of the diverging outlooks of the Europeans and the North Americans in comprehensible, cultural-historical terms; its influence is attested to by the (quite surprising) fact that Javier Solana, after all, has made Kagan's text required reading for his employees. Others have deemed these terms too simplistic, and the dichotomies they embrace too neat, to be of any heuristic or long-term value.

PhiN 47/2009: 86

There can be not doubt that the world hardly offers itself to, or can be explained by, catchy dichotomic categories in the first place, since world politics as we know it has proven historically way too complex to fit such reductive structures.2 The second problem, as many poststructuralist philosophers have pointed out, is that logical dichotomies are usually accompanied by axiological – that is, evaluative – categories as well. This means that one pole of a descriptive logical dichotomy is usually deemed normatively superior to the other, inferior pole.

The first point – the text’s lack of depth and complexity that many commentators have deplored – is not what I want to address in what follows. I would rather like to propose a rhetorical analysis of Kagan's essay, and I will attempt – by means of this analysis – to situate this article in the tradition that the title of my talk refers to: that of Pragmatic Transcendence. This concept, to note, has nothing to do with a philosophical approach like Transcendental Pragmatics as it was developed by Jürgen Habermas. It rather alludes to the complex interplay between two terms that in themselves form a tradition not only of philosophical thinking ranging from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism – a family tree that has been sketched by various intellectuals in recent years. I will argue that Kagan's essay prolongs a line of thinking that sees America itself as a transcendent concept and symbol. This overarching transcendence, as Sacvan Bercovitch has argued, has resulted in an American rhetoric that does not forbid and deactivate dissent, but that has "found ways of harnessing revolution for its own purposes" (Bercovitch 1993: 20). The cultural work that this American rhetoric has achieved and still achieves has

… joined Jefferson to Thoreau and both to Martin Luther King, Jr. in an omnivorous oppositionalism that ingested all competing modes of radicalism – from the Fourierists to Herbert Marcuse and Noam Chomsky – in the course of redefining injustice an un-American, revolution as the legacy of '76, and the injustices of race, class and gender as disparities between the theory and the practice of American-ness. (Bercovitch 1993: 19)

It might first seem that Kagan's essay is not about inner-American oppositionalism; it is, however, all about oppositionalism and un-American-ness. It is no accident that, between all the American icons that Bercovitch names, the name of Herbert Marcuse props up. As I have shown elsewhere, Bercovitch, who studied under Marcuse in San Diego, is deeply indebted to the concept that Marcuse termed 'repressive tolerance.' Marcuse defined this concept as follows:

This sort of knowledge 'of the other side' is part and parcel of the solidification of the state of affairs, of the grand unification of opposites which counteracts qualitative change, because it pertains to a thoroughly hopeless or thoroughly preconditioned existence that has made its home in a world where even the irrational is Reason. (Marcuse 1964: 225)

In how far what Marcuse describes as the "grand unification of opposites" applies to a text like Kagan's – which after all, seems to reinscribe, rather than unify, opposites will, I hope, become clear in the course of my essay. Suffice it here to say that the omnivorous rhetoric of America, as Bercovitch deduces it from Marcuse's concept of repressive tolerance, manages to cover a territory in which even what seems radically opposite is either fed into the upholding of the existing system, or is simply branded as un-American.3

PhiN 47/2009: 87

The question that arises is how this dynamics relates to what I have alluded to as the normative aspect inherent in dichotomic thinking. What I will do is to give a close reading of this article in order to locate it in what I consider to be a prominent tradition within the political culture of the US.

The second, not unrelated aspect, or better, point of reference is that of pragmatism. Kagan himself alludes to it when he characterizes Americans as "wanting to have problems solved," and Europeans as reproaching Americans to be concerned with nothing else than "solving problems." Pragmatism, as a cultural attitude, is basically concerned with a future-oriented, short-term solution of problems without delving into the depths of history or precedents, and without plumbing basic questions concerning adjacent or mediately related problems. Pragmatism is, already in its transcendentalist precursor, Emerson, characterized by a prospective rather than a retrospective view. And it does not, as we know from both Emerson and the poet of Transcendentalism, Whitman, shy from embracing contradictions. In this, it is closely related to – it might in fact be the epitome of – the omnivorous American rhetoric able to contain and embrace even oppositional multitudes. The tendency to ignore history becomes manifest in the attempt to start history all over again – echoed in the repeated assumption that history won't be same after 9/11.


This date brings me back to the main topic of this essay: Robert Kagan's essay "Power and Weakness." It offers, as I see it, a perfect illustration of the cooptive powers of American pragmatic rhetoric, and it addresses a number of the aspects I have discussed so far. Right at the beginning of his argument, Kagan claims a vantage point of view, since for him, living as an American in Europe, "it is easier to see the contrast" (PW 3) that has been building up between the American and European views on foreign policy. As the title of his article suggests, his aim is to inquire into the consequences that the different power potentials of Europe and America have for their respective foreign policy options. The gesture that informs the entire article is based upon the assumption that his vantage point "in the middle" of the adversarial parties allows him to understand (and, implicitly, to mediate between) the mutual misunderstandings. There is thus a dialogical effort at the center of his commentaries. It is no accident, however, that the words arbiter and arbitrary share the same etymological roots.

The point that he makes right at the beginning is as clear as it is telling:

It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. On the all-important question of power — the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power — American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant’s "Perpetual Peace."

PhiN 47/2009: 88

The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory — the product of one American election or one catastrophic event (PW 3; emphasis mine).

This passage sounds straightforward as it is. However, it already strongly undermines the referee role that Kagan assumes a little later – the same referee-qua-policeman role that he ascribes to America as the world's sole superpower. If the all-important question is that of power, then we are already from the start in the world of Hobbes. Strangely enough, though, it is Hobbesian America that is "mired" in history, while Europe, the history-ridden continent of the last four hundred years, enjoys, according to him, a "post-historical paradise." But as a reading of both his article and Hobbes makes sufficiently clear, what he subsumes under that "all-important question of power" – especially the "morality of power" – has no place in a Hobbesian world characterized by the war of all-against-all. Power simply IS, is what counts, whether desirable or not, and the only thing relevant for a Hobbesian scenario is its efficacy. Moreover, the only known contrary to power is, by definition, weakness: one example of a logical dichotomy clearly inhabited by a normative one.

This first dichotomy is then neatly connected to the second one – or rather, the third one, if we take into account the Mars and Venus one that is interspersed. This third one already points to one aspect I mentioned in the introduction: that of pragmatism. Allow me to quote this passage again in its entirety:

Americans tend to seek finality in international affairs: They want problems solved, threats eliminated. And, of course, Americans increasingly tend toward unilateralism in international affairs. They are less inclined to act through international institutions such as the United Nations, less inclined to work cooperatively with other nations to pursue common goals, more skeptical about international law, and more willing to operate outside its strictures when they deem it necessary, or even merely useful… Europeans insist they approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others through subtlety and indirection. They are more tolerant of failure, more patient when solutions don’t come quickly. They generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion…. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance (PW 4).

Strangely enough, diplomacy here tacitly becomes the opposite of problem-solving – a surprising view for a European who knows European political history and who knows that the delicacies of diplomacy have been developed and employed partly because the European powers realized at some point that problems could not be solved by means of war. And, in the light of what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, one is tempted to ask whether, if Europeans emphasize process over result, American foreign policy deems it possible that there can be results or substance without process, and what such a solution or result is worth. The astonishing ignorance that characterized the assumption of the Bush administration and its supporters that they would, at least on the side of the suppressed Shiites, be welcomed as liberators of Iraq, and thus the "problem be solved," manifests not only a striking absence of historical knowledge, but also the truism that short-term problem solving usually leads to solutions that do not last long.

PhiN 47/2009: 89

If Europeans, however, fool themselves into thinking that nuance and sophistication are values – if not powers – in themselves, they are mistaken in Kagan's view. They are in fact wrongly assuming what America has wrongly assumed in the 18th and 19th century. It was North America's relative military weakness in comparison to European powers which, according to Kagan, induced it to rely on either isolationist or diplomatic strategies of foreign policy. In the 20th century the tables have simply been turned. While the two World Wars have effectively reduced both the capacity and the will of those European powers to further embark upon Machtpolitik, America suddenly finds itself in an unprecedented position of power – a position first provoked by Cold War tensions, and then even enlarged by its end. In view of the collapse of the Soviet empire, and in the face of the "sizeable American military arsenal" now left without a genuine challenger, Kagan declares that this "'unipolar moment' had an entirely natural and predictable consequence: it made the United States more willing to use force abroad" (PW 9, emphasis mine). Such a consequence, however, is predictable, let alone 'natural,' only within the Hobbesian universe that Kagan sees the United States (and, in fact, the rest of the world) living in, in contrast to the happily naïve Kantian paradise of peace that Europeans delude themselves to inhabit. This conclusion, however, has become possible because Kagan has set up his agenda already before: that the only and possible reason that could induce anybody to make recourse to diplomacy is the lack of military power and, consequently, the absence of other, preferably military, options.

Thus by definition diplomacy cannot be considered to be a "strength" in itself, but only as a lack of it compared to "physical" power. Kagan's view of history, then, is already informed by a Hobbesian point of view even before he introduces the Hobbes-Kant distinction with regard to Europe and America, respectively.4 This fact seriously inhibits his posture as a self-declared referee between the two antagonists. In the following passage, Kagan has a hard time avoiding a condescending tone as soon as he has to deal with the "weakness" inherent in European approaches based on diplomacy:

Gaullism, Ostpolitik, and the various movements for European independence and unity were manifestations not only of a European desire for honor and freedom of action. They also reflected a European conviction that America’s approach to the Cold War was too confrontational, too militaristic, and too dangerous. Europeans believed they knew better how to deal with the Soviets: through engagement and seduction, through commercial and political ties, through patience and forbearance. It was a legitimate view, shared by many Americans. But it also reflected Europe’s weakness relative to the United States, the fewer military options at Europe’s disposal, and its greater vulnerability to a powerful Soviet Union. It may have reflected, too, Europe’s memory of continental war. Americans, when they were not themselves engaged in the subtleties of détente, viewed the European approach as a form of appeasement, a return to the fearful mentality of the 1930s. But appeasement is never a dirty word to those whose genuine weakness offers few appealing alternatives. For them, it is a policy of sophistication (PW 9).

PhiN 47/2009: 90

This sounds almost like an anthropologist hard put to explain to his pipe-smoking colleagues in the faculty club the strange rites and convictions of some exotic tribe whose members fool themselves into thinking that their rain dance might have some bearings on the meteorological situation. Kagan's condescending tone, and his deliberate creation of a cultural dichotomy between Europe and America, intensifies even more, when he explains: "Their tactics, like their goal, are the tactics of the weak. They hope to constrain American power without wielding power themselves. In what may be the ultimate feat of subtlety and indirection, they want to control the behemoth by appealing to its conscience" (PW 11). Strangely enough, however, it doesn't occur to Kagan that the Soviet Union was not beaten simply by military means, if at all, but also by the tactics devised by 'weak' Europeans Aborigines: through engagement and persuasion, through the strengthening of commercial and political ties, through patience and forbearance. And what about America, the behemoth, confronted with appeals to his conscience? Kagan is clear on this: "For Americans, who stand to lose at least some freedom of action, support for universal rules of behavior really is a matter of idealism" ("PW" 7) – which, one is tempted to conclude, is a luxury in a Hobbesian world, and more often than not out of the question.

Tolerance – another insidious Enlightenment trick in Kagan's view – fares similarly: "Tolerance is also very much a realistic response in that Europe, precisely because it is weak, actually faces fewer threats than the far more powerful United States" (PW 13). This definition makes one wonder if those who endorse liberal tolerance on the home front would subscribe to it. Here is Kagan's response to such an argument; and it displays a breathtaking logic: "'You are so powerful,' Europeans often say to Americans. 'So why do you feel so threatened?' But it is precisely America’s great power that makes it the primary target, and often the only target. Europeans are understandably content that it should remain so" (PW 14). Slowly but surely, Kagan evinces some logical difficulties in his attempt to keep up his Hobbesian point of view. The U.S. faces more threats because it is more powerful? One would be inclined to think that power in fact reduces threats; Kagan says that much with regard to the powerful protective shield that the U.S. has held over Europe. Moreover, wouldn't the conclusion-in-reverse also hold that a reduction of U.S. power would reduce the threats it faces? From a pragmatic point of view, this would seem like a feasible solution. Why not do it, then? Because America, in Kagan's view, has to "maintain order":

There is, first of all, the American security guarantee that Europeans enjoy and have enjoyed for six decades, ever since the United States took upon itself the burden of maintaining order in far-flung regions of the world — from the Korean Peninsula to the Persian Gulf — from which European power had largely withdrawn (PW 14).

This goal didn't work out with the disorderly Viet-Cong, though; a fact which Kagan wisely avoids mentioning. Nor does it occur to him that it is not simply U.S. power as such, but the purposes to which it has been put, that could have something to do with the threats he alludes to.

PhiN 47/2009: 91

But in a Hobbesian world, in which power provides its own legitimacy, who would even ask such questions? There are, however, two even more unsettling conclusions to this logic: first of all, why should Europeans build up their power – as Kagan recommends they should – if increasing power spells increased threat? And furthermore, does not this logic lead to an unending spiral of armament at least in the case of the US, given the other "natural" conclusion that increasing threats lead to further attempts to increase one's own power?

Strangely enough, though – as if Kagan somehow realizes that his representation of the U.S. so far might counteract his declared attempt to create some understanding for America's position in Europe – he suddenly changes the "generational make-up" of his rhetoric. If up to this point in his argument it were the unregenerate European indigenes whose obstinate adherence to Kantian principles made then seem immature either in an adolescent or a senile manner, now the Americans are cast in the role of the pupil – not, however, before having

assigned them the rightful position of the "cowboy."5 Americans, so Kagan argues, "have no experience that would lead them to embrace fully the ideals and principles that now animate Europe. Indeed, Americans derive their understanding of the world from a very different set of experiences" (PW 26). That this contradicts his historical overview at the beginning – in which he depicted an early and less-powerful America as inclining toward diplomacy – is obviously negligible. This lack of experience affects also American idealism – or, rather, their ability to implement it:

Americans are idealists, but they have no experience of promoting ideals successfully without power. Certainly, they have no experience of successful supranational governance; little to make them place their faith in international law and international institutions, much as they might wish to; and even less to let them travel, with the Europeans, beyond power. Americans, as good children of the Enlightenment, still believe in the perfectibility of man, and they retain hope for the perfectibility of the world. But they remain realists in the limited sense that they still believe in the necessity of power in a world that remains far from perfection (PW 26).

What, then, are the conclusions to be drawn? As all that has gone before suggests, the answer is pretty clear and quite "unilateral" at that: "Europe should … build up its military capacities, even if only marginally" (PW 28) – what alternative is there in a Hobbesian world? Why, however, as I have pointed out above, should they do so, given that more power makes for more threat? As for America, Kagan's conclusion is rather more generous:

Americans are powerful enough that they need not fear Europeans, even when bearing gifts. Rather than viewing the United States as a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputian threads, American leaders should realize that they are hardly constrained at all, that Europe is not really capable of constraining the United States. If the United States could move past the anxiety engendered by this inaccurate sense of constraint, it could begin to show more understanding for the sensibilities of others, a little generosity of spirit. It could pay its respects to multilateralism and the rule of law and try to build some international political capital for those moments when multilateralism is impossible and unilateral action unavoidable. It could, in short, take more care to show what the founders called a "decent respect for the opinion of mankind" (PW 28).

PhiN 47/2009: 92

The question is, who needs a decent respect for the opinion of mankind when it is assumed that one speaks for it? It was another founding father, John Adams, whose words seem more relevant in this situation when he warned his people that they should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. However, whether such a recourse to history has any chance of success in the Hobbesian world of monsters Kagan has set up is open to question if, as he has it, nothing is left of the experience gained in these early days of the Republic. Moreover, to pay homage or lip-service to multilateralism in order to 'build up political capital' for cases of emergency comes, in my view, dangerously close to the Machiavellian picture Kagan has drawn of European diplomacy; but then again, America might in fact prove capable of learning.

That America has ever feared those Danaeo-Europeans bringing them gifts (Kant's collected works, for example) is doubtable. As for the alleged "constraints" on the U.S., they seem to have been safely buried within the weeks before and after the Iraq war. Why, moreover, in this case the removal of constraints should not again 'predictably' and 'naturally' lead to an increased U.S. willingness to use force abroad, is left open to question. The most surprising move, however, is Kagan’s reference to the founding fathers: it seems to imply that the only position from which to criticize U.S. policy is to evoke its founding fathers. America can be criticized only in American terms; thus anti-Americanism (to which most of the criticism of U.S. policy is so easily reduced these days) is turned into, indeed collapses into pro-Americanism. What happens in Kagan's argument is thus exactly what Bruce Robbins finds inconceivable: that the U.S. is indeed "permitted to fill up the entire landscape, obliterating all distinctions around it, making anti-American indistinguishable from pro-American." (Robbins 2003: 213)


The reason for this extensive – and admittedly polemical – reading of Kagan's article is not simply to expose some inconsistencies of an individual author. I have chosen his article, because it features numerous aspects that I have been trying to identify in the first part of my essay. It does not only embrace the pragmatic point of view that informs both American culture and American foreign policy to an astonishing degree. It also reflects, in its schizophrenic juxtaposition of America as paternalistic behemoth, cowboy, inexperienced child, and tragic power figure, and in its happy accommodation of argumentative contradictions, the very uncanny capability to use different and differing positions in order to feed them into its own "position."

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes": Those very words of the first eminent "cosmopolitan" – though others have called him "imperial" – American poet Walt Whitman force themselves upon the reader of texts such as Kagan's and others.

PhiN 47/2009: 93

To contain multitudes, one is doubtlessly well-advised to accommodate and inhabit contradictions. But there might be some – even many – multitudes that do not care for being "contained."

Kagan's article is a perfect example of how not to deal with otherness, particularities, distinctions (though, I admit, I am generalizing myself with regard to his text): not, certainly, with an allegedly dialogical model that sells sloppy argument for the heroic Whitmanesque embrace of contradictions; nor with a claim to genuinely mediate positions while at the same time embracing one of them,6; nor, finally, by repeating the beginner's mistakes of early anthropology and its patronizing postures.

If there exists a genuine interest in reconciling and not widening the gap between Venus and Mars, Hobbes and Kant, or America and Europe, it is important not to turn dichotomies tacitly into normative distinctions. This is what happens when, as Kagan puts it, American military interventions are conceived as "making the dinner," while European peace-keeping measures are reduced to doing the dishes. Destroying rogue states might, as one commentator put, rather be conceived as "butchering the cow" than as "making the dinner," (PW 8) while history has shown that nation-building is certainly a process and hardly ever a result. What is at stake here is rather to see military power and diplomatic or economic power as complementing each other; a genuine complement, however, works only if both sides are admitted to have their strengths and weaknesses, and not if one pole embodies weakness as such. Or, to resort to the metaphor of lunching once again, the question is always whose "feast" such a war, any war, is.

Moreover, the gap that Kagan introduces as the "natural predicament" of American foreign policy – and natural predicaments are hardly to be cured, being, as they are, natural – the gap, that is, between the use of force and its moral legitimation, might be the very reason, as I pointed out above, for the sometimes irrational hate that Americans face in some parts of the world. To bomb the world in order to make it safe for democracy is a questionable strategy; to "naturalize" the gap between the efficacy and the morality of power is, according to Roland Barthes, to dehistoricize or mystify history for ideological purposes. As Kagan depicts it, no lesson is to be learnt from history, not even from the times when America was in a situation comparable to that of Europe now. If Americans, as Kagan claims, are idealists lacking the experience of promoting these ideals successfully without power, then it might be high time to learn the lesson. The allegedly post-historical Kantianism that European foreign policy displays is not the result of a release from history, but from a dire lesson learnt by it. If Kant, as Kagan points out, cannot solve the paradox that the power monopoly of a world government dedicated to perpetual peace harbors the threat to become the most horrible despotism, the power monopoly of a part-time benign behemoth does not really offer an alternative.

That 9/11 has been such a dire lesson for the US is on the one hand indisputable, but on the other hand its aftereffects are open to question. The tendency to declare history starting over – and the rash judgment on people pointing out that there is a history preceding this catastrophe – shows that the pragmatic tendency to "solve problems" ever anew without taking recourse to the lessons of history is still very much part of American foreign policy.

PhiN 47/2009: 94

To turn an emergence – which implies growth, process, and time – into an emergency – which implies suddenness, unforeseeability, and catastrophe – means to cut out the story behind; a story that might tell that the very discrepancy between the use of power and its legitimation is by no means 'natural,' and certainly not conceived as such by the people who entertain some premonitions about the benevolent hegemon. If hegemony is cut off from benevolence, what remains is hegemony pure and simple. Thus Ronald D. Asmus and Kenneth M. Pollack have argued that "September 11 has shown us that the status quo is no longer tolerable and that our past policies have led us into a strategic dead end" (Asmus/Pollack 2002). 9/11 was the temporary climax of a history that is still going on, whether the Bush government arbitrarily declares its end or not.

Again a recourse to literary and cultural theory might be of use here. According to a well known argument by Hayden White, European historiography of the 19th century is structured according to the discursive regimes of either romance, comedy, tragedy, or satire. From that perspective, one might argue that the historical self-conception of the United States appears to be structured according to that of the sentimental novel. If that will strike most readers as surprising, literary scholar Phil Fisher has offered a poignant definition of the particular force of the sentimental novel which tends to

…avoid the roots of action in the past … because all of our interests in antecedents is aimed at understanding why the act occurred. It is made more reasonable and acceptable. By means of these phases of action we identify with the actor rather than the victim because, for the victim, such acts are unexpected. They have no antecedents and it is impossible to tell the antecedent life of a victim without making it seem as though that life brought about the event and thus the victim "deserved it." Only for the oppressor do such acts have a past. To give the narration a past is to recognize or implicitly adopt the point of view of the oppressor. (Fisher 1985: 116)

Let me be absolutely clear about this: There is absolutely nothing to make what happened on 9/11 'acceptable.' Nor is there anything that made the people who died on that day "deserve" what happened. But without an explanation why the terrorists did what they did, and what has lead to this mindset, the historical root causes can be never addressed. 9/11, and the politics that ensued from it, ironically would deserve the term "historical break" if first of all an entire cultural history of American foreign policy beset with historical breaks would be admitted.

And further, if this alleged break in history would serve to overcome the break with history, i.e., with the realization that history can serve as a lesson and not as junk to be discarded every other decade – another tendency that Sacvan Bercovitch has identified in relationship to the American rhetoric. A U.S. that creates itself ever anew might in fact be the oldest one known.

The genuine, historical root causes are what usually escape the pragmatic zeal to solve problems. It seems little lasting has been accomplished as of yet with the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. As Asmus and Pollack, among others, already put it in 2002:

PhiN 47/2009: 95

[W]e need to go on the offensive to address the root causes and not just the symptoms of terrorism and the other problems we face. To be sure, such a strategy must have a military component. But terrorism is primarily a political problem and the war against terrorism must be won on the political battlefield as well as the military one. We need to think not only in terms of military preemption but political preemption as well. While we need to attack the capacity of terrorists and rogue states to inflict harm on us, we also need to change the dynamics that created such monstrous groups and regimes in the first place. (Asmus/Pollack 2002: 14)

This, certainly, describes a process, and a historical one at that. We might be able to kill off Osama bin Laden and his consorts; there is no doubt that hundreds, if not thousands are standing in line to replace him. A process that, to quote Asmus and Pollack once again, comprises "a new economic system that could provide work, dignity, and livelihoods for the people of the region. It would mean helping Middle Eastern societies come to grips with modernity and create new civil societies that allow them to compete and integrate in the modern world without losing their sense of cultural uniqueness." (Asmus/Pollack 2002: 16) New economic structures, educational systems, or inducements for modernization cannot be bombed into existence. If that process of nation building is conceived as 'doing the dishes,' then the fact that the US spends a negligible one billion dollars on projects such as the 'democracy assistance program,' while 400 billion dollars are spent for the military budget, might give proof of the fact that the gap between America's mission and America's politics – between its idealist motifs and its available power – has become an intrinsic element of the system. And I am not quite sure whether Asmus' and Pollack's proposal to rename the democratic assistance program 'preventive defense fund' would be of much help here.

This problem takes a while to be solved, no doubt. It won't be solved if it is not recognized as the main problem as such. If problem solving, as Kagan sees it, is intrinsically connected to military power, and diplomacy as a sign of weakness, this not only gives quite an unmistakable sign to those who resort to terrorist power (and obviously, this problem cannot be solved by military means); it also leads to the situation where, as Steve Everts puts it, all problems start looking like a nail if the only instrument you have is a hammer (Everts 2002, n.p.).

As Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson have shown in their impressive study on another American founding father, Thomas Jefferson (Tucker/Hendrickson 1990), the first genuinely pragmatic politician in American history, made the step from America as an example of liberty to the 'empire of liberty' in a quite non-chalant manner. He, like some of his successors, contradicted himself in certain ways, and felt forced at times to act against his own moral convictions. An empire by definition is connoted with power; examples carry the burden to simply be, and shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility.

One feels reminded at this point, as one reviewer of Kagan's article justly put it, of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, reprimanding Tom Cruise for questioning the ethics of soldiers who guard him while he sleeps. World politics is – at least not yet, and not in its entirety – a Hollywood fantasy; and happy-ends come easier – and faster – in movies.

PhiN 47/2009: 96

Is it not without irony that Jack Nicholson alias Colonel Jessup is stationed in Guantanamo Bay – another example of the gap between American ideals and American power. Torture, however, is an instance where an allegedly "natural" inclination to use one's superiority of power appears quite uncanny. One could say, however, that with the face of Tom Cruise, Old Europe doesn't look as old as Donald Rumsfeld tends to make it. Then again, the role of the good-looking, adolescent, idealistic attorney, uneasy and upset about the abuse of power, is also already occupied by the omnivorous American rhetoric that Kagan's essay so impressively exemplifies. Maybe we Europeans will settle for Demi Moore, then – coming, as we allegedly do, from Venus.


It remains to be seen whether the election of Barack Obama – and Europe's enthusiastic endorsement of him – will shift the planetary constellation à la Kagan significantly, and whether this love affair will serve to heal the rift he diagnoses. Many of the things Obama has said in his presidential campaign seem to indicate this. Let us hope that the historical break (another one!) that Obama's presidency constitutes represents, as I put it above, a break in, and not again with, history; and that the Hobbesian specters that might haunt us at this historical moment more than ever will allow for a bit of Venusian romance – and not sentimental melodrama.


Asmus, Ronald A. and Kenneth Pollack (2002): "The New Transatlantic Project", in: Policy Review 115. [Available at : Last visited: October 15, 2008.]

Bercovitch, Sacvan (1993): The Rites of Assent. New York: Routledge.

Everts, Steve (2002): "Why Should Bush take Europe seriously? in: The Guardian. Sunday 17 February. [Available at: Last visited: December 27, 2008]

Fisher, Phil (1985): Hard Facts. New York: Oxford UP.

Kagan, Robert (2002): "Power and Weakness", in: Policy Review, 113 (June-July): 3–28.

Marcuse, Herbert (1964): One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon.

Robbins, Bruce (2003): "Cosmopolitanism, America, and the Welfare State", in: Fluck, Winfried and Thomas Claviez (Eds.): Theories of American Culture/Theories of American Studies=REAL 19. Tübingen: Narr. 201–24.

PhiN 47/2009: 97

Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson (1990): Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford UP.


1 In the text, references to the article are given as PW followed by the respective page number(s).

2 One could, of course, argue that Kagan's text is too plainly ideological – mainly designed, as it is, to close the ranks at home and to diffuse the hopes recently projected onto Europe by left-wing liberals – and therefore too easy a prey for a close analysis. It is my intention, however, to show how deeply embedded this text is within American cultural history to counter the assumption, shared by many in Europe, that the rhetorics and politics of the Bush administration, of which Kagan is a mouthpiece, somehow form an "aberration" compared to a former, "better" America.

3 One of the most telling examples of this all-embracing rhetoric can in fact be found on the cover of the American edition of One-Dimensional Man that I refer to, in which Marcuse develops his theory of repressive tolerance. The cover blurb says: "The classic critique of modern industrial society – more than 300,000 copies sold!" Even the most trenchant critique of the capitalist marketplace has to subordinate to the rules of that very marketplace.

4 This becomes obvious when he writes that "Europeans have a deep interest in devaluing and eventually eradicating the brutal laws of an anarchic, Hobbesian world where power is the ultimate determinant of national security and success" (PW 10). Europeans apparently, are islanders more or less out of tune with the real world that surrounds them.

5 "Americans are 'cowboys,' Europeans love to say. And there is truth in this. The United States does act as an international sheriff, self-appointed perhaps but widely welcomed nevertheless, trying to enforce some peace and justice in what Americans see as a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred or destroyed, and often through the muzzle of a gun. Europe, by this old West analogy, is more like a saloonkeeper. Outlaws shoot sheriffs, not saloonkeepers. In fact, from the saloonkeeper's point of view, the sheriff trying to impose order by force can sometimes be more threatening than the outlaws who, at least for the time being, may just want a drink" (PW 14).

6 Transcendence, it might be noted, is just that: being within and outside the frame of reference. Genuine referees, by the way, are not transcendent, in that they neither side with one party, nor do they enforce their own rules.