Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Europe vs. America, Vol. II

At the urging of my co-blogger Lorenzo Zucca, the Assembly is now addressing an issue at the core of the mission of this blog: transatlantic political tension. The impetus of this discussion is a recent article in the New York Review of Books assessing several books addressing the US and EU economies and political differences among friends.

I feel that I should start by saying that it is only with the comfort of friendship that such discussions hold the possibility of change and persuasion. In the absence of history and affection, the quarrels of the US and EU would remain devices of pure political posturing.

The NYRB article mentioned above, written by Tony Judt, is the type of article that purports to overturn stereotypes, but in the end, only ends up reinforcing the cultural biases that initially created the stereotypes being protested. Judt starts:

Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be
diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.


Really? Such an analogy rings an unconvincing tone that American coffee is all the same (because it is found everywhere) and its only redeeming quality is its size, which, it is implied, is valueless. Similarly, under Judt's analogy, Italian espresso does not fulfill the need and desire of its patrons, but demonstrates Italian "indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market." The inadequacy of this analogy to demonstrate anything substantive is symbolic of Judt's failure to understand why a discussion between Europe and the US is necessary.

As Lorenzo noted in his previous post, it is a futile exercise to debate which model is superior. (Personally I enjoy both my tasteless American bottomless mug of coffee as well as my inefficient Italian espresso.) Such an argument attempts to convert the unconvertable and projects the basis for building each model onto the other. Instead, the focus should be on an understanding of the language and principles that will enable the EU-US relationship to prosper. Clearly, an extensive assessment of such principles deserves much more than a simple blog post, but allow me to proffer both sides of a similar principle to both sides: (1) the EU needs to understand that international relations can never be fully replaced by international law; and (2) the US must understand that it will not be the hegemenous superpower in perpetuity.

The UN, EU and US have all demonstrated no ability to insulate themselves from the ravages of world politics. Ambitious structures and promises such as the ICC and claims that the world will not tolerate genocide are lofty ideals that have not and most likely cannot be backed in the near future with matching political will. The repeated violation of lofty ideals only tarnishes their value and robs the supranational polities of their lifeblood: legitimacy. International relations theory should be embraced and studied to enable scholars and state actors to pursue avenues where cooperation is possible and avoid catastrophe where it is not.

The flip side of this understanding should be the US, even its current state of substantial hard power, cannot dictate the use of other nations' soft power. There are limitations on power which are not transcended by treats and threats. US power is constantly in a state of flux dependent on the actions of itself and others in any given context, and it must learn to prioritize and utilize its power without being unduly angered by the projection of power by other states against its interest.

1 comment:

Raphaƫl Paour said...

I am glad that Scott added his critical comment about the citation of Judt's article. I haven't read the article in question but I must say that the few lines reproduced here are among the stupidest things I've read recently.