America in the World   /   Spring 2003   /    Articles

Solidarity or Playing Solitaire

Lionel Jospin

Woman playing solitaire, c. 1910. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In his essay, “Power and Weakness,” Robert Kagan writes:

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.” 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.11xRobert Kagan, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review 113 (June/July 2002): 3.

Its provocative tone aside, Kagan’s article suggests a good way to explore the questions: Do Europeans and Americans still understand each other? Do principles only come with weakness? Must might do without right?


No one has any doubt about the great power of the United States in the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Due to its overwhelming military superiority, its economic potential, its technological advances, its cultural and linguistic influence, and its role in world affairs, the United States occupies a place that some say has not seen its equal in history since the Roman Empire.

If we look back in time, we most likely do not feel nostalgic about a world split in two, about the Soviet Union and the balance between East and West. One does not look back fondly on totalitarianism. And didn’t the world of the Cold War, and then that of “Détente,” freeze up the problems and heap up those contradictions that have since exploded in the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East?

If we look ahead, however, we cannot picture another ruling power rising up out of this half of the century. Europe, which has the economic strength for it, does not wish to take over this position. What China will decide to make of itself in the world is something that will be revealed over time.

And so, America as a superpower is a reality that we are going to live with for quite a while. In moments of historical calamity, we had no reason to frown upon this might, for the United States came to our aid during both World Wars, saved us from fascist powers, and protected us from Stalinist totalitarianism. If this American might cannot be denied, then the question of whether it can be the basis for rights—and what kind of rights—must be considered later on in our discussion.

The United States is most probably the first “global power.” Because of the scope of its large companies, the demands of its market, the diffusion of its currency, its need for energy resources, and its military presence, America has been preparing its political, economic, and administrative leaders to think on a global scale.

The United States might be in the midst of becoming a kind of “world nation,” for a very large number of those who become American have come from all over the world. The United States as a people is changing. Less European and more Latino, African-American, and Asian, the American population is flowing over the brim that once defined its origins. This may quite possibly pose new problems for the great “melting pot.” Yet, at the same time, all of this can make the United States more open to the world.

It is only logical that such power, such ability to dominate, should provoke complex reactions, both from the outside and from those in the U.S. From abroad, there is admiration, a desire to imitate, and a demand for protection, but there is also frustration, and sometimes even hate. Americans feel that they are carrying their burden alone, and they feel a sense of disbelief when faced with the hostility that strikes them deeply. They hold the firm belief that they have a unique destiny and a mission to accomplish in the history of humankind, but there is the temptation to dominate.

It is true that the United States has good reason to complain about a certain paradox. On the one hand, this country is criticized for meddling in the affairs of foreign countries—in Latin America, for example. On the other hand, the U.S. is chastised for not intervening enough, as is the case today in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This contradiction might reveal a problem concerning the “correct usage” of American might.

Let’s take the example of the reaction of Americans after the abominable terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. One can debate over the way in which the struggle against terrorism should be led (on the policing and intelligence level as well as the financial level). One might find fault in the idea that a “preventative war” against Iraq was a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the events of September 11th. But one thing is certain and that is, if America had remained passive after al-Qaeda’s provocation, that would have been the worst of all possible reactions. The global destabilization would have been phenomenal.

We had little reason to fear such a thing. Each time that the United States has been defied, either by Imperial Japan, Hitler, or Stalin, this country has always reacted—leaders and people united—with the greatest amount of determination and strength. This was also the case after September 11th. Terrorist threats are certainly far from being wiped out, as we have so grievously noticed in Pakistan, Kuwait, Yemen, and Bali. But the Taliban regime has been swept away, and al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan has been destroyed. The whole world knows that the leading world power, which is also a great democracy, will not let itself be intimidated and will carry out, with us, to the very end, its task to eradicate terrorism.

I have just mentioned democracy. If we consider the long course of human history, with its moments of progress as well as its phases of regression and its trail of violence, it is fortunate that the great power of the beginning of this century is a democracy, where respect for the rule of law and individual liberties, as well as the principle of the sovereignty of the people, are normally the rules that govern action.

That is why the nature of the American political regime is, to my mind, a matter of utmost importance. We understand the need to struggle against terrorism and the absolute necessity to assure the security of the American people. After September 11th, my own government also hardened its antiterrorist legislation. And yet, as Americans know as well as we do, having inscribed it within their own political system, each and every power needs to be checked by another. The balance constructed in the United States between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary branches, between the federal powers and those of the states, as well as between the state and its citizens, is a guarantee for all.

However, some recent decisions, concerning the treatment of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and the mounting power of government agencies to intervene in the lives of individuals (Americans as well as foreigners), give rise to certain concerns as regards the rule of law. In Europe, where terrorist threats are taken very seriously, we have also reinforced our means to take action (for example, the creation of a European arrest warrant). The challenge is thus the same for all of our democracies: How can we be more efficient in our absolutely necessary struggle again terrorism, or organized crime, and assure the safety and security of our fellow citizens without restricting those individual freedoms that are at the heart of our civilization? Indeed, restricting our freedoms as a response to the pressure brought on by terrorists, themselves foes of liberty, would be a way to grant them a kind of victory over us.

Possessing the means to take action does not in itself answer the question: “To what ends?” Can looking out for national interests be the sole guiding force of a nation, particularly if that nation is the strongest in the world?

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