No one who read Robert Kagan's brilliant essay, "Power and Weakness," when it was published in Policy Review last summer could have been surprised when the French and Germans refused to join the coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein by force.
Kagan's essay created such a stir - except, perhaps, among the less informed who are running around decrying the "failure of diplomacy" that led to the America going to war with Iraq without the French and Germans - that it has been expanded into "Of Paradise and Power," a short, punchy and powerful book.
As Kagan makes clear, the United States and Europe - at least "Old Europe" - increasingly see the world in different ways. As the first of many pithy sentences in the book lays out: "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." Or as he dryly states later, "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus."
The irony of this, Kagan illustrates, is that this divergence happened with the tacit approval of each party.
European nations took advantage of the United States' military might, living under our protection while cutting their own defense budgets to the point of near-disarmament - with their leaders complaining loudly for domestic political consumption that America did not follow their lead.
In the United States, meanwhile, there was little interest - except among a few liberals - in there being any international force comparable to ours.
This inevitably has led to a huge difference in how international confrontations with bad actors are viewed. While the Europeans use the cliche against the United States that "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," Kagan points out the reverse is also true: "When you don't have a hammer, nothing looks like a nail."
But Kagan says this attitude goes back further than the current state of European military weakness. Even when European nations were still in a militarily superior position to the Germans, he writes, they dealt with the Nazis in much the same way as they deal with current dictators.
Western Europe, he contends, was still so traumatized by the memory of World War I's butchery and horrors that avoiding war at all costs became the negotiating stance that Hitler took tragic advantage of.
Thus, Europe today takes the position that murderous thugs can be dealt with by means of reason and gradual integration out of necessity because, other than Britain, none of the countries are capable of projecting power beyond their borders.
In a classic paragraph, Kagan states his case, turning the oft-used cliches of international diplomacy into a brilliant analogy that clarifies the differences of how Americans and Europeans see international threats and how the threat is different for each:
"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, often through the muzzle of a gun. Europe, by this Wild West analogy, is more like the 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."
About the only thing Kagan did not predict about the current state of relations between Europe and America is the willingness of Eastern European nations to stick by the United States. That's easily explained, however, by using Kagan's own analogy: The peoples of the former Soviet Bloc spent enough time in a town run by the outlaws to stick very close to the sheriff who risked annihilation to save them.
"Of Power and Paradise" is an amazing volume not only for its insight, clarity and readability but also for its brevity. In the hands of others, say Henry Kissinger, the result would have been 500 pages of dense prose explaining the same concepts - with less than half of Kagan's insight.
So turn off the 24-hour chatter of cable news for a couple of hours. They're just repeating themselves anyway, and if something big happens, you'll be able to catch up with the endless replays.
Spend some valuable time with "Of Paradise and Power," which puts current events in context. Then, when you turn the tube back on, you'll understand the situation better than all those chattering imbeciles we call news anchors.