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Are Americans More Willing to Make Sacrifices Than Europeans?

According to Henry Kissinger, the real transatlantic difference is that "European governments are not able any more to ask their people for great sacrifices." That's why Europe readily opts for a "soft power" approach to so many foreign policy issues. This will, of necessity, make it harder for Europe to reach a consensus with the U.S.

Asked whether "an all-out effort to restore the Cold War-era level of trans-Atlantic comity within NATO, would be a good investment for the U.S.", Mr. Kissinger expressed skepticism regarding the prospects for success. Kissinger's views on diplomacy in the post 9/11 era are described in a Wall Street Journal article (HT: Joe) by David Rivkin, a lawyer based in Washington, who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Are the differences between Americans and Europeans regarding sacrifice really that big? Germany is certainly a post-heroic society. The Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences has even a research procejt on "Armed forces in a post-heroic society." Though, isn't America quickly moving towards a post-heroic society as well? Compared to WWII or Vietnam the casualties in Iraq are pretty small, but the calls for withdrawal are already very loud.

Kissinger does not discuss whether America is a post-heroic society. Of course, only the Europeans are softies. Then why are less and less Americans willing to support sacrifices in Iraq? Because politicians are guided increasingly by short-term political calculations, writes Rivkin about Kissinger's views. He adds:

The American Republic was not originally designed to sustain an ability to pursue a complex foreign policy. The Framers tended to assume that, once independent, the U.S. could operate reasonably well in relative isolation. These attitudes persist. As a result, Mr. Kissinger posits, Americans have little patience "for a long time of foreign tension."

Because of this, "presidents tend to present difficult cases, particularly those involving military engagements, to the American people in terms of a finite timeline. As a result, they often end up implying, or promising, achievements that may not be possible in the short term--and that are by no means guaranteed over the long term."

So, it seems Americans do not support sacrifices either, because they have little patience for a long time of foreign tension. Sacrifice requires patience. Expecting instant democratisation in Iraq is not sacrifice.

To conclude: I don't see that much of a difference between Americans and Europeans in this regard. US politicians talk more about heroism and sacrifice than their European counterparts. Kissinger is quite right: "European governments are not able any more to ask their people for great sacrifices." But: The US government is not able to ask its people for great sacrifices for more than five years either and every major challenge takes more than five years. What's the use of being able to ask for sacrifices to get into a war, but not being able to ask for the sacrifices to bring the mission to a successful end?

The current Foreign Policy cover story The War We Deserve (subscribers only) makes a similar point:  

It's easy to blame the violence in Iraq and the pitfalls of the war on terror on a small cabal of neocons, a bumbling president, and an overstretched military. But real fault lies with the American people as well. Americans now ask more of their government but sacrifice less than ever before. It's an unrealistic, even deadly, way to fight a global war. And, unfortunately, that's just how the American people want it.

Perhaps the biggest transatlantic difference is optimism: Most Americans have this famous can-do spirit, which is a very sympathetic personal characteristic, but in politics it leads to trouble. US voters can be tricked into supporting a war, as Kissinger seems to admit.

American politicians have much more faith in military solutions than their European counterparts: Many Americans think that Iran's nuclear program must be stopped by military means, if necessary. This means that they assume that it can be stopped by military means. Europeans are much more pessimistic and strongly doubt whether Iran's nuclear program could be brought to an end by military means.

Now, I know, Kissinger and many others make the same argument in opposite terms: Europeans want soft power, because they cannot do hard power. While there is some truth to that (or perhaps even a lot), I still believe that the main reason is the different lesson from history: Europeans have a long collective memory of war. For many of us "war" means defeat and tens of millions of dead civilians in our countries and total destruction of our cities. We had enough of that. That's why pacifist sentiments are so strong. It's a feeling. It's not reason. That's why post-heroic society. That's why pessimism towards military solutions.

For Americans, "war" is something that takes place in distant lands. Even during the current Iraq war, Americans go on shopping sprees as usual. This was different during Europe's wars in the last 300 years.

Of course, European pessimism and lack of self-esteem is likely to lead to inaction and could result in huge crises as well. My point is not that the American attitude is bad and the European is good. I just want to describe the transatlantic differences as I see them. Best would be some attitude in between.

The transatlantic similarities are bigger than the transatlantic difference, I believe: The US is moving towards a post-heroic society as well -- or perhaps already is one.

ENDNOTE: David Rivkin (the above mentioned author of the WSJ article) has accused Germany of revionism in April 2007. See the Atlantic Review post: Two More Americans Accuse Germany of Historical Revisionism.


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Zyme on :

I think much of the different attitude can be explained by different areas of engagement. While the americans are a solid nation that can easily concentrate its attention to a foreign crisis, the europeans are quite busy without foreign events. Entire law systems are adapted, every country struggles for influence in Brussels, different ideas of a european integration seek to prevail. I believe all this simply consumes an amount of attention of our governments, so that we cannot be bothered with egagements in foreign lands so much.

Joerg on :

I make quite a lot of generalizations in order to make a coherent point in a few paragraphs rather than on a few pages, which nobody would read. Though, you seem to generalize even more ;-) "While the americans are a solid nation that can easily concentrate its attention to a foreign crisis, the europeans are quite busy without foreign events." Well, a) US media coverage and public interest of Iraq seem to have considerably declined. b) And the war in Afghanistan could never compete with the Iraq war in terms of public attention. c) The Europeans are quite busy discussing US foreign policy... We are so busy criticizing the US policy that we do not have the time (or interest) to discuss alternative strategies or complementing strategies etc.

Joerg on :

Regarding declining interest in Iraq, Anne Applebaum for instance writes: [i]Casualties are definitely down. Other places suddenly seem to need more urgent attention. News coverage is shrinking, as is public interest. All of which may help explain the [b]breath of optimism one can now detect in Washington[/b], and even in other places, about the war in Iraq. "It will all come right in the end; wait and see" is an expression I've heard more than once. Other versions of this include: "The surge is working" and "Why doesn't the mainstream media tell the truth about our successes in Iraq?" Though I don't especially want to perpetuate any stereotypes about the mainstream media, I have to say that this optimism is totally unwarranted... [/i] [url][/url] Ohh, perhaps you, Zyme, did not mean the European people, but the European politicians. In that case, I would agree with you. European politicians are indeed very busy with European integration and do not spend as much serious thinking on international issues as they should.

Zyme on :

Yes I was talking about the politicians. They are the ones that can order countries into wars and demand sacrifices.

Joerg on :

I should have realized that earlier

David on :

"Compared to WWII or Vietnam the casualties in Iraq are pretty small, but the calls for withdrawal are already very loud." Americans are more than willing to suffer casualties in a just war, but they realize now that the war in Iraq was an ill-conceived war of choice, launched through deceit.

Joerg on :

Yes, but your comment also proves my point. You support the idea that Americans don't have to sacrifice because Iraq "was an ill-conceived war of choice, launched through deceit." That is a pick and choose mentality. It would mean that Americans don't take responsibility for prior actions, if I may put it into very harsh words. This is very understandable, but also proves my point on US and European willingness for sacrifice. When discussing willingness to sacrifice, I believe, it does not matter why or how this war was started. IMHO all that matters is that you are in this war. America has to decide what the best way forward is: Withdrawal or continuation. You have to decide what is in your best interest. And how many sacrifice you want to make to pursue your interest. Both withdrawal and continuation require sacrifices. Some are short term, others are long-term. I understand how difficult this is and [b]I have the utmost respect for both sides of the debate. [/b]I am not at all suggesting that Europeans would be more principled and make more sacrifices for a war they do not understand and do not believe in. I am just saying that I disagree with Kissinger and I claim that Americans are like Europeans. We are all in this post-heroic society and that is probably very good thing most of the times. Perhaps some Americans still think they are not yet living in a post-heroic society. What do you think??? Some (neo)conservative Americans like to think that their nation is from Mars (rather than from Venus like these softies in Europe, who wear sandals and eat Belgium chocolate all day and enjoy the welfare paradise), but the current situation suggests otherwise, I believe. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Just War theory is only a doctrine of the Catholic Church. Americans, however, have to decide what is in their best interest. Perceived national interests rather than moral concepts have proven to be most influential in decision making.

Reid of America on :

I think there is less sacrifice by the US then Kissinger claims. The US military is a voluntary professional organization. Most people who join the military do so because they want to be in the military. We often hear speeches where it is said no soldier wants to go to war. This is nonsense. Lot's of soldiers and especially marines want to see action. My point is a professional military is less of a sacrifice than a conscript military. A professional military is far easier to use politically than a conscript military.

Joerg on :

Interesting! "Most people who join the military do so because they want to be in the military." Or in order to finance college... Question: Does anybody know of a poll among recruits regarding their willingness to fight overseas? Did recruits, who signed up before 2001, assume they would be going on several combat tours abroad or did they expect to just prepare for the defense of the homeland in case the Russians/Germans/Canadians etc invade, i.e. train for war rather than fight in a war? "A professional military is far easier to use politically than a conscript military." Yes. What's your conclusion: Do you think the US should reintroduce the draft so that the US government is less likely to start wars of choice?

Reid of America on :

Joerg says "What's your conclusion: Do you think the US should reintroduce the draft so that the US government is less likely to start wars of choice?" An emphatic NO! Elimination of the draft in the US was a major advance in civil rights. It is equal but different to the civil rights advances of blacks and women during the 1960's peiod. It's what I would call civil rights for modern men. Just as we don't need 90% of the population employed in agriculture any longer we don't need a draft to staff the military. A professional military attracts people who want to be in the military. If the unemployment rate was 12% it would be plausible that people were joining the military for economic reasons. The unemployment rate is 4.7% or something and military salaries are low. So why would anyone join the military? Why does anyone find it suprising that a few young men feel a calling to be warriors? In a nation of 300 million it only takes a willing few to staff a large military.

Don S on :

Joerg, aren't Iraq and Afghanistan clear examples that Kissinger is correct? Yes, US public opinion has turned heavily against both wars - now. But that may not last, though I'm willing to bet the US won't be intervening anywhere for the next decade or perhaps longer. That includes in Europe even should it be necessary. If Germany is an example of a 'post-heroic' society then I would say that the US is not that thing - except possibly in the short term. I could see the US going a lot more isolationist than at present - indeed I predict it in the case of NATO - more accurately certain 'allies' within NATO, but that's not post-heroic. In my view Germany (and central Europe generally) can afford 'post-heroism' precisely because the US has not been post-heroic (ir isolationisst) for more than 60 years. They may find that if the US becomes post-heroic they no longer have the luxury of gehaving that way themselves. You are a lot closer to Putin than we are......

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