Monday, November 5, 2012

International Legitimacy and the American election

There's one other thing I should say, particularly to foreign friends who may read this blog. I noted just how astonishingly lopsided the view of the election is in many other parts of the world, especially Europe. 97% of Germans would vote for Obama. In any other context you'd think this was a made-up party number from the old East Germany. How can we explain why a country with a conservative government which is getting tough with Greece can be so one-sided in its view of the GOP in the US? The same applies in most other European countries.

Europeans detested George W. Bush too, far more than can be explained by his general political stance. Bush, after all, was actually more in the Nixon mode in domestic policy terms, rather than particularly right-wing. He ran massive deficits and spending, drove through new entitlements like prescription drugs, argued for loose immigration policy with amnesty, and nation-building efforts abroad. He cut taxes, but so do many EU governments from time to time. W claimed to be a "compassionate" conservative. He was relatively left-wing in many senses.

But millions turned out to march against Bush in Europe. "US foreign policy" post 9-11 is the reason, perhaps, but Obama has surged in Afghanistan, killed Bin Laden and stepped up drone attacks.

So what is going on here? I think there is a much deeper split about the nature of international legitimacy, a rift that started with the Yugoslavian war and has only grown since with Iraq. Europe has been committed to multilateralism and pooling of sovereignty for over fifty years now. European elites believe that legitimacy flows down from international law, including human rights law and the United Nations.

So as an example, the response to the euro crisis has been an unending series of multilateral, indecisive and testy summits. The whole motivating force of the European project was to suppress individual national tendencies which could produce war.

This view is (mostly) alien to the United States, where the US constitution is almost four times older than the UN and infinitely more venerated. Legitimacy flows up from the people. The UN and international institutions have little legitimacy, and there is little domestic support for tying national freedom of action. America ( to generalize) sees no advantage in subjecting its actions to the multilateral approval of Europeans, who refuse to bear the burdens or responsibility of actions or defense spending in any case.

So on the one side, Europeans see the GOP as a horrifying cowboy-like entity which violates the most basic elements of international legitimacy. And on the other, America, especially the GOP, sees Europe as fractious, irresponsible and naive, playing internal parlor games while America has underwritten the defense needs and spending which allowed the Europeans the scope to play their children's games in the first place. America deals with China and contains Iran while the Europeans squabble amongat themselves and shout abuse offstage.

It isn't a dispute about left versus right that produces 96% or 97% support for Obama in Europe, so much as a perception he will be more sympathetic to and bound by multilateral norms which give Europe a significant veto over US actions. Romney and the GOP seem like a crazed bull which will stomp all over their most deeply cherished notions.

In fact, if there is one thing that can lead to massive wars, it is profound differences about legitimacy ( see Philip Bobitt's , The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History). Of course, that is hardly likely to happen here. But it does help explain some of the depth of feeling.

I don't have much sympathy with the European view, which naturally is self-interested in seeking restraints over US actions. We do need international institutions and flexible international law. But it cannot be wholly divorced from power or reality either.

Europeans over-read the lessons of 1945 in their own terms, as delegitimizing national institutions. America does not, and reads the Second World War as much about crazy European political excess and varieties of murderous Utopianism. And we have multilateral utopian excess today.

The differences may narrow again in the future, as the multilateral European project itself is under such strain. Euroskepticism is rampant in the UK, with talk of a referendum on EU membership. Dormant nationalisms like that of Catalonia are reigniting. The EU institutions have if anything negative legitimacy in Greece.

And even Obama, who is venerated so much in Europe, has initiated a "pivot to Asia."

Multilateralism is a wonderful dream, but Europe is prone to utopian overreach. And multilateral commitments are fragile, and sometimes utterly counterproductive. (Take the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war, as an example. Just eleven years later the worst war in history began when Hitler invaded Poland).

Those poll numbers against Romney are more a symptom of a European fever about legitimacy than an accurate read on choices in America.





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