Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. vs. Them

A year after Sept. 11, one of the most notable features of international politics is how the United States has become both utterly dominant and lonely. There was a large, spontaneous outpouring of support for the United States and for Americans around the world after Sept. 11. But with the demonstration of U.S. military superiority that came with the rousting of al-Qaida and the Taliban from Afghanistan, and President George W. Bush's doctrine of preemption against the "axis of evil" powers, new expressions of anti-Americanism began to pour forth. Americans are largely innocent of the fact that much of the rest of the world believes that it is American power, and not terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, that is destabilizing the world. And nowhere are these views more firmly held than among the United States' European allies.

The United States fought the Cold War as the leader of Western democracies with shared values and institutions. What is going on here? Does the "West" still exist as a meaningful concept? In my view, deep differences are emerging among Western democracies on the subject of democratic legitimacy at an international level -- differences that will be highly neuralgic in America's dealings with the world in the coming years. Navigating these shoals -- and preventing opposition to U.S. policies from becoming the chief passion in global politics -- is something that ought to be of central concern to Washington.

The ostensible issues raised in the U.S.-European disputes since the "axis of evil" speech revolve for the most part around alleged U.S. unilateralism and international law. By now the list of European complaints about U.S. policy is familiar, including but not limited to the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursuit of missile defense, its opposition to the ban on land mines and the biological warfare convention and, most recently, its opposition to the International Criminal Court.

The most serious act of U.S. unilateralism in European eyes concerns, of course, the Bush administration's announced intention to bring about regime change in Iraq, if necessary through a go-it-alone invasion. Europeans argue that they are trying to build a rule-based international order, and they are horrified by the Bush administration's announcement of a virtually open-ended doctrine of preemption against terrorists or states that sponsor terrorists.

The first thing that must be said about this rift over the role of international law and institutions is that we should not necessarily take for granted the conventional wisdom that Americans are unilateralist and Europeans multilateralist. If we look at economic issues, the United States has played a key role in the creation of a series of overlapping international organizations, from the World Trade Organization to a host of bodies promoting standards, aviation safety, banking, telecommunications, drug enforcement and the like. In this realm the Europeans have arguably been more unilateralist than the United States, resisting verdicts by international arbitration panels on trade issues and unilaterally imposing on American corporations their policies toward genetically modified food, data privacy and antitrust. With the exception of environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, most instances in which Americans are more consistently unilateralist concern security.

While it is tempting to say that this is simply a matter of the Bush administration's often sharp-elbowed approach to issues such as the International Criminal Court, a much deeper matter of principle is involved. To put it rather schematically, Americans tend not to see any source of democratic legitimacy higher than the nation-state. To the extent that international organizations have legitimacy, it is because duly constituted democratic majorities have handed that legitimacy up to them in a negotiated, contractual process, which they can take back at any time. Europeans, by contrast, tend to believe that democratic legitimacy flows from the will of an international community much larger than any individual nation-state. This international community is not embodied concretely in a single, global democratic constitutional order. Yet it hands down legitimacy to existing international institutions, which are seen as partially embodying it, with a moral authority greater than that of any nation-state.

Between these two views of the sources of legitimacy, the Europeans are theoretically right but wrong in practice. It is impossible to assert as a matter of principle that legitimately constituted liberal democracies can't make grave mistakes or indeed commit crimes against humanity. But the European idea that legitimacy is handed downward from a disembodied international community rather than handed upward from existing democratic institutions reflecting the public will on a nation-state level invites abuse on the part of elites, who are then free to interpret the will of the international community to suit their own preferences. This is the problem with the International Criminal Court. Instead of strengthening democracy on an international level, it tends to undermine democracy where it concretely lives, in nation-states.

There are three basic reasons for this divergence of views on the role of international law. The first, as Robert Kagan has noted, is the imbalance of power between the United States and everyone else. Weak states understandably want stronger ones constrained by norms and rules, while the world's sole superpower seeks freedom of action. But power alone cannot explain the gap, as the Europeans are rich and populous enough to project military power if they wanted. A second reason has to do with the concrete experience of European integration, where European countries have been giving up key elements of sovereignty to the European Union. Like former smokers, they want everyone else to experience their painful withdrawal symptoms from sovereignty.

But the final reason has to do with America's unique national experience and the sense of exceptionalism that has arisen from it. Americans believe in the special legitimacy of their democratic institutions and indeed believe that they are the embodiment of universal values that have a significance for all of mankind. This leads to an idealistic involvement in world affairs, but also to a tendency for Americans to confuse their national interests with universal ones. Europeans, by contrast, regard the violent history of the first half of the 20th century as the direct outcome of the unbridled exercise of national sovereignty. The house that they have been building for themselves since the 1950s called the European Union was deliberately intended to embed those sovereignties in multiple layers of rules, norms and regulations to prevent those sovereignties from ever spinning out of control again.

This conflict does not lend itself to "moral clarity;" both sides believe what they believe by dint of their histories and experiences. Americans are right to insist that there is no such thing as an "international community" in the abstract, and that nation-states must ultimately look out for themselves when it comes to critical matters of security. But they should also understand that they are dependent on international institutions and cooperation to manage this thing called the global economy, from which they benefit enormously.

The tremendous margin of power exercised by the United States in the security realm brings with it special responsibilities to use that power prudently. Washington owes the rest of the world an elucidation not just of its new doctrine of preemption, but of what the limits of that doctrine will be. It will be a challenging but not an impossible task to use the United Nations to build support for a tough policy toward Iraq, indeed, to provide a clear casus belli for a preemptive operation. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund suggests that Europeans and Americans are not as far apart on many issues, including Iraq, as their political leaders are. But while majorities on both sides of the Atlantic favor action, neither Americans nor Europeans want the United States to act alone.

The U.S.-European rift that has emerged in 2002 is not just a transitory problem but reflects deeply differing views of the locus of international democratic legitimacy that will reemerge in different forms in the coming years. But the United States can mitigate the problem by a degree of moderation on its part within a system of sovereign nation-states. Overreaction to Sept. 11 will lead to a world in which the United States and its policies remain the chief focus of global concern.

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. This article, contributed to The Washington Post, is adapted from the Bonython Lecture given in Melbourne, Australia.