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debate neo-conservatism, US unlateralism
Date: 01-07-2003


Debate July 1ST, 2003, ABC Treehouse, Voetboogstraat, Amsterdam



  • Wilbert van der Zeijden (WZ) Ė TransNational Institute (TNI)
  • Frans Timmermans (FT) Ė PvdA
  • Denis Campbell  (DC) Ė American Voices Abroad (AVA)
  • Bart Jan Spruyt (BS) - Edmund Burke Foundation could not be present.
  • Luciano Pitzalis (LP) - moderator

[Note: the following is based on notes made during the discussion, intended to give an idea of what was discussed. It is not a transcript.]

LP: Introduces the speakers and explains the unforeseen absence of Bart Jan Spruyt.

LP:  ĎWhat is neo-conservatism?í

WZ says he cannot fully explain neo-conservatism. He cannot define it any better than Ďa combinations of acts and beliefs that together you call neo-conservatism.í He gives some historical facts that he considers a basis of neo-conservatism:

- Rumsfeld Commission Report: Formerly the CIA listed threats and the likeliness that those threats would become reality (risk assessment). In this way the government assessed what priority which threat had. Rumsfeld changed this: risk assessments are no longer made. Any threat, however unlikely, is intolerable and must be tackled.

- ĎJoint Vision 20-20í: a policy paper that set out military aims for 2020. Its goal is full-spectrum dominance. Rogue states might need to be attacked (basis for pre-emptive strike).

These documents existed before 9-11. Although 9-11 changed the course of events, the groundwork was already there.

LP: What does US want to achieve with neo-conservatism?

WZ: It is not the same thing as with the old conservatives. They were isolationists.

DC: It is really like a crusade. They proclaim that ĎGod is on their sideí.

FT: The neo-conservatives turned attention to foreign policy, following 9-11. They had wanted protectionism. We tend to see them as stupid, but they are very organised. As social democrats we have to consider how to counteract that. In America the middle class is disappearing. The weak and the poor are just liabilities: they are told itís their own fault. Neo-conservatives have a Ďwinner takes it allí attitude, which is spreading to Europe as well: Berlusconi is a thug, but he is very popular. We have to restore progressivism. This is true for Europe too, both nationally and internationally.

DC: The left is demoralized. Everything seems black and white All is clear. The moral agenda is more important.

LP: Conservatism in itself is isolationism while neo-conservatism is spreading their version of democracy and their values as zealots.

FT: This has to do with 9-11. The US is at war; thatís how they see it.

DC: People are prepared to give up their civil rights. Everything (money) goes to fight the war.

LP: A number of key neo-conservatives are known to have been left-wing activists in the 70ís. How can it be explained that they switched over from the progressive to the conservative agenda?

FT: Their shift is partly explained by the high value they place on morals. Extreme left and conservatism are both based on high moral. Itís those morals that they want to achieve and support by whatever means that are available.

Aud: Leo Strauss is the link. He influences many of the neo-conservatives. Pro- Zionist, anti-democratic. Their moralism doesnít exclude lying and deception. Their philosophy is, ĎYou canít trust the massesí. An elite determines truth and order and whatís right.

LP [to DC]: Can you explain for those who are unfamiliar with AVA what your organisation is all about?

DC: Weíre still defining ourselves. We grew out of the AAWI (American Against War in Iraq), but after the war was over, the same issues remained. We want to bring democratic principles back into America. The Patriot Act takes away basic civil rights. Life in America has changed drastically since 9-11. We are kept in a continual state of fear. Look at the issue of weapons of mass destruction. None have been found and people are losing patience. In polls support is dropping. Big media is controlled by big business. No one is reporting on the left in America.

LP: Will this change if the Democrats get in?

DC: Their hands are dirty too. 61% of all registered voters didnít vote in America. Bush got 19.5 % of the vote.

LP: Weíve seen a shift to unilateralism. Is there a public reaction within American society?

DC: Most people in the US donít even know about it. They are kept busy with silly shows like ĎSurvivorí. People have to go to alternative news sources to find out what is happening.

LP: You say that lack of information is a factor. But are there fundamental differences between how Europeans and Americans perceive the world? As Kagan states ĎAmerican come from Mars, Europeans from Venusí.

FT: This is worrying, this growing global anti-Americanism. This will only escalate the need of the rest of the world to feel they need protection from America. The gap is widening. Itís a vicious circle.

WZ: Why is it a problem if the US and Europe break up their political alliance?

FT: Because thatís the worst thing that can happen in the long run. The neo-conservatives are slowly realizing in the last weeks they canít do it on their own. (due to the disaster of Iraq). This gives me hope.

LP: Or are they choosing their partners?

Aud: Theyíre buying their partners!

FT: But theyíve just got the East-Europeans. The Poles want to be on the side of the US. Anti-Americanism wonít work.

Aud: There is a division between Americans and Bush.

FT: Yes, but that is too complicated for many people. They see only the presidency of the United States.

DC: The world showed great empathy after 9-11, but the US seems to have squandered that goodwill in just 2 years.

Aud: We need to keep it open, concentrate on what we agree on, look for the similarities.

Aud: Perhaps the neo-conservatives want Anti-Americanism, since this feeds the fear.

Aud: Is there another superpower?

Aud: People! People power and the UN. Otherwise the hegemony will continue. A lot was planned before 9-11. Let us not let anger drive a wedge between us. We have to work together.

DC: We as AVA have a passionate love of America. Friday is Independence Day. Independence was won by speaking out.

                            -  break -

LP: What can Europe do?

FT: Europe is hopelessly divided about the war in Iraq. European leaders stated their position, whether for or against. That leaves them now with only a small space to act. For Blair it is almost a life or death question.

Aud: We can have Gordon Brown.

FT: No, believe me you canít, the reason we have Blair is that heís the only one who can convince the voters to vote from them.

European leaders canít change their position. Blair canít come out as being against the war because he has committed himself. On the other hand, Chirac and SchrŲder have little room to maneuver as well. All we can hope for is for things to evaporate and for things in Iraq to go better, but we donít really see that happening. So we donít talk about the problem. People try to work their way around the problem and see what other issues we can come up with that we agree upon. But this will remain to be very serious issue that will prevent Europe to be more united in the policy area. The gap between US and Europe is growing by the year. Not only in the military capabilities or an industrial productivity gap. Itís a gap in education, in arts, in all areas. In arts for example, US has an export surplus in cultural goods to the rest of the world, the arts, but they are not importing much. Economically too the gap is widening. If you look at growth and productivity in the US, at the amount of engineers it produces compared to Europe. India and China are producing 500.000 engineers every year, while Europe is falling behind. These are the things Europe should be talking about, because these differences are creating all sorts of imbalances that influence even foreign policy on the world scale. The only thing you can do to counter that I believe we need to take a global perspective and to look for developments in China and India, to look for new coalitions, to broaden the perspective of those who can get more economic growth and be a more integral part in the world economy. Thatís why organizations like WTO are so important, but not just on free trade, but also on the developments agenda. This is of essential importance for the balance between the US and Europe, which takes me back to me first point. Europe doesnít have its act together and if we donít get our act together thereís nothing we can do. Things will just happen and weíll be spectators of this big game we canít control, unless we better organize our foreign policy agenda and our European defense, our public spending, our funding of development and research. There are 12 different R&D projects within Europe on the same subject that cost a 10th of the US equivalent in that field. Our money is cut up and so is our effectiveness. If we donít do these things together, than we wonít come close to even compete with the US.

We shouldnít aspire to be the US competitor in the sense that weíll take the lead away. That is never going to happen. And with China itís a matter of a couple of generations and then I donít know if thatís ever going to happen. The task for us Europeans is to be of relevance. We are irrelevant in the US eyes and if we want to be relevant again you have to have something to say and some input in things that are happening elsewhere. But if weíre fragmented whenever Rumsfeld says Ďthereís the old Europe and thereís the new Europeí, the only thing that happens is that Europeans go for each otherís throats instead of understanding that this is a divisive policy, designed to make sure that Europe is divided.

The biggest problem is because we donít analyze these gaps that are increasing we donít have the sense of urgency to come together as a united Europe.

Aud: How should this discussion within Europe take place? Are these things talked about in the European Commission? Do you see this as a fairly high level discussion?

FT: The public seem to be more united on this than the politicians; on the downside the public is increasingly anti-American as a reaction to what they see happening and it is increasingly disenchanted with what is happening in their own country.

The crisis in European politics and also on a national level is very deep indeed. Globalization, more European integration, 9-11, etc. makes people feel insecure. Iíd like to refer to Habemas who has described this phenomenon in civilizations throughout history. How do civilizations cope with change? They see the new phenomenon, they absorb it in their own culture and after a while they donít see it as a new phenomenon but itís part of their culture.

If change happens too quickly, two things can happen. The society can start to disintegrate or the reaction is very strong and people want to keep out change. They see the new phenomenon as a threat, which maybe it isnít but still people revert to their own values, and brand every change as a threat. This is what I see happening in Europe and even in my own country and this process the biggest problem for European unity.

The reaction to Islam in many parts of the world is exactly this phenomenon and we see the same reaction from the other side. It breeds resentment and this is a horrible dynamic. Success in the Middle East could turn it around, because then Islam can say that western values tend to their needs as well and not just to western interests. But today I feel pessimistic about changing this around. Thatís why I think Europe should be more active there. More money and diplomacy should be going towards finding a solution to the Palestinian problem. And also the relationship between Europe and Turkey is another issue that could change this controversy dynamic into something we can manage. And if the WTO can really make some positive changes for developing countries, it will help.

LP: If you say that things have to be done but at the same time youíre pessimistic about the amount of power Europe has, is there a difference between the type of power Europe and the US have? Are do these types of power imply they have different roles to play?

FT: Foreign policy doesnít mean a thing if you canít back it up with some sort of force. Not that you always need to use that force, but we have to be able to react and Europe is now totally unable to do so. Look at Africa now. We might have another genocide like in Ruanda before and Europe is unable to react even though we want to stop it, but we canít come up with the troops to do this and we canít come up with the kind of decision making to support and sustain intervention. We need military power to have a credible foreign policy.

Aud: If Europe were to spend its money on the military like the US, we wouldnít have our levels of education and social security here. And one of the reason we have so many expatriates living here is that we donít want our money to be spent in that way.

FT: Iím not suggesting we should increase our defense spending, but we should spend it more effectively. Total European defense budget is about 60% of what the US spends, but our output is about 13% compared to the US.

Aud: Will the Euro constitution help?

FT: yes, in the long run Europeans will perceive it as a constitution that defines them as Europeans with common values. Europeans will have to give up some sovereignty or remain irrelevant.

Aud: But you allow the Americans to dictate the agenda. Europe just reacts. Can you think of other ways of looking at the issue?

LP: Is Europe looking for its own role and stepping outside itís own little paradise, and realizing that it needs to wield some sort of military power to be credible in the world?

FT: Weíve had small successes and they are an indication that Europe can do more. But failures are easier to see than successes. Europe had a big role in preventing civil war in Macedonia without US intervention. Europe did that on itís own. This breeds more success. Growth of confidence will bring more success in for example Africa, and it will create more space for politicians to lead. For that politicians need trust, because now politicians are afraid to lead. They look at tomorrowís agenda instead of having a long run perspective. For that to happen politicians need public support and this is now absent in European politics. Blair was the last politician who had this and now heís lost it. We urgently need social reform.

Aud: Without countries like France and Germany organizing opposition to the war nothing would have happened. The German and French position was a support and opened up a space for debate even in the US.

FT: True, but I wouldnít look for morality in Franceís position. The effect is the same though. The German position was morally inspired. The US dossier just didnít convince them, which was the best European position in European politics.

Aud: If European opposition opens up controversy, will the US public realize that Europe has its own opinion based on moral beliefs and is not just opposing out of spite or lunacy?

DC: America wants things to be black and white while the issue is gray. And when it clashes with your own value system as an American and you canít find that comfort level from the issue being black and white, people tend to give a very strong negative reaction. The safety that they seek is in that. And the people in this room may realize, but the average citizen in the US.

LP: What is the reaction, not by states, but by public movement. Weíve heard what Europe as a political collective is trying to achieve, and weíve seen millions on the streets during the February 15th marches with 2 million people in Madrid, but what happened to all those people. I believe TNI has researched this popular up rise?

WZ: In Asia people are very wary of US and even European policies, and we slowly see that regional grassroots networks are forming, who want to take matters into their own hands. They are not anti-American, but believe regional actors should deal with their own regional problems, rather than to invite the US or Europe into the regional arena. For example, the SE Asian peace alliance is a growing network. It started out as a grassroots network, but it is getting the politicians pushing for a solution to North Korea, completely excluding the US, also saying that it is their issue.

LP: A brief interruption because two of our panel members have to leave to catch their trains. - DC and FT leave Ė

LP: Letís continue on the public movement.

WZ: Looking at Asia, we see that they are coming up with analyses of problems that completely circumvent the US at the analytical solution part. They can call in the US at a later stage for help. South Koreans donít perceive the North Korean to be a north south divide. All they see now is a conflict between North Korean and the US. 

So in that part of the world there is a growing sense that part of the power that the US has is given to them rather than taken. Regional populations are pushing their own governments not to deal with the US any longer but with China or Japan. These are the countries that should be able to come up with solutions.

These kinds of regional networks we can also see developing in he Pakistan India conflict. In my view this is what we should aim for. Even the critics come up with a kind of US centered critic. Itís still about what the US should or shouldnít do.

Of course the US is by far the most powerful and the most willing to use that power. But you can still exclude the US. And even when we are dependent on the US, the US itself is also dependent on the other western countries.

In my view we build a strong Europe, but not necessarily in a military sense but more focused on developing our own view in how the world should be governed.

We need to create a stronger world government that regulates how states deal with each other. We need to invest a lot of money in regional processes in other parts of the world to achieve regional stability pacts. I think itís an unhealthy situation that when there is a conflict in Congo, that the US or Europe that has to step in, because that forces the interventionist to make a choice which fraction it supports, which makes it a black and white issue from the very start of the intervention.

LP: If you look at regional problem and solution processes, do you feel that they are able to cope for themselves?

WZ: That is a micro level approach. We need to discuss these things on a macro level at the UN. We need to create a stronger world government, and it doesnít have to be a very pushy government with a lot of rules, but it still needs to regulate how states interact. 

On the other hand, we need to create these regional for a, stability pacts and also we need to do something about the democratic deficit even within Europe. For example, in Spain 90% of the people didnít want the war against Iraq, but the government still supported it. That has nothing to do with democracy.

Iím also very negative about these things happening in the short term.

LP: If youíre talking about world governance, are you implying strengthening the UN and it that realistic? 

I have a completely different analysis of what is happening within the US compared to the other speakers. I see the US as being in its last stages of being a world power. On a global level weíve seen globalization happening and we all believed that it would work. But it didnít work from the start. The total output worldwide dropped 10% since 1985, which is when globalization started to emerge. The only country whose output did not drop is the US and the reason why Europe is now slowly trying to get out is that is slowly realizing that globalization never work for Europe. Output dropped 10% and that figure is much worse for 3rd world countries in the south.

Globalization based on the virtues of liberalism has turned out to be an exploitative system. We also see a structural crisis, and even if were not going down, weíre also not going up. The US is creating a deficit, which is unbelievably high and in the past they could get away with it. 

This is a system that will not last. The US is overstretching itself, not just a military overstretch but also economically. It now has military presence in 160 countries worldwide.

The US is more powerful than ever, but at the root of its power, we can see the first fractures already. Iím coming to the conclusion that Iím a Marxist in the sense that I believe that the dominant system of the last 400 to 500 years where nation states and capitalism came together is past its prime.

The US is good example of a hegemon in its last phase in the world system theory. At first it shows an increase in output, which broke down in the 80ís with the first economic crisis. Back in the 90ís things seemed to go very well again. People were making a lot of money on stocks. This is what in world system theory terms is referred to as the Ďrevival phaseí when the focus for governments and corporations is no longer on the expansion of output and the actual economy, but on trying to cash in on current positions, and to get what they can now, before the Ďterminal crisis phaseí sets in. Itís hard to pinpoint when this starts.

What we know from theorists like Paul Kennedy is that hegemons will not let go easily. It will cling on to its power for as long as it can. In the end it will fall, but it is not a good foresight, because it can also create a power vacuum and weíll probably see a new hegemon arise afterwards. The question now is who that will be. China is a candidate but it doesnít have any middle class to speak of yet. It could get there, but it wonít be soon. India is likelier but I donít see that happening. The EU still has the potential for it, but I donít see it do it either. 

The question then is if the US will go into a second cycle of hegemony or will there be some other sort of world order? Normally you go from hegemon to hegemon. In theory the new hegemon is already there when the current hegemon starts to show hiccups. This is the main discussion within theorists.

LP: If we follow that line of thought and accept that the US hegemon will not remain and that it will ultimately not be replaced by another hegemon, does that imply that institutions like the UN will be revitalized? 

WZ: This still hard to see. A projection in time is that we will see new blocks emerge within 5 years time. Looking for example at Asia, where grass root influence is growing rapidly and gaining political influence fast, weíll probably see the rise of an Asian block. Not China and India together but maybe China and South Korea.

The US is trying to keep that from happening. As Berezinsky said: ĎThe whole point for a hegemon is to keep the Barbarians from getting together.í That seems to be the power game on the Korean peninsula at the moment. 

Aud: From a US viewpoint, itís strange to read about The European Convention as basically a European constitution, but there seems to be no massive public interest or support for it. It seems to be the product of a technocracy with low democratic value.

WZ: The problem at the moment is that countries within the EU can hide behind the EU and the other way around. Also people are bored with it because it happens so slowly during the last 50 years. Even now, itís officially only an economic union, not a political one. In parts it is, but in essence it is still only an economic union and whatever is achieved politically is only just a spillover of these economic processes. By now they seem to be ready to create a political union. 

Aud: People donít know whatís going on in the EU. Rules are introduced and hardly given any attention in the media and are not subject to much public debate. Only those who are interested personally make the effort to get informed.

WZ: It depends on the states one talks about. In some states there is more participation and have for instance referenda. On democracy on a European scale, the European parliament doesnít have anything to say really, which makes it easy for organizations like TNI to get laws passed by the European parliament, but this is just de facto, because it doesnít really have much effect on the actual politics of the EU.

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