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.