Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power and Culture in International Affairs; Conversation with Josef Joffe, editor and co-publisher of Die Zeit, 1/20/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 6 of 7

National Interest

As a student of Waltz, you clearly believe in the constraints that are placed on a state by its place among other states.

Or the opportunities.

Or the opportunities. So you're not surprised that so many of the German leaders today who were radicals in the sixties ...

The seventies, all the way into the eighties.

All the way to the eighties. Your foreign minister, your chancellor, have become so conservative and, in a way, so consistent with German history.

Well, if you want to have a wonderful illustration of the Waltzian hypothesis, which is "structure is destiny," or to put in more vernacular terms, "where you stand depends on where you sit" -- your geographic location and your weight in the larger scheme of power -- Germany is a wonderful example because, as you correctly point out, there's Chancellor Schroeder since 1998, there is Joschka Fischer also, foreign minister since 1998. These guys were rabid left wingers and anti-Americans. And hardly were they in power when their rhetoric turned 180 degrees. When Joschka Fischer the Green, [who] probably used to throw rocks at the American consulate in Frankfurt when he was younger, says he loves NATO, loves the United States, he is the very model of reasonableness. He believes in integration and Germany's place in integration, and so does Schroeder.

So they're obviously responding in terms of German national interests, which I tried to outline before, which is [that] being in this constraining framework is good for German power. It's a legitimizing framework. It's as if Gulliver loved his ropes, as if the ropes were the very condition of his self assertion. I know it's a mixed metaphor, but that's about the basic thing. So the Germans have learned to exert their influence multilaterally, through institutions, and they're very good at it. And the nice thing about it is: Because there is self-restraint, nobody has to be afraid of the Germans, which would be the strongest blow to their influence and to their power.

Why is NATO and our continuing support of NATO so important in the European context?

NATO is an interesting paradox because the war is over, we won the war. NATO won the war ten years ago with the fall of the Berlin wall. Normally alliances disappear when they win the war; that's been the verdict of history on any alliance I can think of. Alliances die when they win. And yet this one is still alive ten years after the fact. Why? Well, for the old reasons. You want to be allied to the United States because the United States is a kind of security lender of the last resort. You never know what might happen, especially with Russia coming back, point number one.

Point number two, NATO is the most important thing, the one thing that stands between us and the renationalization of our defense policies.

Germany, you're talking about.

No, Europe in general. There's a security area or a security community made in the USA. And the same thing is also true for the Pacific with that large buffer state, the ultimate security lender, the United States. It keeps everybody from shifting towards a national, independent defense policy. The autonomy of defense policy has traditionally been one of the most important sources of conflict among nations. I'm afraid of you, I arm against you, then you counter-arm, then I feel vindicated and arm some more. You take that dynamic out by preventing the renationalization of defense policy, and stability reigns and we can deal with other business, namely business.

So what then do we say about the NATO intervention in Kosovo? Doesn't the pendulum swing the other way and so therefore if you don't have a defense policy you have a cacophony of voices?

Kosovo is a story with many lessons. One lesson the Europeans have learned in spades is that they're incapable of mounting even a Mickey Mouse operation like in Kosovo. That was a Mickey Mouse operation against a third- or forth-rate power like Serbia, in a very small piece of territory. And they found out that they don't have the long-range logistics, they don't have the long-range intelligence, they don't have the stand-off weapons, etc., to mount even that kind of operation. That's one of the critical lessons Kosovo inflicted on us.

It also inflicted on the Europeans their enormous dependence on the United States, that unless the United States does it, nobody does it. As you said, the pendulum has swung too far, naturally there is this sense, "Oh, why can't we do this on our own? Here we are, a market that's larger than the United States, we have a larger population than the United States, we have more men under arms. So let's do it on our own." That would require a hell of a lot more defense spending, I mean serious money to restructure Europe's post - Cold War armies which are panzer-heavy and designed to fight a large war of maneuver in the vast steppes of Eastern Europe. That would take serious money. In the meantime, they're all cashing in on their peace dividends, and Germany now in terms of spending per capita is just above Luxembourg, lowest rung on the ladder. So you can't cash in your peace dividends and become a semi-autonomous military actor. And so, at this point, even though the strategic threat is gone, you still need the United States as somebody who, in more academic parlance, provides public goods which the Europeans at this point are not yet capable of providing.

Humanitarian intervention, which is what Kosovo was about, does that get countries, especially the United States, away from their vital interests?

Of course. It's so cliché right now I almost don't want to repeat it, but you might almost say that modern liberal Western states will only intervene when their interest is not involved. It's very hard to get involved for classical goals of statecraft.

Because there's no reason to?

Well, the idea of reason of state, of national interest, that's all being deconstructed as we sit here and talk. So the very appeal to national interest, let alone reason of state, raison d'état, sounds arcane, almost bizarre. So it seems that we will only do this kind of stuff, humanitarian intervention. And a lot of that stuff is of course driven by the very opposite of coldly calculated realpolitik, interest politics. It's television driven, it's CNN driven. It's the outrage du jour. And there's something mendacious about it, because, precisely because there's no interest behind it, we are not willing to put anything in it. So when we go to Kosovo we say, "Well, we'll do it, but nobody can get killed on our side. No body bags. So therefore we don't do ground troops." Therefore what is left? We end up bombing Milosevic's civilian infrastructures. And suddenly in the name of the humanitarian interests we are conducting a war against a civilian population by bombing bridges and power plants and what have you. That's a pretty perverse way of being humanitarian, but it's explained by the fact that we don't perceive an interest there and therefore we are not willing to make any sacrifices whatsoever. And that's true for the United States and it's true for Germany, for France, for Italy, you name it.

Is it easier for Germany because so much of the burden falls on the United States, or is Germany taking more of its fair share of the burden?

When it comes to Kosovo for instance, one wag, a high official in the Pentagon recently told me that for every French plane that took off into the Kosovar sky, it had to be accompanied by four American planes. One to go in front to do the defense suppression, electronic warfare. One on each wing for protection. And one on its tail for damage assessment, which the French apparently have no capabilities for. So here's the reason why the United States, by dint of its incredible conventional technological superiority, at this point at least, is almost forced to carry most of the burden, as it has in Bosnia and Kosovo, and of course in the Gulf War. It's easy for the Europeans to hang back because they know Big Daddy is there and Big Daddy is incredibly rich and has technological goodies which we have no money to acquire. So that, too, explains why the United States would trigger so many resentments because of its power, [yet] remains a welcome player in these games.

Does that suggest then that the Europeans won't, in some sort of pique or frustration, go it on their own? That is, provide so they can do it not under the tutelage of the United States?

It's very hard for me to imagine what interests might be so powerful as to reverse the declining trend in European defense spending, for instance. What interest could be so overwhelming that would reverse the postmodern psychology in the Western world, which says we don't want to sacrifice, we don't want to fight, we don't want to genuflect before the state anymore as we used to in the past, we just want to be left alone? Pretty hard to see that. But thirdly, it's very hard to conceive of situations where the Europeans would want to do something and the United States not. I recently talked to a French official and she said something very surprising for a French person. She said, you know in the old days we used to work with the Palmerston saying: nations have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. And I think it's the other way around now. Nations have changing interests, but permanent friends. Their interests keep changing, but they have permanent allies. Permanent allies means there is a community in the West, a similar level of economic development and political development, same kind of postmodern, democratic liberal culture. Plus the kind of new rules of the game which say you can't go on your own, you cannot intervene by yourself. You have to get some kind of legitimacy, ideally from the UN but if you can't get that, from NATO. And so that keeps driving this game, where indeed we might have only permanent allies, as much as we sometimes dislike and resent each other.

So does this tell me that the state-centric model, which has influenced your thinking about international relations, is being swept away?

No, it's still states' rule. States have the last word, but states can no longer do what they used to do for hundreds and hundreds of years, which is to go off on their own, to fight a war on their own, to do without any legitimizing cover by others, by international organizations, because the states are now democratic states. They're no longer princes and potentates. Democratic states are on a much shorter leash of popular acceptance and legitimation. Mind you now, Frederick the Great, the absolutist king, also had to worry about his people, but the leash was longer. Louis XIV had to worry, but the leash was that much longer. That's the point, the leash has become shorter. But states are still states.

What about globalization? Isn't it undermining the state?

Well, I wouldn't know how. How is it undermining the state? What would you think?

States cannot control their own capital markets because there's an international ... let me ask that: Does that mean the diminishment of state power in important areas?

States could not control their own capital market since the gold standard, because the gold standard really was a kind of simple but powerful form of monetary union which forced every country into a certain discipline unless it wanted to see its gold leave the country, therefore contracting its own money supply and driving it into macroeconomic ruin. So that's not new, that governments are no longer in control of their monetary policy. Are they no longer in control of their borders? I don't see that. If I look at the European Union, where we have foresworn not to police our internal borders anymore, just our outside borders; well, strangely enough as I cross these borders there are these flying squads on the other side who are looking for drug smugglers or terrorists or whatever, so we're controlling that.

Are we not controlling immigration anymore? Well, the United States has a real problem because of the way it had defined its 1965 immigration law, which gives so much power to families for their reunion. So the United States willingly relinquished control over its immigration, but by act of state.

How are these borders being swept away? Let me just put the question and issue in more general terms. You would expect the state to become less powerful than it was. I see the state becoming more powerful in many ways, and one way to measure it is how much does the government take of GDP for its own purposes, by taxation and things like that? In the nineteenth century the state was pretty powerless. It took between 5% and 10% in peacetime. Now the modern Western state, not the United States but the European Western states, takes about 50%. The OECD average is 45%. How can anybody who takes and disburses, and therefore regulates, as much be said to be losing power? Very hard for me to figure out.

So this is true even in Europe where the evolution of the Community proceeds apace?

Europe is a very different animal. I'm talking about the modern Western state. Europe is a very, very strange animal which you cannot understand in classical terms of unification. Classical unification has been, to borrow the famous phrase by Bismarck, who unified Germany in 1871, twenty-five little Germanies into one big one, by blood and iron. That has been a normal pattern. Lincoln unified this country by blood and iron. The Italians did it in the nineteenth century. Germany did. Unification has normally been a very bloody affair whereby the core power in the system extends itself to conquer the rest. Or you have a formal act, like the thirteen colonies in 1787 when they gave themselves a constitution that said, "We the People," etc.

Europe fits neither pattern. I would call it a coral reef. It keeps growing, the European state keeps growing but like a coral reef. You never quite know which next branch it will sprout. And so there is this truly interesting and intriguing mixture of very powerful state sovereignty still -- and very powerful community sovereignty, such as monetary union, such as the European Court, which rules against governments, such as the commission where the Competition Commissioner tells the German government, "You can't subsidize VW in the East, it's a constraint of trade, we'll take you to court." It's a work in progress and it fits none of the models we have from history or international politics.

With the growth of this coral reef and with the international environment that you've defined, where will U.S.-European relations go, or will they just evolve pretty much as they are now?

Theory and history would have told you alliances die when they win, that somehow a few years down the road after winning the Cold War, which was in '89 when the Wall came down, this thing would dissolve. This thing, I mean NATO, Europe and America. It isn't dissolving, it's growing. We just admitted three new members and there are at least half a dozen who want in. So that suggests an enormous functionality of something which, in terms of, since you brought it up, Waltzian theory, Realist theory, should not be there anymore. It should have gone the same way that the anti-Napoleon alliance or the entente against World War I Germany disappeared within a few years. So there's enormous functionality.

To come back to this other thought where I quoted this French colleague, maybe nations only have permanent allies these days, especially since the United States, and that's a very important point I think, is very different from all other previous hegemons in the history of man. This is not the 800-pound gorilla who goes around tearing down everything and grabbing territory and trying to lord it over everybody else. It's the first hegemon who does not want to grab territory, does not want to conquer. So this hegemon is more like an elephant, a 2,000-pound elephant, or 4,000-pound elephant, who is kind of bumbling and oblivious but not rapacious. It's not like Rome or like the Habsburg Empire that's trying the conquer the world, it's a hegemon that doesn't conquer. And it makes a lot of difference if you're dealing with an elephant rather than, let's say, a rapacious tiger. And that's another reason why the classical historical insights do not kick in yet and why, in spite of the disappearance of a great threat, this alliance still holds.

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