Foreign policy is that rare field in which essay-writing matters. From George Kennan’s 1947 article explaining containment and John Foster Dulles’s 1954 essay defining “massive retaliation,” through Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” and on to the cold war cappers by Francis Fukuyama (“The End of History?” 1989) and Samuel Huntington (“The Clash of Civilizations?” 1993), policy essays have made a difference. It is a curious genre, proudly given to overgeneralization and the imposition of dubious categories on large, sometimes very large, populations, and invariably light on detail and qualifying arguments. (The post-essay is another story; Kennan spent decades re-explaining containment and challenging the policies of many who embraced it.) Sacrificing exactness, the form seeks to give existing worldviews a big shove, so that the novelty of a given period may be thrown into bold relief. Actual daily politics and policy-making are exceedingly detail-oriented and cautious, and when people in those worlds try to step back for a moment they need to step way back. That is what essays like these make possible. Yet because they generalize so broadly, they leave plenty of room for error. The containment doctrine famously ignored the appeal of nationalism in the Third World.
In his influential 2002 essay “Power and Weakness,” Robert Kagan discussed the impending war on Iraq to illuminate differences between the United States and Europe. He did not talk much about Iraq itself, and given the postwar disasters this looks like a serious omission–not altogether unlike Kennan’s omission of nationalism. Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations also leaves out a great deal, and if it had been written by someone other than Cooper one might dismiss it as entirely too wacky. But Cooper, Tony Blair’s foreign policy guru from 1999 to last year and now a senior adviser at the European Union, is a man whose opinions count, and his book falls into the same tradition of imperial advice-giving as Kennan’s containment essay and Kirkpatrick’s defense of embracing friendly authoritarians. By reading Cooper, we can better understand the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of Britain’s prime minister, whose decision to support the war in Iraq was as deeply unpopular at home as it was admired in Washington. And we can better understand European security policy.
Blair needed someone like Cooper to articulate the liberal imperialism Blair sees as necessary to the post-cold war order and to the Anglo-American alliance. This position is suspect in England, where foreign adventuring inspires more alarm than pride and people are rightly skeptical of the Bush Administration’s intentions. Cooper is Blair’s Robert Kagan, but because he is a Blairite and not a neocon, he believes in Atlanticism and soft power; he feels that even imperial powers need the consent of their subjects, and that force alone is bound to fail.
Cooper’s view of the world–one divided among successful, modern states (like the United States), a postmodern bloc (unified Europe) and chaotic, premodern states in need of imperial tutelage if not a good pre-emptive invasion–is hardly appetizing. At the least, he seems eager to license further adventures like the invasion of Iraq. Yet we ignore arguments like his at our peril. There is a genuine idealism to Cooper’s (and Blair’s) project, and both he and Blair insist that their support of liberal empire is a continuation of the Clinton doctrine, not a capitulation to Bush Administration radicals. Some liberals, nostalgic for Clinton, may find this unpalatable, but it is a point worth taking seriously (and has been made by, among others, the Marxist historian Perry Anderson in New Left Review). As long as Blairism remains in place, it is this vision that will shape British foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
Educated in Nairobi, then at Oxford, Cooper was number two at the Bonn embassy when John Major was proving just how muddled Tories can be when contemplating the Continent. Cooper returned to London for a brief turn as director-general for Asia, then was tapped to be head of the Defense and Overseas Secretariat, which is to say, Blair’s principal foreign policy adviser. Blair has empowered such figures as part of his attempts at so-called presidentialization. This is particularly relevant in British foreign policy because, to a degree in Kosovo and abundantly in Iraq, that has been Blair’s main point of departure from British public opinion.