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.

Cooper first came to prominence with his 1996 essay “The Postmodern State and the World Order,” updated several times and now serving as the first (and longest) of three parts in The Breaking of Nations. The essay described unified Europe as having achieved the highest-known form of political organization, ahead of the United States, other modern states and an extensive “jungle” of luckless premoderns. Six years later, he published a short piece in an immodestly titled collection, Reordering the World: The Long-Term Implications of September 11. The London Observer ran it as “The New Liberal Imperialism” (Cooper incorporates it here into his first part). The article bears being quoted at length, because it encapsulates many of Cooper’s chief ideas, which are becoming part of the mainstream–and because he left Blair’s office last year to serve as chief adviser to the EU’s high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, for whom he has drafted Europe’s very first Security Strategy.

The fundamental problem of the post-cold war order, Cooper wrote, is that a “large number of the most powerful states no longer want to fight or conquer. It is this that gives rise to both the premodern and postmodern worlds. Imperialism in the traditional sense is dead, at least among the Western powers.” Nontraditional imperialism may be a different matter. Cooper sees a critical role for European (as well as American) military power and, less clearly, other forms of power that would not look good in court or a newspaper: “The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open, cooperative security. Among ourselves we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle. In the prolonged period of peace in Europe, there has been a temptation to neglect our defences, both physical and psychological. This represents one of the great dangers of the postmodern state.” Cooper goes on to ask:

How should we deal with the pre-modern chaos?… The most logical way to deal with chaos, and the one most employed in the past, is colonisation. Today, there are no colonial powers willing to take on the job, though the opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonisation, is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century. Those left out of the global economy risk falling into a vicious circle. Weak government means disorder and that means falling investment…. What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values…an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle. Postmodern imperialism takes two forms. First, there is the voluntary imperialism of the global economy. This is usually operated by an international consortium through International Financial Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank…. The second form of postmodern imperialism might be called the imperialism of neighbours…. But Usama bin Laden has now demonstrated for those who had not already realised, that today all the world is, potentially at least, our neighbour.

All this will be familiar to readers of Robert Kagan, although Cooper supplies a few twists of his own. Both are preoccupied with the coherence of the West, a coherence they identify with the future endurance of what Kagan calls, without defining them, “common Western beliefs” and “aspirations for humanity.” Both identify the reasons for the Atlantic split in the hope of ending it. In practical terms, both advocate a European defense force. But neither (Kagan least) truly seems to believe in it much, partly because the Euro-American military-capability gap is so extreme, as Cooper shows at some length–and because both know that Europeans simply do not, and probably will not, see the dangers that many Americans see. And even when they do, they may not see battle and the threat of battle as appropriate responses–as witness the Spanish vote against José María Aznar after the Madrid bombings. Solana’s European Security Strategy emphasizes the combination of civilian with military “capabilities,” noting, this is an area where “we could add particular value.”

So it seems that Europe will continue to be Greece to America’s Rome, to use the metaphor that preceded Kagan’s “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” (Speaking of essays, an awful lot of this was anticipated in “Among the Euro-Weenies,” by P.J. O’Rourke, which appeared in Rolling Stone in 1986 but has never entered the policy canon.) The trans-Atlantic rift then will heal, equilibrium between hard and soft power will be restored, the stick will lie down with the carrot and “the widows of Clinton will find consolation,” as Perry Anderson has put it, drawing out the continuities between the humanitarian interventions of Clinton and the regime changes of Bush. It remains to be seen whether the “neocon moment” is the end of the line or a bridge to some more muscular Clintonism-without-Clinton (and perhaps without Blair?), fortified by whatever Iraq lessons the next President cares to draw. Reading Cooper, one is at least reminded that Blair has been able to reconcile, without too much trouble, both the Bush and Clinton worldviews.

That may be because those worldviews are not as far apart as some of us imagine. The ideals expressed in Bush’s National Security Strategy are not far from Clinton’s. They form what Condoleezza Rice (who was lead author on the NSS) calls Bush’s “idealism,” the implications of which are being tested by Kagan and Cooper. The idealism question is a critical one, for it is bound up with how Western leaders and their advisers shape their use of power. One interesting aspect of how both Kagan and Cooper handle this business of idealism is their wariness of institutions, existing or projected. It is not simply a matter of doubting the United Nations. From NATO to the WTO to the ICC, they show little interest in the world institutions that are meant to advance worldviews. The only transnational institution that truly excites either man is the European Union, which is presented more as a supernation, a manifestation of the European Geist–a synthesis of successes built on the Continent’s spectacular failures, in particular the pervasive failures of the fascist period. On the global plane, they see the European Union very much as the brother superstate to the United States.

With a combined population of more than 700 million and all the capital and technology a hegemon could want, the European Union and United States make quite a pair. But what unites them? Neither Cooper nor Kagan is helpful on this crucial point. Vague allusions to shared beliefs and aspirations are not sufficient; and despite them, Kagan nearly convinces you that “the West” is just too twentieth century anyway. He believes Europeans, habituated by the cold war decades, see their role on the world stage as to restrain or, more euphemistically, to multilateralize American power; in a sense, to make American power universal. By contrast, most Americans do not think they need Europe to act as a trainer, universalizer or finishing school for American power. The internationalism of Americans, he writes, “has always been a by-product of their nationalism. When Americans sought legitimacy for their actions abroad, they sought it not from supranational institutions but from their own principles. That is why it was always so easy for so many Americans to believe, as so many still believe today, that by advancing their own interests they advance the interests of humanity.”

The West, for Americans, is an American idea, and not the most important one. I don’t particularly like it, but I think Kagan is mostly right on this point: Most Americans believe that our national advancement and human advancement are roughly synonymous. Certainly no other nation today can combine provincialism and universal mission with the élan that the United States brings to the task. Whatever imperialism Americans come up with, it will be American. Like most non-Europeans, Americans do not see “legitimacy” as something Europeans can confer.

This is a reality I think Europeans have trouble grasping. Cooper himself writes that, ideally, the postmodern world (namely Europe) might extend “ever wider, so that eventually it became the norm for relations between countries to be governed by law and negotiation, so that domestic and foreign policies became intertwined and identities fused into a sense of a wider international community.” If becoming part of the “international community” means becoming European, as Cooper appears to believe, then neither Americans nor many other peoples outside the European Union are likely to join. This is not a small problem. The need to invigorate multilateral institutions is apparent to governments around the world–including, yes, the current Administration in Washington. Some leadership must come from the United States and Europe. But if such leadership is offered in terms of “spreading civilization” or postmodern imperialism, it is unlikely to achieve much, even if the United States and European Union are able to get their currently competing vanities in sync and revive the West for a new generation.

On the contrary, such an approach fuels hostility and lessens the likelihood that states and peoples outside the West will work to meld their interests in some larger system. The breakdown of the World Trade Organization’s “development round” in Cancún last year resulted from just such hostility. Weapons proliferation feeds on it. “Repetitive and sterile debates” and “lowest common denominator” voting patterns in the UN General Assembly–the phrases are from Secretary General Kofi Annan–indicate the inability of many states to achieve a productive multilateralism, just as the changeless structure of the Security Council, so “at odds with the geopolitical realities of the twenty-first century” (Annan again), shows that the great powers of 1945 should not preach too much to others about governance reform. Multilateralism faces threats from every side, but probably the greatest threat is overconfidence in the West that only the West really matters. If the “international community” cannot be delinked, somehow, from Western amour-propre, it’s hard to see how it will survive. It would be good if such experienced and influential thinkers as Cooper and Kagan were to turn their abilities to the task.