Comparative Advantage in Trans-Atlantic Relations

I think it’s generally safe to say that Europeans think of themselves as morally superior to Americans. There’s less inequality in Europe, more social benefits and Europeans respect things like human rights and the Geneva Conventions. I also think it’s generally safe to say that Americans think of themselves as tougher than Europeans. They’re militarily superior, aren’t afraid to intervene when they think it’s right and don’t like equivocating over things like what or what isn’t legal under international law. In this story, Americans play the bullies and Europeans play the nannies.

But maybe this is exactly how things should be. Let’s take two recent examples of trouble on Europe’s periphery. When the former Yugoslavia was breaking up, Europe stood by and watched while the US, after a while, went in all guns blazing. Then when things were getting out of control in Libya, Europe again stood by while NATO, which is just a euphemism for the US, went in all drones blazing. In both cases, Europe maintained its floral and legalistic moral superiority while the US maintained its tumescent and self-righteous military superiority.

From a kind of disinterested, some would say heartless, neoliberal viewpoint this is an acceptable state of affairs. The US has a comparative advantage in the production of military things while Europe has a comparative advantage in the production of moral things. So the US produces a whole bunch of guns and bombs, Europe produces a whole bunch of international legalese and alternative energy stuff, and then they do a little trading back and forth.*

The US has spent so much time and money blowing things up that it’s quite good at it now; Europe has spent so much time and money trying to put things back together that it’s quite good at it now – or at least fairly good. And a strong trans-Atlantic relationship with this structure will doubtless continue for a long time because both sides realize they need the other in order to legitimize themselves. Without Europe, the US is basically just a giant targeting missile. Without the US, Europe is basically just a giant ball of hope-goo. Together they represent the possibility of the power of a pretty good idea. Or at least if they work together there’s a slightly bigger chance that figure out how we can all live in space.

* It’s certainly too the case that the US has its own moral, and Europe its own power, superiority. By displaying its power, the US attempts to realize its moral authority in the same way that Europe, by displaying its moral authority, attempts to realize its power.

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