Social Studies February 2005

Europe Is the Next Rival Superpower. But Then, So Was Japan.

Unlike communism, the E.U. seems to be not an enemy of liberal capitalism, but a new and possibly improved version of it.

President Bush travels to Europe in February—stopping first in the old continent's pint-sized capital city. Why Brussels, instead of London or Paris or Warsaw? Not for the chocolate. A small but increasingly prominent cluster of foreign-policy thinkers—call them bipolarists—believe they know the answer: Whether Bush likes it or not, there are two superpowers in the world, and the other is Europe.

In 2002, Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, saw bipolarity coming. "Not only is American primacy far less durable than it appears, but it is already beginning to diminish," he wrote in the November 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (a sister publication of this magazine). "And the rising challenger is not China or the Islamic world but the European Union." Europe, he said, "will inevitably rise up as America's principal competitor."

That was two long years ago. Today's bipolarists change "will rise" to "has risen":

  • In his new book, The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, Jeremy Rifkin, the left-liberal president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, writes that "the fall of the American Dream may be inevitable." (There's "inevitable" again.) Europe's systems and values, he argues, are better suited to today's world. In a related article in European Affairs magazine, he writes that the E.U. "is, indeed, a new superpower that rivals the economic power of the United States on the world stage," a new reality that "America is unaware of and unprepared for."
  • In another new book, called The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy, T.R. Reid, a Washington Post correspondent, writes, "We need to recognize and accept the plain fact that the planet has a second superpower now, and that its global influence will continue to increase as the world moves toward a bipolar balance of economic, political, and diplomatic authority." Americans slumbered while Europe emerged, but now "will have to wake up to the revolution."
  • February brings publication of Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, by Mark Leonard, a British foreign-policy thinker with the London-based Center for European Reform. "American hegemony contains the seeds of its own destruction, and is already driving its own retreat," he writes. America's reliance on military strength and unilateral pressure is a "shallow and narrow" power: "The lonely superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the E.U., conversely, is broad and deep: Once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed forever." Cheekily tweaking the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, Leonard predicts "the emergence of a 'New European Century.' Not because Europe will run the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will have become the world's."
  • In Europe as well as America, many intellectuals and some politicians view Europe as the world's second major pole in two respects. First, Europe has power: not military power, but all the other kinds. It has the euro, a rival currency. Its economy is as large as America's (about $11 trillion), and its population is larger. It has the regulatory power and market clout to humble the likes of General Electric and Microsoft. It has many of the world's biggest and best companies, including (writes Rifkin) 14 of the world's 20 largest commercial banks and six of the top 11 telecommunications companies. It has a growing membership, a new constitution, and 25 United Nations votes. Reid quotes Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission: "Europe's time is almost here. In fact, there are many areas of world affairs where the objective conclusion would have to be that Europe is already the superpower, and the United States must follow our lead."

    To bipolarists, Europe is also, just as importantly, a social pole: a rival model of how best to organize society and the world, and even human life. "The European Dream," writes Rifkin, "emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power." Europe, writes Leonard, "can offer the best of both worlds: a synthesis of the dynamism of liberalism with the stability and welfare of social democracy." Thus "the European way of life will become irresistible."

    Presented by

    Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    Saving the Bees

    Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

    Join the Discussion

    After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

    blog comments powered by Disqus


    How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

    Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


    Before Tinder, a Tree

    Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


    The Health Benefits of Going Outside

    People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


    Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

    Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


    Yes, Quidditch Is Real

    How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


    Would You Live in a Treehouse?

    A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

    More in Global

    More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

    Just In