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 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."