If Americans are cowboys, what are Europeans?
Our European friends love to castigate conservative American presidents for pursuing "cowboy diplomacy." It's a mystery to me why they consider this a putdown. A century ago our first cowboy president found his way onto Mount Rushmore. Theodore Roosevelt took enormous pride in his cowboy status. The frontier wisdom TR applied to foreign policy still resonates: "Don't bluster, don't flourish your revolver and never draw unless you intend to shoot."
In other words: Be tactful in your dealings with foreign countries. Never issue a threat unless you have the power and the will to make good on it. Sound diplomacy; it certainly worked for Roosevelt, as savvy a diplomat as ever inhabited the White House.
Europeans, however, seem to have John Wayne or Gary Cooper rather than real—life cowboys such as Roosevelt in mind when they rail against cowboy diplomacy. So it's worth examining Hollywood's idealized version of the Old West.
Let's look at two of the greatest Westerns ever made: High Noon and The Magnificent Seven. The protagonists in these two films show why the Western endeared itself to successive generations of Americans. After all, who was the Hollywood cowboy but the individual who vanquished the bad guys——preferably in concert with trusted allies, but standing alone if need be——and imposed the rule of law where anarchy had reigned?
To me the really interesting comparison between the two films isn't between the heroes but between the citizens they defend against lawlessness. In High Noon, Marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, turns in his badge after marrying a Quaker, Amy, played by Grace Kelly. The Kanes plan to leave Hadleyville, open a store, and spend their lives in peaceful commerce.
So far, so good. But the Kanes get word that the brutish Frank Miller, whom Will sent up the river years before, has been pardoned and is returning on the noon train to exact revenge. His cronies are already in Hadleyville carousing. And Kane's replacement as marshal isn't due to arrive until the following day. In the interim the town will be defenseless. Over the objections of his pacifist wife, he insists on facing Miller.
High Noon recounts Marshal Kane's fruitless effort to assemble a posse able to outgun Miller and his sidekicks. Rather than standing up against the outlaws, the cowardly townspeople set their own interests above the greater good. Kane learns this the hard way when he bursts into an assembly to beseech his fellow citizens to join a posse. They concoct a variety of excuses not to put themselves in harm's way.
One individual, for instance, claims that the violence about to engulf Hadleyville is entirely the result of a personal grudge between Kane and Frank Miller. Another asserts that ordinary citizens bear no direct responsibility for public safety; after all, that's what they pay taxes for. Still another argues that fighting back will hurt the local economy, and that appeasing Miller is their best option.
One lady ventures that the marshal has made the streets safe for women and children. Other than that modest gesture of support, Kane comes up empty.
He stands——and prevails——alone.
Now look at The Magnificent Seven. The citizens of a remote Mexican town grow weary of being plundered by a band of marauders headed by Eli Wallach's character, the vile Calvera. Calvera inveighs against those who don't know "their station" —— that is, who don't submit to his depredations. The townspeople send a delegation into Texas, hoping to buy guns so that they can defend themselves.
They end up recruiting a band of seven gunmen headed by Yul Brynner's character, Chris Adams. After all, laments one of the emissaries, "we don't know how to kill."
Like Will Kane, Adams' band of heroes finds itself badly outnumbered. Unlike Kane, though, Adams and his comrades have allies: a citizen militia long on enthusiasm but short on arms and training. The Mexicans assure Adams that, to a man, "we will fight," using whatever weapons lay to hand —— machetes if need be. And so they do. The combined force of hired guns and villagers defeats Calvera's bandits in a bloody, pitched battle.
The film further suggests that the town will be able to deter future Calveras or, if deterrence fails, overcome them without outside help. Adams and his men encourage the Mexican children to take pride in their fathers' valor rather than directing their hero worship toward the Texan gunmen. Not heroes hired from abroad but a local force of citizen—soldiers will assure the common defense.
Anarchy will remain in check due to the labors of ordinary citizens.
Our friends across the Atlantic ought to think seriously before using the Western as a metaphor for international relations. They might not like the role they're cast in. If America is the cowboy of the international order——the country willing to use physical force against barbarity, alone if necessary —— what are the Europeans? Are they the craven denizens of High Noon's Hadleyville or the stalwart Mexicans of The Magnificent Seven?
Average defense spending among the NATO—European countries currently hovers under 2 percent of gross domestic product, less than half the American level. The resulting technological gap between U.S. and European forces impairs Europe's ability to join a U.S.—led "posse" in expeditionary operations in the world's lawless demesnes. Like the citizens of Hadleyville, moreover, they've sniped at the cowboy rather than confronting the bad guys.
Hopefully it won't take a radical Islamist equivalent of Calvera's band, striking at will on European territory, to convince our allies to arm themselves.
James R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Senior Research Associate, Center for International Trade and Security School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia. His most recent American Thinker article is here.