Provincializing the West

Pascal Bruckner’s Comments at 2008 Event
Hitler once quipped, If you want to strike democracy, strike on a Sunday. When President Saakachvili tried to reclaim South Ossetia by force, Vladimir Putin used this misstep as a pretext to invade Georgia in the middle of August, at a time of the year when Americans and Europeans alike leisure on the beach. He annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by the same token threatened Ukraine, Moldavia, the Baltic States, Azerbaijan, and Turkey altogether. What a terrific lesson this little Southern Caucasianblitzkrieg offered about the reality of Europe: our political leaders were left stunned and helpless, upset at having been recalled from their vacations by Moscow; the acting President of the European Union had to leave his wife’s luxury estate on the Riviera in a hurry to go negotiate a botched agreement with his Russian counterpart Medvedev; the 27 were flabbergasted to discover that Russia was an empire which, as Vladimir Putin himself readily confessed, rejected Western values and had absolutely no desire to take part of the Union. What a sore revelation: our great Eastern neighbor has but utter contempt for our democracy and our institutions, and proclaims itself ready to shut down the gas pipelines if we dared protest. Yet what a lesson it was about NATO and the United States as well, which revealed themselves incapable of guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Georgia—that is the best pupil of the Western side—, thus casting doubt as to the Atlantic Alliance’s ability to protect its own members.
1) The double approach
It looks like our two continents are worlds apart, and I would like to highlight three major differences. The Old and the New World both embody two diverging conceptions of the Enlightenment; skepticism and refined lifestyle on the one hand, optimism and religiosity on the other. While Europe combines an idealistic vision of international affairs (based on the rule of law and multilateralism) with pessimism regarding all changes, America blends a tragic vision of humanity (the Axis of Evil) together with the certainty that it can be improved. The first stand always presents the risk of turning into a standstill, the second one into hazardousness. There is a noble temptation to transform the wolf into a lamb, on the one hand, and the temptation to reduce the complexity of relationships into the sole politics of the “Big Stick” on the other. Europe, fed to the brim with lies, bloodsheds, and deportations, still dreams of the utopia of the happy contagion that would convert its foes into partners; if we’re nice to them, they’ll become nice to us. America, on the contrary, is a power that is capable to exaggerate the extent of a threat in order to designate its enemy. How can we explain such differences?
    Contemporary Europe, after 1945, was not born, like the USA, out of a collective oath that says everything is possible. It was born out of exhaustion after so many bloodsheds. It took the total disaster of the 20th century for the Old World to convert to virtue, like an aging whore suddenly going from debauchery to bigotry. Two names divide Europe and America forever: Verdun and Auschwitz, the butchery of the trenches that claimed nearly 1 million lives in just a few months in 1916, and the symbol of the Nazi genocide. Had the horrors of two world wars not happened, there would never have been such an aspiration for peace, that is an aspiration to rest. European democracy resembles the kind of convalescence that some people, in the aftermath of too rowdy a past, force themselves to observe when they lose the taste for devastation: this is a small-footed democracy, based on “constructive modesty” (Pierre Rosanvallon), as opposed to the imperial political religion it has become in the USA. Thus our continent is haunted by the torments of attrition. Mulling over its crimes—religious wars, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism—, it sees the history of past centuries as nothing but a litany of massacres and lootings that led to an enthusiastic suicide. Europe, like a knocked-out boxer, stunned by the blows it inflicted upon itself, feels overwhelmed by crimes too heavy to bear. There is not a single nation, east or west of this small Asian cape, that does not have to examine its own conscience, and whose history is not filled with dead people, watchtowers, deportations, tortures, and exactions of all kinds. So many sublime works of art, so much metaphysics, so much delicate philosophy—and all this led to was mass graves, gas chambers, and the Gulag. In other words, Europe has a history, but the United States are history, as they remain propelled by an eschatological tension towards the future.
2) Doubt or faith
Sartre once said that he couldn’t get along with Americans because they didn’t believe in the original sin. And yet America does remain haunted, too, by the dark episodes of its brief history—the Indian genocide, slavery, segregation, the Civil War—, and it took strong measures in order to attenuate the consequences of these tragedies, to such an extent that it has become an exemplary nation in the defense of minority rights. While it can sometimes slip into self-deprecation, as it did during the war in Vietnam, it cleanses itself through collective catharsis, denouncing its own mistakes and condemning its bad administrations. In other words, it still has the capacity to conciliate self-criticism and self-assertion. In this country, perhaps because each new generation, each new wave of immigration erases the one come before, failures never obliterate the promise nor the dimension of the future, whereas Europe spontaneously pours ashes over its own head and wallows in orgies of masochism. The United States are confident in themselves, while Europe remains the prey of doubt. Tocqueville already remarked: “Americans have a high opinion of themselves” and are “not far from believing that they form a sort of distinct species in the human kind.” There is a fusion between patriotism and the sacred in America, whereas Europe remains a hopelessly profane construction, a mere supranational economic market devoid of any political expression, without a diplomacy and without an army. Thus the American dream recovers from its worst errors and survives all its death notices. Europe, on the contrary, has no worse enemy than itself, its unrelenting guilt, and its paralyzing scruples. Western Europeans do not like themselves enough to overcome their disgust and manifest towards their own culture the kind of fervor that is so striking in the United States. One often draws oppositions between a zealously religious America and an agnostic Europe supposedly living in some sort of pure immanent state. Yet the faith of America is, first and foremost, the faith in America, the certitude of building a new Jerusalem, of having been chosen by the Almighty to save the world. America is a project; Europe is a regret.
3) Safety by proxy
Europe no longer believes in evil, only in misunderstandings that can be amicably settled. It fell out of love with History, which it sees as a minefield it had too much trouble escaping from, once in 1945 and then again in 1989, after the fall of the Wall. It protects itself against this poison by building around itself a fortress of norms, rules, and procedures. One is struck by the contrast between the idyll Europeans believe themselves to live in—peace, rights, the dialogue of cultures— and the tragedy that befalls the world around them: aggressive Russia, imperial China, the Middle East on the brink of explosion, and nuclear Iran. The Old World believes it has come to stand, through experience, one step ahead of the other countries; it believes it has learned from the past. It sees itself as the embodiment of all the wisdom of the world, and it does not understand that other peoples still kill each other in the name of beliefs, frontiers, and conquests. For Europe’s pacifying power to have any bearing on its close neighbors, it is necessary for the field to be “decontaminated,” for regimes to give up on solving their conflicts through violence and to consent to democratic softness. Europe’s specific genius is to absorb all nations of the world, while America integrates communities—Latinos, Chinese, Koreans, Haitian, etc. It is the same project in both cases: to neutralize evil and violence through contracts, constraints, and promises. But for this conversion of a “hostile otherness” (Jean-Louis Bourlanges) to happen, one needs a dissuasive power that can refrain dictators, thugs, and generals avidly waiting for a fight. It is because the military threat of NATO appeared to be firm that some democratic revolutions—in Ukraine, in Georgia—were made possible in spite of Moscow’s hostility. Without such a power to strike, the Union’s ability to propagate its virtues and to enroll its neighbors into a circle of prosperity and justice would have almost no chance to succeed. The perpetual peace at which Europe aims takes root not in Europe but in the United States. We still depend on our Yankee big brother to protect us. We are the only part of the world where military budgets are regularly cut back, whereas danger and the sound of marching boots continually rise everywhere else. In other words, while Europe believes itself to have entered a post-national, post-historical era, and dreams of nothing more than to hide and protect itself from the storm, America is the last great political nation in the Western world that is capable of “deciding of the exceptional situation” (Carl Schmidt). We hate America because it matters. We prefer Europe because it does nothing and does not represent any significant stake. Repulsion is a tribute; sympathy, an indirect form of contempt.
4) The End of Western Hegemony
Very well, except that the sheriff is no longer credible, and in response to the Union’s phony armies, all there is is a weakened NATO that loses war in Afghanistan and is not even capable of keeping the Russian aggressor at bay. Now America reveals its true colors: a boastful colossus that has spent the last eight years obsessing over its democratic messianic destiny, of which the Bush doctrine is the direct emanation. The insane dream, during the second Gulf war, to reshape the Middle East through the sole decision of one team of men, has been blown back the hard way by reality. In which regard the neo-conservatives, the main inspiring agents of this conflict, remain Bolsheviks who defected to the right and retained from their native family, that is Trotskyism, the same offhand manners when it comes to reality. There is greatness and energy in their vision of the world, in their worship of creative chaos. For the first time, ideology, that European disease, has lastingly contaminated a fringe of the ruling elite in Washington, those men who wanted to bend the world to the logic of an idea. Yet this political engineering, as always, fell into pieces once confronted to the complexity of human affairs. Bill Kristol said, “A neo-conservative is a liberal who has been hurt by reality.” It looks like he wasn’t hurt all that badly, though, for it is reality itself that was actually the most damaged. Democracy cannot be born, up and ready, out of despotism: it is a historical journey that calls for a slow process of maturation, that can take up to several centuries, a progressive education to equality and liberty, a consent to the peaceful conflict of opinions, a way of breaking up with the past and allowing it to still play a crucial part at the same time. The democratization of Muslim countries—if it ever happens, which has yet to be proved—will be possible only from within Islam, not through its negation. For the past eight years, the Republican administration has disconcertingly broken up with the blend of empiricism, good sense, and enthusiasm, that has always characterized America. It proved to be passionately obsessed with excess and disregard for all good sense and moderation. Its mistake was not to be American, but not to have been American enough on the contrary, and to have dragged this great country down towards a form of extremism that was totally alien to its traditions. It accomplished a true feat by making this great republic more detestable and despicable than ever to the eyes of the world. According to Henry Kissinger, the war in Iraq was intended as a revenge for 9/11; Afghanistan was not enough; there was a need for an enemy that would be strong enough to represent some danger, yet modest enough to ensure victory. The paradox of this expedition is that it was launched to restore the credibility of the American people to the eyes of the world yet resulted in revealing their vulnerability. It all looked like a big serendipitous error, an enormous Freudian slip on a national scale: they wanted to reclaim their dominant position, only to end up biting the dust in an Eastern Waterloo, even if the situation is slightly improving in Baghdad these days. And adding to the reprobation of this conflict and its collateral damages, especially the legal reintroduction of torture in a democratic army, was the horror inspired by the violence displayed as well as contempt for this empire being held at bay, just like a thief failing a put-up job yet remaining liable for it.
    America is much weaker than it thinks it is, but the American people do not know that yet; Europe is much stronger than it believes itself to be, if only it would stop wallowing in fear and self-whipping. The former should learn about moderation; the latter should learn about pride. It would be a tragedy if our two continents remained divided, making their own respective flaws all the worse for being separated. That is why it is so important for the Transatlantic alliance to be consolidated anew, as President Sarkozy rightly tried to do on the French side. We cannot do without the United States any more than they can do without us. They have the exuberance, the energy we lack so tragically. In spite of our mutual suspicions, we are meant to strengthen our ties and share the same burdens. Democracies have a duty to be armed, and powerfully so, in order to stand against the forces of tyranny. Indeed, they are in charge of an extremely volatile and fragile treasure: human rights, and the respect of principles. It befalls on them to perpetuate democracy itself. Were Europe to disintegrate tomorrow, America’s fate would be more than uncertain, as it would be likely to find a refuge in the rigidity and darkness of nationalism and Orwellian isolationism. Conversely, were America to collapse, Europe would fall apart like a house of cards under the assault of conquerors of all kinds; it would go back to its Munich syndrome, shrinking into a luxury sanatorium, ready and willing to be torn apart, limb from limb, by all predators.
    The fact of the matter is, both our continents are in the same predicament today. First of all, they suffer from the dwindling of their demographic and economic influence. In 2025, according to specialists, Europe and America will represent barely 9% of the world population, with the ageing of their citizens going increasingly fast. The extraordinary performances of emerging countries such as India and China, who “stole the fire” of world capitalism, so to speak, and were able in only a few generations to pull themselves out of dire poverty and are now systematically buying back our companies and grabbing hold of our finances, prove that we are witnessing a shift in the center of gravity of power and intellect towards Asia. In the next few years, to take only one example, Russia and China will take over most of inhabited space flights, while American spaceships will be discarded and Europe does not even have any space program.
    True, when America sneezes, the rest of the world still gets a cold… Yet its leadership has become an altogether negative one, as was shown by the recent financial disaster, the consequences of which were catastrophic for those poor countries which the leaders of Washington were still lecturing only recently. Thus, the United States do not rule any longer on the four continents, and the global Anglo-American hegemony over the planet belongs to the past. The fact that the world’s first power could be held at bay by a few dozen thousand jihad soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan also goes to show that it has lost its military supremacy. For a long time, the New World was thought to be the future of Europe. But what if it was the other way around? What if the future of the United States was the old Europe, that exhausted ex-empire mulling over its past errors and quietly cultivating prudence and discretion? The long period of Western domination that had begun during the Renaissance is now coming to an end, as another story begins, which bears no resemblance with anything we have known so far, in which we will no longer feature as the only protagonists, and which largely escapes us. Yesterday’s defeated, colonized peoples, are now conquering their old masters in turn: we have ceased to be the center of the world to become just another one of its provinces. Which is probably good news as well. The two halves of the Western world should listen to John Paul II’s famous exhortation: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid to see your domination being challenged and other nations rising against Western monoculture, calling for new rules to play the game. This is a great opportunity for everyone, even if it manifests itself, at first, by increased chaos.
5) Confrontation or Cooperation
Earlier, I opposed the Old and the New worlds; in fact, they both partake in the same universal of conversion, the same missionary wish to spread the good word of democracy throughout the world. Contagion through capillarity and exemplarity in Europe, through economic pressure and armed force in the USA. The means differ, the aim is the same: to impose our regime and our rights to all mankind. Yet the peoples answer us that they do not want any of it, at least not in this guise and not as promoted by us. They want to recapture its roots in their own traditions and religions. We must listen to them and bid some of our illusions farewell: nothing proves, for the time being, that our values have a universal reach or that the parliamentary regime such as we practice it can work for all nations under all latitudes. Think about this terrifically ironical fact: while two formerly communist countries, China and Russia, are engaged in the most ruthless form of capitalism, the United States, the motherland of free enterprise, are frantically nationalizing their banking and financial system! In other words, the fairytale that was born after the fall of the Wall is being shredded to pieces—that fairytale that said the market would pacify the world, put an end to bellicose passions, lead to a globalization that would benefit everyone and inspire humankind to embrace our ideals and our way of life. Our failure in Iraq stands as proof of that, but so does the denial of human rights in China, in Russia, in Southeast Asia, in Africa, where they are viewed as a weapon in neo-colonialist ventures. Do we realize that, after being Marxist or fundamentalist against us, it is still against us that some Southern countries might become democratic (and, mostly, against our arrogant claim to be the keepers and providers of the democratic spirit)?
    Russia and China fall in the category of those great imperial lands that are neither friends nor foes, and will always keep an intermediary status: their sheer size prevents us from attacking them head-on; their authoritarian politics forbids us to regard them with a soft eye. They are both partners and a threat. As partners, we must trade with them on a clear basis, ask for their help to solve the tricky question of Iran or that, on a more universal level, of global warming. As they are tyrannical regimes, we must both concede and retaliate, stand firm and compromise, develop a strategy that is at once flexible and consistent: speak the truth to those governments, denounce their actions when they cross the line of decency, call a crime by its name, bring our help, everywhere, to civilians, to democrats, to dissidents. Between war and peace is a gray area that is called political intelligence and that equally refuses braggadocio and capitulation. In the struggle against oppression, against terrorism, we do not have the right to be foolish and to oppose the barbarity of civilization to the barbarity of religious fanatics. The point is not to display an arsenal of missiles and armed divisions, even if they do remain dissuasive. The only war that matters, in the end—and we’ve known it since the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment—, is the war of ideas that is being peacefully led day and night, defeating iniquities, breaking hierarchies, making violence and exploitation insufferable. That war, not torture nor bombings, is what profoundly changes the minds, improves the condition of women and children, inspires believers to live their beliefs in a tolerant way and to revise the most aggressive assumptions of their respective holy books. Yet such a war is not without its flaws: it is long-lasting, vastly exceeding the term of such or such administration, unfolding over generations, maybe centuries. In order to win this war, through education, through books, through dialogue, the arms we need are the arms of reason and persuasion: the impatience of freedom combined with the wisdom of waiting.
    In other words, we are now facing the choice between confrontation and cooperation, and that is why the American presidential election is so important; its outcome, whether the voice of conflict or that of dialogue wins over the day, will change the face of the century to come. The war against terror has blinded us; the spirit of crusade has led to disaster, multiplied the enemies of democracy, reinforced fundamentalism, made a mockery of our governments, and weakened our positions. Isn’t it high time we tried something else?