‘Democratic optimism’ and ‘cultural fatalism’ causing transatlantic rift
By Guy Sorman
The United States and democracy are mutually identified. Americans have some difficulty imagining another form of government and another end of history
Is America’s democratic passion compatible with the European spirit?
The United States and the rest of the world diverge, each on its own trajectory, without any prospect of convergence on the foreseeable horizon. A divergence that can be reduced neither to just the choices of the leaders nor to their personalities nor to their diplomatic efforts, whether these smack of appeasement, posturing, or conflict. The separation between the Old and the New World has become a rift deepened by the significant 11th of September. But the United States’ new strategy — preventative war and remodelling of the global map — reflects a democratic tradition essential to the Americans and distinct from the Old World. Without claiming to exhaust the subject, I shall isolate two aspects here which Europeans in their approach to the United States tend to be unaware of or to underestimate: fear and democratic passion.
Since September 11 fear has become a radically new fact in United States’ society; in itself a novelty, that it remains poorly understood from the outside. European, Russian, Asian, African societies, exhausted by violence and ordeals, accommodate themselves to conflicts, transform them into history or into everyday life; an attack in Paris, Jerusalem, or Casablanca does not keep people from continuing with their lives as before. Or almost. In the United States, on the contrary, everyone knows that nothing will be as it was; a feeling that translates into social behaviour that sociologists try to measure, such as the retreat to the family or the propensity to spend rather than save. This feeling of insecurity, diffused throughout all of society, transforms cultural and political norms; Richard Perle, one of the defining thinkers of the new America, describes his country as besieged by thousands of fanatics determined to destroy the American way of life. In these conditions, it becomes difficult to fail to describe oneself as a patriot, while anarchistic attitudes, formerly banal in the United States, have become suspect.
Furthermore, the unwavering, quasi-theological American support for the State of Israel, does not allow a distinction between American and Israeli security; let us remember in this regard that the most intransigent support for Israel is not recruited by the New York Zionist lobby, but in the so-called “deep” American Evangelical movements attached to two promised lands, ancient Zion in Israel and the new Zion in America.
To protect Zion traditionally, American governments balanced between isolation and dissuasion; the cavalry didn’t leave Fortress America except in cases of absolute necessity, after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1916, or the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941; after 1945, nuclear dissuasion seemed sufficient to guarantee internal security. But one does not dissuade an enemy become invisible and omnipresent: henceforth, the right thing to do, according to Perle, is to destroy any state that actively or passively supports the enemy. Serving as a possible terrorist sanctuary alone would justify, according to this new strategy, preventative destruction: prevention that outside of the United States might be perceived as counterproductive activity. But inside, no official voice speaks out against this total war, so effective in reassuring the public, if not in eradicating terrorists.
Protesting this new paradigm from inside is unutterable and from outside, inaudible. It’s significant that the daily deaths of American soldiers in Iraq and sometimes Afghanistan do not arouse any particular emotion; their mission is such that Americans do not perceive it as external imperialism, but as internal policing. They are the cousins of the heroic firemen of the World Trade Centre and not of the lost GIs of Vietnam.
Similarly, for the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Europeans are sceptical, but, from the American point of view, these weapons would allow a peripheral force to destroy the American centre: a first in history. Whether these weapons exist or not, they could exist and unless they are destroyed upstream, they potentially threaten American security at every moment; consequently to fail to look for them would be inadmissible. Which is what brings the anti-government conservatives in the United States (such as Richard Perle, Francis Fukuyama, Jane Kirkpatrick), to recast their ideology; the vilified government of Ronald Reagan’s time, is reinvented by George W Bush.
This state, reinvigorated by war, seen as imperialist from the outside, is not perceived that way by Americans; to hear their leaders, they would only become imperialists in Iraq by accident and not at all by design. It’s true that the United States, already dominant in fact, have no need to station their troops in Iraq to dominate the world or to control oil; to explain the invasion or the liberation of the Middle East in imperialist terms goes back to nineteenth century criteria to explain war in the twenty-first century, that is, it explains nothing at all. Fear is a more precise key than imperialism to unlock the new American century.
The other key is called democratic passion; it also calls for looking at the United States from the inside rather than through our lenses.
To fight the terrorists and to export democracy to the Islamic worlds: this second justification arouses even more scepticism than the first. But to accuse the Americans of a double game in this matter is too simple; their idealism is at least as valid an explanation for their behaviour as their supposed cynicism.
Before denouncing this possible cynicism, let’s ask ourselves about the origins and the validity of this idealism, qualified as “Wilsonian” since the First World War. Unlike Europeans, for whom liberal democracy is a recent, painstaking experience, the United States and democracy are mutually identified. Americans have some difficulty imagining another form of government, and, in the end, another end of history. Also unlike Europe, where democracy is based on the nation and a certain cultural homogeneity, with the Americans, it’s through democracy that more and more diverse peoples succeed in living together. Finally, drawing from their own history, Americans willingly imagine that every society left to itself, provided that it’s gotten rid of any tyrants, tends to organize itself spontaneously into civil society. Given this history, lived and interiorised by each American citizen, how should they not project their democratic passion on the rest of the world? An American ideology that supposes that all people have a right to democracy and that democracy resolves all social, ethnic, religious contradictions: cynicism or naďveté?
A democratic passion that is opposite to French diplomacy and European diplomacy in general. These most often expect despotism to make security prevail and to initiate economic development; so much the better if the despot is enlightened. If he’s not, one makes do in the name of sacrosanct stability, the necessity of the status quo, eternal friendships, or cultural relativism: to each his own regime, even if it should be tyrannical!
While the majority of Europeans don’t believe for an instant that the Arabs are capable of democracy, Americans are persuaded to the contrary. The fact that certain people in the White House exploit this popular belief does not annul the conviction that it’s real. When Americans claim to install a liberal democracy in Afghanistan or in Iraq, tomorrow in Saudi Arabia and in Iran, they are probably sincere; they judge that this is the natural destiny of all peoples, the condition for their economic prosperity and for the end of terrorism. That terrorism, nationalism, or religious passion may exist on their own, as alternative ideologies to liberal democracies, doesn’t shake the democratic passion. So, the emblematic philosopher of conservatism, Francis Fukuyama who announced liberal democracy as the “end of history” already in 1989, believes that the national and religious uprisings since then do not invalidate his theory; there may be accidents along the way, but this theory remains in his eyes, and for a great many Americans, in particular for the conservatives now in power, the ultimate justification for their acts.
I’m not going to decide here between these two theories, democratic optimism vs. cultural fatalism; let us simply establish that they seriously divide the Western world. And that, as for the search for weapons of mass destruction, to reduce the American strategy to cynicism and imperialism amounts to a failure to recognize the depth of the transatlantic rift. Or to a projection on America of our history which is not theirs and our passions which they do not share.
It is equally impossible to claim that one is right and the other wrong; the one thing for certain is that the one commands power in the service of its ideology and the other doesn’t. But beyond this disparity of power between the United States and their critics, two visions of history, and not mere temporary interests, conflict. —Le Figaro
(Translated by Leslie Thatcher)