Revel probes the origins of the notion that America is the source of all evil: imperialistic, greedy, ruthlessly competitive--a hyperpower whose riches are acquired at the expense of the Third World.
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By JEAN-FRANÇOIS REVEL
ENCOUNTER BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Encounter Books
All right reserved.
There have been powers and empires on an international scale in the past, long before the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But never before has a power attained global supremacy, a state of affairs examined by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, in his book The Grand Chessboard. To merit the title of "global superpower," a country must rank first in four domains: economic, technological, military and cultural. America is the first nation in history to do so. Economically, from the recovery of 1983 to the beginning of recession in 2000, she leapt ahead, combining steady growth with virtually full employment, a balanced budget (for the first time in thirty years) and very low inflation. In technology, especially since the lightning progress made in the field of communications technologies, she enjoyed a quasi monopoly. And militarily, she alone can project overwhelming power anywhere in the world, at any time.
The question of cultural superiority is more debatable, depending on whether "culture" is narrowly or broadly defined. In the more limited sense, with reference to high culture in the realms of literature, painting, music and architecture, American civilization is certainly outstanding, but it does not stand alone and its influence cannot be compared to that of ancient Greece, of Rome, of China. One of the reasons is that American artistic and literary culture has a tendency towards provincialism: English is dominant globally, and fewer and fewer Americans feel any need to read in other languages. And when American universities and critics take up foreign schools of thought, they too often obey the dictates of faddish conformism rather than exercise independent judgment.
On the other hand, Brzezinski is incontestably right when it comes to the broader connotation. America's popular culture, skillfully advertised, reaches the entire world via the new high-tech media, and American tastes-in dress, music, recreation and fast food-attract young people everywhere. American movies and television shows draw audiences of millions, so much so that some countries (including France, naturally) seek to establish protectionist barriers in the name of "cultural exceptionalism." English has become the de facto language of the Internet and has for a long time been the international language of science. A sizeable proportion of the political, technological and scientific elites throughout the world have graduated from American universities.
Even more decisive (with all due deference to socialists past and present) has been the victory of the liberal-democratic model as a result of the demise of Communism. Likewise, American-style federalist democracy is increasingly being imitated, starting with the European Union; it serves as the organizing principle of international alliances such as NATO and the United Nations. This is not to deny the flaws of the American system, its lapses and hypocrisies. But the fact remains that Asia, Africa and Latin America have little to teach the United States about democracy. And as for Europe, let's not forget that we invented the great criminal ideologies of the twentieth century, forcing the United States to intervene on our continent twice with her armies. America largely owes her unique superpower status today to Europe's mistakes.
Not so long ago, for example, France was reproaching the United States for wanting to displace her influence in Africa. But France bears a heavy responsibility for the genesis of the 1994 massacres in Rwanda and the subsequent disintegration of Zaire. France discredited herself without any help from anyone else, creating a vacuum that was to be filled by a growing United States presence.
The European Union is making scant progress towards the realization of a single decision-making center; it can be likened to a choir whose every member takes herself to be a soloist. Lacking unity, how can Europe counterbalance the effectiveness of America's foreign policy when planning the slightest undertaking requires first securing unanimity among fifteen nations? Or what about twenty-seven, and these even more disparate than today's membership?
Evidently, American ascendancy is indebted only in part to the creativity and determination of the American people; it also sprang by default from the cumulative failures of the rest of the world: the fall of Communism, the ruin of Africa, the divisions within Europe, the Asian and Latin American slowness to evolve towards democracy.
The word "superpower" seeming too weak and banal to him, in 1998 Hubert Védrine, the French minister of foreign affairs in the "plural Left" government, substituted the neologism "hyperpower." According to him, this word is stronger and more descriptive of the United States' present hegemony. One doesn't see quite why, since the Greek prefix "hyper" has exactly the same meaning as the Latin "super." But Mr. Védrine believes it better describes a country that is predominant in every category, including "attitudes, concepts, language, lifestyles." The prefix "hyper," he adds, is considered aggressive by the American media, but he insists there is nothing pejorative about it. Simply put, "We cannot accept a politically unipolar and culturally homogenized world, any more than the unilateralism of a single hyperpower." Which is a self-contradictory line of argument, since if "hyperpower" is not a pejorative term, why is the reality it points to unacceptable?
Acceptable or not, the fact is that it exists. And what is lacking in European thinking about the current state of affairs (and Europeans are far from being alone in this instance) is an enquiry into its primary causes. It is only by identifying and correctly interpreting these causes that we'll have a chance of finding ways to counterbalance the Americans' dominance.
Europeans in particular should force themselves to examine how they have contributed to that preponderance. It was they, after all, who made the twentieth century the darkest in history; it was they who brought about the two unprecedented cataclysms of the World Wars; and it was they who invented and put into place the two most criminal regimes ever inflicted on the human race-pinnacles of evil and imbecility achieved in a space of less than thirty years.
It is, again, Europe we must blame, at least partly, for the problematic legacy of colonialism in the Third World, for the impasses and convulsions of underdevelopment. It was the European nations-England, Belgium, Spain, France and Holland, and belatedly and to a lesser degree Germany and Italy-who were bent on conquering and appropriating other continents. It won't do to bring up the extermination of the Native Americans or black slavery against the United States, for after all, who were the occupants of the future United States if not white colonizers from Europe? And from whom did these European colonists buy their slaves if not from European slave traders?
To the situation created by the suicidal World Wars and the European propensity to engender totalitarian regimes was added the obligation to develop the economic wasteland left by Communism after its collapse. Here again, Europe had little to propose by way of solutions. The political, cultural and media elites, for the most part, never really understood Communism (consider for a moment the praise heaped, even by the Right, on Mao Tse-tung during the worst moments of his destructive fanaticism), and they were intellectually ill-prepared to understand the process of its demise or to render assistance. With regard to this additional and unprecedented problem, the current American "hyperpower" is the direct consequence of European powerlessness, both past and present. The United States fills a void caused by our inadequacy-not in our capabilities, but in our thinking and our will to act.
Consider, for example, the perplexity of a citizen of Montana or Tennessee upon learning of his nation's intervention in the former Yugoslavia. He might with good reason have asked himself what interest the United States could have in plunging into the bloody quagmire of the Balkans, that centuries-old masterpiece of Europe's matchless ingenuity. But Europe found herself incapable of bringing order to this murderous chaos of her own making. So, in order to stop or at least diminish the massacres, it devolved upon the United States to take charge of the operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The Europeans afterwards offered thanks by calling them imperialists-although they quake with fright and accuse the Americans of being cowardly isolationists the moment they make the slightest mention of bringing their soldiers home.
* * *
Some criticisms reveal the weaknesses and fantasies of the critics rather than the errors of those they criticize. Certainly America, like all societies, has many defects and deserves any number of criticisms; but to express something other than her detractors' phobias, these reproaches should target real defects. The pitying sniggers ritually directed against the American whipping boy by the European media, however, come for the most part from an ignorance so profound that it seems deliberate. On the other hand, confining ourselves to the period of the United States' emergence as sole superpower, dozens of serious books and hundreds of serious articles have been published, by American and European authors alike, dealing with America. In contrast to the run-of-the-mill obsessive complaints, this material makes available-for those who are willing to be informed-balanced and factual information about American civilization, its successes and failures, its good deeds and bad, its moments of clear vision and of blindness. And if harsh judgments can be found in this unbiased literature, we may at least feel confident that they are not dictated by incompetence. Laziness is not an adequate explanation for the ignorance of European opinion-makers; it must, more often than not, be voluntary and imputable to ruling idées fixes.
This intentional turning away from facts begins with sociological questions concerning the United States-the alleged absence of social protection and solidarity, the notorious "poverty line" (a phrase that's used haphazardly by people who obviously haven't the slightest idea about its technical meaning, as if this economic indicator had the same real value in Canada as in Zimbabwe), or even the unemployment level. Concerning this last, the fact that after , unemployment in the United States fell to below percent, whereas in France it shot up to percent, implied nothing good about America, according to our commentators, because so many casual and entry-level jobs were included in the statistics. How well we have been reassured by the myth of the minimumwage job!
At the time of the economic slowdown during the first half of 2001, unemployment in America climbed back from 4.4 percent to 5.5 percent. A typical response to this alarming state of affairs: "The End of Full Employment in the U.S.A." gleefully announced the front-page headline of the economics journal La Tribune of May 7, 2001. Yet this was at a time when the French government was frenetically heaping praises on itself for reducing unemployment levels to . percent-almost twice the American level (not counting the tens of thousands of the effectively unemployed who in France are artificially excluded from the statistics). By September , unemployment in France had already climbed back to over 9 percent. But Le Monde (February 15, 2001) had published an article entitled "The End of the American Economic Dream." Thus, a practically uninterrupted economic growth over seventeen years (1983-2000), a technological revolution without precedent since the nineteenth century, the creation of tens of millions of new jobs, an unemployment level fallen to a little over percent, a tremendous population increase (going from 248 to 281 million between 1990 and 2000), all this was but a "dream." If only France had dreamt that way! And then the article's author, getting on the "casual jobs" hobbyhorse, deplores how France has become Americanized to the point of "copying the sad example of the working poor," evidently the sole lesson to be learned from the American economy. France would doubtless have been better off remaining faithful to its model of "not-working poor."
We will come back to the disheartening catalogue drawn up by America's accusers; my aim here is simply to point out the intrinsically contradictory character of their diatribes. For if-according to their account-American civilization is nothing but an accumulation of economic, political, social and cultural calamities, how is it that the rest of the world is so worried about America's wealth, scientific and technological preeminence, and cultural ubiquity? The unfortunate nation of their imagination ought to evoke pity rather than envy, commiseration rather than dislike. Here is an enigma for us to contemplate: how America's success derives entirely from her abysmal inferiority and never, according to us, from her intrinsic merits.
After the social issues, it is the way American institutions work that we understand badly or don't want to understand. I'll mention only one example of this for the moment: the worldwide reaction, especially in Europe, of blended joy and scorn that greeted the long uncertainty about the result of the American presidential election of November 2000.
Many years ago, at the variety theater El Salón México (immortalized in Aaron Copland's orchestral composition of that name), I was entertained by a satirical sketch in which a Mexican peón and an American tourist are having a discussion. The American boasts of his nation's prowess, offering as an example:
"In the United States, three minutes after the polls have closed we know who the next president is."
"That's nothing, my friend!" the péon retorts. "In Mexico, we know it six months ahead of time."
And it's true that at the time-and for long afterwards-the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was monopolizing every instrument of power and was fixing all the elections. Each president was in effect appointing his successor.
How times have changed. In , for the first time, a Mexican opposition party's candidate was able to win the presidency through honest electoral process. The result was not known in advance. So in Mexico, democracy has made incontestable progress.
In the same year, however, weeks passed before Americans knew who would next occupy the White House. Many foreign commentators thought the protracted cliffhanger after the election on November 7, 2000, showed that American democracy was in bad shape.
Excerpted from ANTI-AMERICANISM by JEAN-FRANÇOIS REVEL Copyright © 2003 by Encounter Books. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
|2.||Antiglobalism and Anti-Americanism||31|
|3.||Hatreds and Fallacies||53|
|4.||The Worst Society That Ever Was||77|