Jean-François Revel

Anti-americanism – by H. Astier

A study by reviewing three books on this topic, by Henri Astier.

This article was published by the Times Literary Supplement on January 10, 2003 under the title “La maladie française”.

Jean-François Revel, L’Obsession antiaméricaine, Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences
Plon, 302 p, 20 euros, ISBN 2-259-19449-4.
(English version: Anti-Americanism)

Philippe Roger, L’Ennemi américain, Généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français
Seuil, 602 p, 26 euros, ISBN 2-02-040643-8.

Emmanuel Todd, Après l’empire, Essai sur la décomposition du système américain
Gallimard, 237 p, 18.50 euros, ISBN 2-07-076710-8.

America’s “war on terrorism” and threats against Iraq are often said to have alienated its friends abroad, and squandered the initial sympathy triggered by the September 11th attacks. This may be so – but it is unclear how many friends America had to begin with and how deep the sympathy ever ran. Across four continents, including “friendly” Europe, millions regarded the attacks as a fantasy come true. Jean Baudrillard exaggerated only a little when he wrote that “everyone without exception had dreamt” of such a cataclysm – adding that al Qaeda “did it, but we willed it”.

Among French intellectuals, in particular, such wishing of death and destruction on the United States is common, and pre-dates its emergence as a superpower. “Let faraway America and its white buildings come crashing down,” Louis Aragon wrote in 1925.

Why do so many people hate the United States so much?
One common answer is that it does hateful things. America is the world’s biggest polluter, it refuses to curb greenhouse emissions, monopolises wealth and does nothing to help poor countries, it insists on free trade for the benefit of its corporations, it supports Israeli oppression of Palestinians, humiliates Muslims, and generally wields its cultural, economic and military might with wanton arrogance.

The naysayers insist they oppose the US for what it does, not for what it is, and reject accusations of anti-Americanism. “I do not know what the word means,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, one of most vitriolic French critic of post-war America. For many, the epithet “anti-American” is both meaningless and pernicious: it is used to silence any objection to US policies.

Others – notably in the United States – regard the whole argument as a giant misunderstanding. America, according to this view, has an image problem. It is a force for good that is bad at communicating. If Washington can show that it always works towards compromise between Israel and Palestinians, that it is against Arab dictators, not Arab people, that America helps poor countries through trade and investments, that it has pioneered successful environmental strategies, that it is the most open society on earth, surely the doubters will change their minds.
Despite President Bush’s reputation for “unilateralism”, this sanguine view is official policy in Washington. The administration has launched a drive to improve America’s image abroad, complete with PR consultants, focus groups, and broadcasts to Muslim countries. As part of the campaign, the State Department in September 2003 invited academics for a conference on how to tackle anti-American feelings around the world.

Although the two sides disagree on just about everything, they share one key premise: attitudes towards America tend to be rational – i.e. based on the information available. Critics, in other words, are potential non-critics. But what if that if the premise was wrong? What if there was nothing the US could do to pacify its enemies?

A similar conclusion, in the context of the Cold War, was reached by George Kennan in his famous “Mr X” article published by Foreign Affairs in 1947. Kennan showed with remarkable clarity that Moscow’s hostility towards the United States did not stem from a classic conflict of interest between big powers: this hostility was written in the genetic code of the USSR. Short of becoming a communist country, there was nothing the United States could do to gain the Kremlin’s trust. The Soviets could not be appeased, only contained. The article brought about a new understanding of Soviet conduct – which had baffled observers until then – and a paradigm shift in US foreign policy.

Jean-François Revel in his latest book says much the same thing about present-day anti-American feelings — although he has no illusions about influencing foreign policy, least of all that of his native France.

Revel achieved international renown with his 1970 best-seller, Without Marx or Jesus.
In it, he argued that the United States, far from being the den of social iniquity and militaristic oppression described by many Europeans, was in fact a vibrant nation where a new, anti-authoritarian model of society was emerging which would inspire the rest of the world. Despite its success, the book was slated by most intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere. For them, the Revolution could only be Marxist; it could not come from the arch-capitalist enemy.

Three decades later, Revel finds that the world’s view of America is still obscured by ideological blinkers.
In L’Obsession antiaméricaine, he relentlessly exposes instances of US-bashing culled from newspaper articles, radio interviews and political speeches by the great and the good from Cape Town to Copenhagen, and from Sao Paulo to Seoul. Revel makes three main points: most – though by no means all – criticism of US diplomacy or society does not make logical sense; its purpose is to provide psychological comfort; it is self-defeating.

The self-contradictory nature of anti-Americanism is something many of us unthinkingly accept.
We are happy viewing American society as both utterly materialistic and insufferably religious; it is predominantly racist and absurdly politically correct; Americans are boring conformists and reckless individualists; US corporations can do whatever they want and are stifled by asinine liability laws, etc. Revel makes us stop and consider the incoherence of views we have heard time and time again.

Take the word “hyperpower”, coined by former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine to characterise US domination of our “unipolar” world. This interpretation, Revel notes, “assumes that American preponderance seemed more justified previously, both because it was exercised over fewer nations and because it was needed to counter Soviet imperialism”.

But in the 1980s Mr Védrine was a senior member of a socialist administration that blamed America all the time. France’s official anti-Americanism was no less virulent when the Soviet threat loomed over Western Europe than it is now.

There were further signs that Mr Védrine’s objections to America were of the obsessive, rather than rational, sort when he insisted that the word “hyperpower” was not pejorative – it merely described reality. In the same breath, he added: “We cannot accept a unipolar and culturally uniform world, any more than we can accept the unilateralism of a single power.” The logic of this non-sequitur is that a word can both be free of any negative connotation and describe an unacceptable reality.

Similarly, the Bush administration has been successively accused of “unilateralism” – i.e. acting on its own as the world’s policeman – and, when it turned out it was less inclined to intervene abroad than the previous one, of shirking its international duties, notably in the Middle East. The general pattern seems to be: America is blamed for intervening everywhere, and expected to save Mexico from default, protect Taiwan from China, mediate between Indian and Pakistan, pressure Belgrade into giving up Milosevic, get the two Koreas talking, etc.

September 11th and the war on terrorism triggered an avalanche of adverse comment – America brought the attacks on itself, it created bin Laden in the first place, the Afghan campaign was “an act of aggression”, etc. Revel rebuts these charges, focusing on their logical flaws – “I do not mention moral ignominy, which should surprise no-one,” he writes.

He also has a field day with criticisms of the United States’ society and economy. The first sign that the anti-American obsession is at work is the wilful ignorance of available information. America’s strengths and weaknesses are analysed in countless books and articles published every year.
But these balanced analyses are absent from the accounts of America’s social and economic health routinely found in European papers. Instead you find blanket condemnation: America is said to be plagued by horrendous inequality and poverty. The fact that US unemployment is chronically low by European standards is ignored, or dismissed by the myth that the extra jobs are menial.
But if America is so sick, Revel asks, why are we so worried about its wealth, its technological supremacy and its cultural model? “That unfortunate America should generate pity and commiseration, not animus.”

These instances of doublethink, he argues, can only be explained in psychological terms.
Anti-American recriminations stroke a society’s collective ego by drawing attention away from its own failures. Such weapons of mass distraction are at work, for instance, when a muzzled Arab press spreads the belief that the war on terrorism has placed draconian curbs on the US media.
Likewise, Africa’s elites like to blame all their continent’s ills on the United States, to avoid facing up to their own responsibility.
In 2001 the Organisation for African Unity called for a “Marshall Plan for Africa”. But as Revel observes, Africa has received the equivalent of four Marshall Plans in as many decades – and all of it has been wasted, stolen, or sunk in wars.

The purpose of European anti-Americanism is to find a reassuring explanation for the continent’s catastrophic loss of status. Europe tried to commit suicide in the 20th century and American preponderance is a direct consequence of its self-inflicted wounds. In the space of thirty years, the Europeans triggered two world wars and spawned the worst two regimes ever devised by human folly – from which the Americans had to come and rescue them. But rather than face up to this sorry history, Europeans prefer to pose as victims of America’s drive for world domination.

American “unilateralism”, Revel explains, “is the consequence, not the cause, of power failures in the rest of the world.” One striking confirmation of this came in July, when Morocco sent troops to Perejil, a disputed rock in the Mediterranean which is formally owned by Spain and home to a few dozen goats. Worried by looming hostilities between a member country and an associate state, the European Union tried to resolve the crisis – but failed, despite the fact that its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is Spanish. The two sides did not come to their senses until US Secretary of State Colin Powell personally telephoned Morocco’s king and Spain’s prime minister. The Americans had to deal with this minor, faraway crisis only because Europe was powerless.

Another major function of anti-Americanism identified by Revel is to comfort opposition to economic liberalism. Those who object to liberalism – i.e. markets tamed by the rule of law – also object to the country that is its supreme embodiment. For them portraying the United States as a repressive, racist, almost fascist society, is a way of saying: look what happens when you implement liberalism! Any evidence that democracy in America, although far from perfect (no system is), works rather better than in other places, must be countered with all the more passion as the observable evidence is strong.

The latest stage in this battle – in the literal sense of the word, as it often involves street fights – is the anti-capitalist movement. Although it appeals to many young people, it is ideologically ancient. Anti-capitalists view globalisation as a US-inspired plot to maximise profits for American corporations and make poor countries poorer. This is an international version of Marx’s predictions for the industrial world, which have long been proven wrong. Modern anti-capitalism is equally disconnected from reality: world exports have risen 17-fold between 1948 and 1998; as a result world poverty has receded, not increased, and America’s share of world output has plummeted, not risen. Freer trade helps the poor, which is why third world countries queued up to join the World Trade Organisation.

Globalisation, Revel shows, is not a product of American arrogance. Its main causes are the disasters of the 1930s, under closed systems; the proven inability of socialism to deliver; and the obvious benefits millions have derived from economic openness. Anti-Americanism is ready way for those who cling to bankrupt economic models to dismiss those awkward facts from their minds.

Revel does not argue that all condemnations of US society or policies are wrong. Criticism of America, he insists, is legitimate and necessary. America, the ultimate open society, thrives on the confrontation of opinions. Revel himself condemns the Bush administration’s recent steel tariffs and farm bill. But what he is saying is that in order to be effective, criticism must be rational.

This is where the self-defeating nature of obsessive anti-Americanism comes in. “By criticising the Americans whatever they do, even when they are right, we Europeans lead them to ignore our objections, even when they are well-founded,” Revel writes.

The dispute over the 2002 farm bill is a case in point. The measure deserved censure – but coming from Europe, the criticism lacked credibility. The French, in particular, have been doggedly resisting cuts in subsidies to EU farmers, which even after Mr Bush’s farm bill are still higher than US subsidies. Moreover, European intellectuals, protestors, and media over the years have been arguing that free-trade is bad.
If these Europeans had been consistent they would have welcomed the farm bill.
As Revel write, from such conflicting condemnations an American can only draw one conclusion:
“What Europeans hate is neither free trade nor protectionism, it is America.”

Anti-Americanism, Revel concludes, encourages the US unilateralism it decries. By indulging in blind prejudice and systematic hostility, most governments dealing with America condemn themselves to impotence, and consequently increase American superpower.
L’Obsession antiaméricaine is an intellectual tour de force and a joy to read.
It will enlighten those with an open mind, although Revel’s biting style is unlikely to win over the others. But as Jonathan Swift remarked, it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.

While Revel tracks down America-bashers around the world today, Philippe Roger focuses on one country – France – and takes the long, historical view.
French anti-Americanism, he shows in L’Ennemi américain, goes back to the 18th century.
The opening salvos against America were fired by scientists, who were keen to portray nature in the New World as inferior and vitiated.
America’s climate was foul, its rivers poisonous, its vegetation stunted; its animals were pale shadows of their European counterparts, and its natives sub-human. Even an eminent naturalist like Buffon popularised the myth of America’s inferior life forms. This myth may have been a reaction to the rival belief in the Noble Savage.
Or it may have been an early case of national ego-nursing: the “degenerate nature” view of America triumphed in the mid-1760s – after France had been expelled from its possessions there.

One of Roger’s central themes is the persistence of extraordinary ideas.
An early “scientific” critic of America, Cornelius de Pauw, wrote in a 1768 book that America’s dogs, being poor relations of Europe’s full-throated canines, never barked. This piece of folklore (of “mytheme”, as Roget puts it) proved remarkably sturdy, surviving the advent of reliable transatlantic travel and mass communication, to find its way into the diaries of Paul Claudel, who describes reports of America’s silent dogs as “perfectly true” in a 1933 entry.

The French Revolution did not bring the two young republics closer together. The men of 1789 – even moderates like Brissot, who visited the United States – found the American Revolution a timid affair.
To this day, most French people share this view: real progress in human civilisation, it seems, can only be achieved through wholesale killings and terror.

The 19th century brought another theme that was to stand the test of time: the United States as a cultural desert and a land without history.
In the early decades of the century, the French did not resent America, a marginal nation of industrious philistines – they felt superior to it.
Nothing great could be achieved there. This assumption was shared by progressives and reactionaries alike, from the radical Stendhal (“No opera there”) to the arch-monarchist Joseph de Maistre (“One can bet 1,000 to one that the city will not be built, that it will not be called Washington, or that Congress will not reside there”).

Of course, the New World had its nineteenth century admirers, but their influence was limited. Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America remained virtually unread in France for a century after the author’s death in 1859.

America’s civil war marks a milestone in the history of anti-Americanism.
Suddenly the United States, now a major industrial power, was no longer an object of contempt, but one of hostility.
French journalists and writers passionately rallied behind the South. Even the Republican opposition – initially sympathetic to the North – soon wept for southern planters, who were seen as innocent victims of Yankee oppression.
But what about the South’s “peculiar institution”? To claim the moral high ground, French commentators introduced a technique that was to become a staple of the anti-American mindset: the conflict was analysed in purely economic terms. Slavery was a smokescreen to obscure the real point of the civil war: the Northern takeover of the South’s wealth.

America’s wars of the 20th century were seen in the same light. Washington used lofty principles to justify greed.

Fighting the Nazis was a handy excuse to ensure that Europe’s industrial heartland remained in capitalist hands; the coming war with Iraq is not about international law but about Arab oil, as was the last one.

Another defining moment was the war of 1898, in which the United States defeated Spain and seized its colonies. This drew torrents of condemnation by French commentators, who described America as an imperialist monster extending its tentacles to the four corners of the world. “Never have such faraway military events, in which France was not directly involved, generated such outrage”, Roger writes.

One paper published in 1899-1900 a highly successful serial entitled “The Billionaires’ Conspiracy”, about a cabal of American plutocrats undertaking to enslave Europe with an army of robots.

One remarkable aspect of this episode is that at no point did the French stop to question their own empire-building, which was being carried out on a scale US jingoes could only dream of. Even more remarkable was the unanimity it brought among the French. At a time when the country was in the throes of the Dreyfus affair, when brother was pitted against brother, the nation spoke as one to revile America.

French anti-Americanism was at its most vehement in the inter-war period. Any gratitude over the US intervention in 1917 evaporated rapidly.
Pundits and politicians from Clémenceau down explained that no thanks were due by the French, who had done all the work and suffered appalling casualties, to the Johnny-come-latelies who were trying to impose hypocritical pieties and unacceptable peace terms on their former allies.

The big innovation of post-first-world-war anti-Americanism was the weighing in of top-notch intellectuals.
In 1919 Charles Maurras wrote a Philippic against Woodrow Wilson. Like Maurras, most of the prominent Americanophobes of the day were conservatives: Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Paul Morand, Paul Bourget, André Maurois, Georges Duhamel, François Mauriac, Paul Valéry, etc.
They used their considerable authority (some of them had actually been there) to portray the United States as materialistic and inhuman, a soulless world of mass-produced oppression.

The Catholic writer Georges Bernanos in a passage heralding what Ayn Rand in the 1960s was to call “Anti-Industrial Revolution”, described American civilisation as the “civilisation of machines”, “without meaning to offend anyone.”
On the next page he compares this “monstrous alliance of speculation and machines” to the invasions of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. No offence meant, of course.

But the Golden Age of French anti-Americanism was the 1930s, when a fresh generation of right-wing young Turks, the “anticonformistes”, burst onto the scene. The most eloquent were Arnaud Dandieu and Robert Aron (no relation, biological or ideological, to Raymond), who co-wrote The American Cancer, a vehement call for Europe’s colonised peoples to rise against their Yankee masters. As the lights were going out on a continent overrun by dictatorships, the anticonformistes focused their anger on the one country where the flame of freedom was still burning bright. In this they were the forerunners of the left-wing intellectuals of the post-war period, who urged Europeans to look west, not east, for the ferocious enemy waiting to pounce on them.

After 1945, Roger says, French anti-Americanism no longer breaks new ground. It still boasts big-name intellectuals, but they have mostly recycled themes pioneered in the previous decades. Here Roger may be unkind to several inspired critics. “America has rabies. Let us sever all our links with her, or else we shall get bitten and become rabid,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in a classic 1953 article that puts the anti-conformistes in the shade.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Régis Debray gave anti-Americanism a fresh twist by popularising the moderate-sounding idea of equivalence between two superpowers equally bent on dominating Europe.

Throughout L’ennemi américain, Roger highlights a key aspect of French anti-Americanism: it manifests itself through words rather than deeds. American tourists are not targeted for attacks; France is the only big power that has never been at war with the United States. Being above all a “discourse”, as Roger puts it, anti-Americanism tends to be confined to intellectual and political elites. Opinion polls regularly show that ordinary Frenchmen feel positively towards America. They certainly consume its music, movies, food, and clothes, with gusto. Most crucially, anti-Americanism goes back a long way, and Roger does an impressive job of unravelling its various strands and tracing their ancestry.

Emmanuel Todd’s Après l’Empire is equally illuminating about the French intelligentsia’s “discourse” on America.

A prominent demographer with a taste for geo-strategic analysis, Todd argues that the United States, far from being in rude health and the master of all it surveys as is assumed by both friends and foes, is in fact foundering economically, politically, and militarily. Not only is America in trouble, but it is spreading its trouble wide. “The United States is becoming a problem for the world,” Todd writes. It acts as “a factor of international disorder, fostering uncertainty and conflict wherever it can.”

How does Todd arrive at such a startling conclusion?
The international order, he contends, now hinges on the Eurasian landmass, an area that holds the vast majority of the world’s resources and carries high potential for growth. Todd’s Eurasia, in the absence of outside meddling, it will go its own peaceful way towards development and democracy for all.

Todd acknowledges that Eurasia has its problems, such as low population growth and terrorism – but these are not as serious as they appear. Plummeting birth rates in Western Europe and Russia mean that big regional powers no longer need fear each other. Militancy is only a transition phase modernising Muslim societies are going through – Europe too was a violent, intolerant place when birth rates began to fall and literacy rise between the 16th and 18th centuries.

But a contented and stable Eurasia means a marginalised United States, and the Americans will do anything to prevent this. Keeping access to Eurasia’s wealth is all the more important as the United States produces less and less, relying on a massive influx of cash to maintain its voracious consumption. It needs its daily fix of foreign capital to take what the rest of the world produces. The world, in short, needs America less and less, and America needs the world more and more.
“America has turned from a protective to a predatory force,” Todd writes. “As its political and military usefulness ceases to be obvious, it realises that it cannot live without the goods produced by the rest of the planet.”

This is where the danger lies. The United States is not strong enough to build an empire, but it can stir up trouble, invent bogus threats and evil axes, to justify its military presence and keep foreign clients in line. Instability also keeps the cash of a frightened world flowing towards America’s shores. Hence what Todd calls “theatrical militarism”, the constant picking on minor regimes that are cheap and safe to bully. Ultimately, Todd concludes, America is doomed to sink into irrelevance, but in the short run it is making the world a worrying place.

Some of Todd’s arguments are interesting – such as the link between low birth-rates, literacy and democracy. Others points do not pass the laughing test – e.g. Japan as “the most effective economy in the world”. Many are plain bizarre. If Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is “insignificant as a military power”, why is the United Nations so keen to send weapons inspectors?

Todd also contends that in the future a powerful, democratic Russia is bound to dominate Eurasia. But surely that depends on what Russia does. Seven decades of communism, followed by one of kleptocracy, turned a medium power into a basket case. Russia has now graduated to mere backwardness – an improvement due not to historical or geographic necessity, but to the fact that Vladimir Putin has restored a modicum of lawfulness and promoted property rights. Russia may one day move towards greatness, but this will only happen when it starts building a healthy system and stop depending on the right strongman.

Todd’s world is one of underlying trends and deep dynamics that bears little resemblance to the world as we see it. If observation of reality does not guide him, what does? Todd denies any anti-American bias. He praises the United States’ role during the Cold War and scoffs at “structural anti-Americans” like Noam Chomsky. But despite these denials, the book displays all the classic features of anti-Americanism.

One well-worn technique consists in presenting US military action as the start of hostilities.
Todd, like many irrational critics of Washington’s war on terror, begins by removing it from its context – the attacks on the United States and all Qaeda’s worldwide call on Muslims to kill Americans and Jews. This enables him to describe Washington’s campaign as an act of unprovoked aggression, and the notion of international terrorism as “only useful to America if it wants an Old World inflamed by a permanent state of war”.

Todd uses the same sophistry with respect to Iraq: he makes no mention of weapons of mass destructions. The Bush’s administration policy on Iraq may be open to criticism. But all reasonable critics, unlike Todd, acknowledge that Baghdad presents a threat – the argument is over how to deal with it. For Todd, however, America is the only danger and it needs to be restrained. This is in essence is a softer, less brilliant version of Sartre’s warning about rabid America.

Todd also offers a grossly distorted picture American society. Racial discrimination, for instance, is said to be on the rise – or as Todd puts it, America is no longer “universalist”. Blacks and Latinos lead increasingly separate lives, away from the mainstream. The only evidence he provides to support this claim is statistics on mixed marriages, which remain relatively rare in both communities. The picture of America as hopelessly divided along ethnic lines may reassure many Europeans at a time when far-right xenophobes appeal to voters across their own continent, but it does not stand up. Everywhere you go in America you see signs of the spectacular rise of black and Hispanic middle-classes.

Another common feature of anti-American literature is the reference to American scholars – but only the ones that have been proven wrong. Todd sides squarely with the US “declinist” tradition, revived in its geo-political version by Paul Kennedy in the 1980s. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which argued that the American empire was hopelessly overstretched and about to go way of Babylon and Rome, in fact described perfectly the situation of the Soviet Union at the time. America continued to thrive and was soon condemned as the only bully left on the block.

Academic declinism did not give up: it turned to economics. In the early and mid-1990s, a spate of popular books portrayed America as the victim of globalization. The US economy was plagued by profound problems – a shrinking industrial base, stagnating wages, rising inequality – and competition from low-wage countries was responsible. These ideas were brilliantly refuted by Paul Krugman, a mainstream trade economist, but it was the boom of the late 1990s that silenced the doomsters. More recently the bursting of the internet bubble and America’s corporate scandals gave them another excuse to describe the US economy as being in terminal decline.

What lies behind all this, of course, is good old-fashioned mistrust of economic liberalism. Todd, a thorough anti-liberal, neatly synthesises the various strands of America’s dubious declinist scholarship.

Après l’Empire will not tell you much about the United States’ strengths and weaknesses. But it eloquently confirms that French anti-Americanism is as robust as ever.

Henri Astier