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Anti-Americans Abroad

Todd is not at all a conventional “anti-American” and some of what he has to say is of interest—though English-readers seeking to understand the case for American decline would do better to read Charles Kupchan.9 Todd is right to say that asymmetric globalization—in which the US consumes what others produce, and economic inequalities grow apace—is bringing about a world unsympathetic to American ambition. Post-Communist Russia, post-Saddam Iraq, and other modernizing societies may adopt capitalism (“the only reasonable economic organization”) and even become democratic, but they won’t mimic American “hyperindividualism” and they will share European preferences on many things. The US, in Todd’s view, will cling desperately to the vestiges of its ambition and power; to maintain its waning influence it will seek to sustain “a certain level of international tension, a condition of limited but endemic war.” This process has already begun, and September 11 was its trigger.

The problem with Emmanuel Todd, and it will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read any of his previous books, is less his conclusions than his reasoning. There is something of the Ancient Mariner about this writer. He has a maniacal tale to tell and he recounts it in book after book, gripping the reader relentlessly as though to say “Don’t you get it? It’s all about fertility!” Todd is an anthropological demographer by training. In 1976 he published La Chute finale: Essai sur la décomposition de la sphère soviétique, in which he prophesied the end of the USSR: “A slight increase in Russian infant mortality between 1970 and 1974 made me understand the rotting away of the Soviet Union back in 1976 and allowed me to predict the system’s collapse.” On his account, the decline in the Soviet birthrate revealed to him “the likely emergence of normal Russians, perfectly capable of overthrowing communism.”

Emmanuel Todd was not the only person back in the 1970s predicting an unhealthy future for communism. Nevertheless, the link he claims to have uncovered between fertility and regime collapse has gone to his head. In his new book, world history is reduced to a series of unidirectional, monocausal correlations linking birthrates, literacy rates, timeless family structures, and global politics. The Yugoslav wars were the result of “fertility gaps” between Slavs and Muslims. The American Civil War can be traced to the low birthrates of the Anglo-Saxon settler class. And if “individualistic” America faces grim prospects today, this is because the “family structures” of the rest of the world favor very different political systems.

In Emmanuel Todd’s parallel universe, politics—like economic behavior—is inscribed in a society’s “genetic code.” The egalitarian family systems of Central Asia reveal an “anthropology of community” that made communism more acceptable there (elsewhere he has attributed regional variations in French, Italian, and Finnish voting patterns to similar differences in family life10 ). Today, the “universalist Russian temperament” based on the extended Russian family offers a nonindividualistic socioeconomic model that may be the democracy of the future. “A priori, there is no reason not to imagine a liberal and democratic Russia protecting the planet against American efforts to shore up their global imperial posture.” Hence the unchained fury of the “differentialist” tendencies—American, Israeli, and others.

Todd goes further. He absurdly exaggerates America’s current woes, real as they are. Extrapolating from the Enron example, he concludes that all American economic data are as unreliable as that of the Soviets: the truly parlous state of the US economy has been kept hidden. And he offers his own variant on the “clash of civilizations.” The coming conflict between Islam and the US brings into opposition the “effectively feminist,” women-based civilization of America and the masculinized ethic of Central Asian and Arab warrior societies. Here, too, America will be isolated, for Europeans will feel just as threatened by the US as their Arab neighbors do. Once again, it all comes down to family life, with a distinctive modern twist: “The status of the American woman, threatening and castrating [castratrice et menaçante], [is] as disturbing for European men as the all-powerful Arab male is for European women.” The Atlantic gap begins in the bedroom. You couldn’t invent it.

To leave Emmanuel Todd for Jean-François Revel is to abandon the mad scientist for the self-confident patrician. Revel is an august Immortal of the Académie Française. He is the author of many books (thirty-one to date), as the reader of his latest essay is firmly reminded. Revel’s style suggests a man unfamiliar with self-doubt and unused to contradiction. He tends to sweeping, unsupported generalizations—by his account, most of Europe’s political and cultural elite “never understood anything about communism”—and his version of French anti-Americanism at times approaches caricature. This is a pity, because some of what he writes makes good sense.

Thus Revel is right to draw attention to the contradiction at the heart of much French criticism of America. If the US is such a social disaster, a cultural pygmy, a political innocent, and an economic meltdown waiting to happen, why worry? Why devote so much resentful attention to it? Alternatively, if it is as powerful and successful as many fear, might it not be doing something right? Revel is correct for the most part to charge certain French intellectuals with bad faith when they assert that they had nothing against America’s anti-Communist policies in earlier decades and object only to the excesses of the present. The record suggests otherwise.

As a Frenchman, Revel is well placed to remind his fellow citizens that France, too, has social problems—the much-vaunted French education system neither assimilates cultural and religious minorities nor does it support and nourish cultural difference. France, too, has slums, violence, and delinquency. And Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in last year’s presidential elections is a standing rebuke to all of France’s political class for its failure to address the problems of immigration and race.11 Revel makes legitimate fun of France’s cultural administrators, who can vandalize their own national heritage at least as recklessly as the barbaric Americans. No American booster could ever match Culture Minister Jack Lang’s 1984 “Projet Culturel Extérieur de la France,” in which France’s cultural ambitions are described by Lang himself as “probably unequaled in any other country.” And what does it say about the sophistication of the French press and television that they devoted so much credulous space to the elucubrations of M. Meyssan?

One could go on. Mocking the French for their pretensions (and their memory holes) is almost as easy as picking apart the hypocrisies of US foreign policy. And Revel is right to describe modern anti-globalization activists with their anti-market rhetoric as a “div-ine surprise” for the European left, a heaven-sent cause at a post-ideological moment when Europe’s radicals were adrift. But Revel’s astute observations of what is wrong in France risk being discredited by his inability to find anything wrong with America. His entire book is a paean of blinkered praise for a country that, regrettably, does not exist. Like the anti-Americans he disdains, he has conjured up his American subject out of thin air.

In Revel’s America the melting pot works “fort bien” and there is no mention of ghettos. According to him, Europeans misread and exaggerate US crime statistics, whereas in reality crime in America is not a problem. Health coverage in America works well: most Americans are insured at work, the rest benefit from publicly funded Medicare and Medicaid. Anyway, the system’s shortcomings are no worse those of France’s own provisions for health care. The American poor have the same per capita income as the average citizen of Portugal, so they can’t be called poor (Revel has apparently never heard of cost-of-living indices). There is no “underclass.” Meanwhile the US has had social democracy longer than Europe, and American television and news coverage is much better than you think.

As for American foreign policy: in Revel-land the US has stayed fully engaged in the Israel–Palestine conflict, is resolutely nonpartisan, and its policy has been a success. The American missile defense program worries M. Revel a lot less than it does some American generals. Unlike 50 percent of the US electorate, Académicien Revel saw nothing amiss in the conduct of the 2000 presidential election. As for evidence of growing American anti-French sentiment, stuff and nonsense: “pour ma part, je ne l’ai jamais constaté” (“as for me, I’ve never seen it”). In short, whatever French critics and others say about the US, Jean-François Revel maintains the opposite. Voltaire could not have done a better job satirizing traditional French prejudices: Pangloss in Wonderland.

2.

Somewhere between Emmanuel Todd and Jean-François Revel there is an interesting European perspective on George Bush’s America. The two sides of the Atlantic really are different today. First, America is a credulous and religious society: since the mid-Fifties Europeans have abandoned their churches in droves; but in the United States there has been virtually no decline in churchgoing and synagogue attendance. In 1998 a Harris poll found that 66 percent even of non-Christian Americans believed in miracles and 47 percent of them accredited the Virgin Birth; the figures for all Americans are 86 percent and 83 percent respectively. Some 45 percent of Americans believe there is a Devil. In a recent Newsweek poll 79 percent of American respondents accepted that biblical miracles really happened. According to a 1999 Newsweek poll, 40 percent of all Americans (71 percent of Evangelical Protestants) believe that the world will end in a battle at Armageddon between Jesus and the Antichrist. An American president who conducts Bible study in the White House and begins cabinet sessions with a prayer may seem a curious anachronism to his European allies, but he is in tune with his constituents.12

Second, the inequalities and insecurities of American life are still unthinkable across the Atlantic. Europeans remain wary of excessive dis- parities of income, and their institutions and political choices reflect this sentiment. Moreover it is prudence, rather than the residue of “socialism,” that explains European hesitation over unregulated markets and the dismantling of the public sector and local resistance to the American “model.” This makes sense—for most people in Europe, as elsewhere in the world, unrestricted competition is at least as much a threat as an opportunity.

Europeans want a more interventionist state at home than Americans do, and they expect to pay for it. Even in post-Thatcher Britain, 62 percent of adults polled in December 2002 would favor higher taxes in return for improved public services. The figure for the US was under 1 percent. This is less surprising when one considers that in America (where the disparities between rich and poor are greater than anywhere else in the developed world) fully 19 percent of the adult population claims to be in the richest 1 percent of the nation—and a further 20 percent believe they will enter that 1 percent in their lifetime!13

What Europeans find perturbing about America, then, is precisely what most Americans believe to be their nation’s strongest suit: its unique mix of moralistic religiosity, minimal provision for public welfare, and maximal market freedom—the “American way of life”—coupled with a missionary foreign policy ostensibly directed at exporting that same cluster of values and practices. Here the US is ill served by globalization, which highlights for the world’s poorer countries the costs of exposure to economic competition and reminds West Europeans, after the long sleep of the cold war, of the true fault lines bisecting the hitherto undifferentiated “West.”

These transatlantic distinctions will matter more, not less, in years to come: longstanding social and cultural contrasts are being highlighted and reinforced by irresolvable policy disagreements. Already the schism over the US war on Iraq has revealed something new. In the early years of the cold war anti-American demonstrations in Europe took their cue from Soviet-financed “peace movements,” but the political and economic elites were firmly in the American camp. Today, no one is manipulating mass anti-war protests and West European leaders are breaking with America on a major international issue. The US has been forced to bribe and threaten in unprecedented public ways, with embarassingly limited success (even in Turkey as I write, thanks to the unpredictable workings of democracy).

The Iraq crisis has exposed three kinds of weakness in the modern international system. We have been reminded once again of how fragile the United Nations is, how seemingly inadequate to the hopes vested in it. Yet the recent American attitude toward the UN—give us what we want or we shall take it anyway—has paradoxically strengthened practically everyone else’s appreciation of the institution’s importance. The UN may lack an army, but it has acquired, over the past fifty years, a distinctive legitimacy; and legitimacy is a kind of power. In any case, the UN is all we have. Those who abuse it for their own ends do so at serious risk to their credibility as international citizens.

The second ostensible victim of the crisis has been the European Union. On the face of things Europe is now bitterly divided, thanks in equal measure to American mischief and European leaders’ own incompetence. But crises can be salutary. Once the Iraq war is over the British are going to be asking hard questions about the American commitment they made in the wake of a previous Middle Eastern miscalculation, at Suez in 1956. The East Europeans will pray for short memories in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris when it comes to preparing the Union’s budget. Turkish politicians are already questioning their country’s once sacrosanct relationship with America. And Jacques Chirac may have his country’s last, best chance to shape a Europe independent of America and its equal in international affairs. The “hour of Europe” may not have struck, but Washington’s utter indifference to European opinion has rung a fire bell in the night.

The third kind of weakness concerns the US itself: not in spite of its overwhelming military might, but because of it. Unbelievably, President Bush and his advisers have managed to make America seem the greatest threat to international stability; a mere eighteen months after September 11, the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the US has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications.14 In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it.

You don’t have to be a French intellectual to believe that an overmuscled America, in a hostile international environment, is weaker, not stronger, than it was before. It is also more likely to be belligerent. What it won’t be, however, is irrelevant. International politics is sometimes about good and evil, but it is always about power. The US has considerable power and the nations of the world need the US on their side. A United States that oscillated unpredictably between unilateral preemptive wars and narcissistic indifference would be a global disaster, which is why so many countries at the UN tried desperately to accommodate Washington’s wishes, whatever their leaders’ private misgivings.

Meanwhile, “moderates” in Washington insist that all these concerns will be laid to rest if the war against Saddam turns out to have been quick, victorious, and relatively “clean.” But a military campaign is not retroactively justified by its success alone, and anyway much collateral harm is already done. The precedent of preemptive and preventive war against a hypothetical threat; the incautious, intermittent acknowledgment that this war has objectives far beyond disarming Baghdad; the alienation of foreign sentiment: these constitute war damage however successfully America handles the peace. Has the world’s “indispensable nation” (Madeleine Albright) miscalculated and overreached? Almost certainly. When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever.

—April 3, 2003; this is the third of three articles.

  1. 9

    Charles Kupchan, The End of the American Era (Knopf, 2002). See my discussion of Kupchan in The New York Review, April 10, 2003.

  2. 10

    Emmanuel Todd, La Troisième Planète: Structures familiales et systèmes idéologiques (Paris: Seuil, 1983). “Communism’s success is principally explained by the existence…of egalitarian and authoritarian family structures predisposing people to see Communist ideology as natural and good”; See Après l’empire, p. 178.

  3. 11

    On this see also Philippe Manière, La Vengeance du peuple: Les Élites, Le Pen et les français (Paris: Plon, 2002).

  4. 12

    See www.pollingreport.com/religion .htm and www.pollingreport.com/religion2.htm.

  5. 13

    A Tale of Two Legacies,” The Economist, December 21, 2002; Financial Times, January 25–26, 2003.

  6. 14

    One French resident in twelve is now a Muslim. In Russia the figure is nearly one in six.

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