Jacques Chirac
Jacques Chirac; drawing by David Levine


If you want to understand how America appears to the world today, consider the sport-utility vehicle. Oversized and overweight, the SUV disdains negotiated agreements to restrict atmospheric pollution. It consumes inordinate quantities of scarce resources to furnish its privileged inhabitants with supererogatory services. It exposes outsiders to deadly risk in order to provide for the illusory security of its occupants. In a crowded world, the SUV appears as a dangerous anachronism. Like US foreign policy, the sport-utility vehicle comes packaged in sonorous mission statements; but underneath it is just an oversized pickup truck with too much power.

The simile may be modern, but the idea behind it is not. “America” has been an object of foreign suspicion for even longer than it has been a beacon and haven for the world’s poor and downtrodden. Eighteenth-century commentators—on the basis of very little direct observation—believed America’s flora and fauna to be stunted, and of limited interest or use. The country could never be civilized, they insisted, and much the same was true of its unso- phisticated new citizens. As the French diplomat (and bishop) Talleyrand observed, anticipating two centuries of European commentary: “Trente-deux réligions et un seul plat” (“thirty-two religions and just one dish”—which Americans typically and understandably tended to eat in a hurry). From the perspective of a cosmopolitan European conservative like Joseph de Maistre, writing in the early years of the nineteenth century, the US was a regrettable aberration—and too crude to endure for long.

Charles Dickens, like Alexis de Tocqueville, was struck by the conformism of American public life. Stendhal commented upon the country’s “egoism”; Baudelaire sniffily compared it to Belgium (!) in its bourgeois mediocrity; everyone remarked upon the jejune patriotic pomp of the US. But in the course of the next century, European commentary shifted perceptibly from the dismissive to the resentful. By the 1930s, the United States’ economic power was giving a threatening twist to its crude immaturity. For a new generation of anti-democratic critics, the destabilizing symptoms of modern life—mass production, mass society, and mass politics—could all be traced to America.

Like anti-Semitism, to which it was often linked, anti-Americanism was a convenient shorthand for expressing cultural insecurity. In the words of the Frenchman Robert Aron, writing in 1935, Henry Ford, F.W. Taylor (the prophet of work rhythms and manufacturing efficiency), and Adolf Hitler were, like it or not, the “guides of our age.” America was “industrialism.” It threatened the survival of individuality, quality, and national specificity. “America is multiplying its territory, where the values of the West risk finding their grave,” wrote Emmanuel Berl in 1929. Europeans owed it to their heritage to resist their own Americanization at every turn, urged George Duhamel in 1930: “We Westerners must each firmly denounce whatever is American in his house, his clothes, his soul.”1

World War II did not alleviate this irritation. Radical anti-Americanism in the early cold war years echoed the sentiments of conservative anti-Americanism twenty years earlier. When Simone de Beauvoir charged that America was “becoming Fascist,” Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that McCarthyite America “had gone mad,” the novelist Roger Vailland asserted that the fridge was an American plot to destroy French domestic culture, and Le Monde declared that “Coca- Cola is the Danzig of European Culture,” they were denouncing the same American “enemy” that had so alarmed their political opponents a generation before.2 American behavior at home and abroad fed this prejudice but did not create it. In their anger at the US, European intellectuals had for many decades been expressing their anxieties about changes closer to home.

The examples I have quoted are from France, but English ambivalence toward America is also an old story; the German generation of the 1960s blamed America above all for the crass consumerism and political amnesia of their parents’ postwar Federal Republic; and even in Donald Rumsfeld’s “new” Europe the US, representing “Western” technology and progress, has on occasion been blamed for the ethical vacuum and cultural impoverishment that global capitalism brings in its train.3 Nevertheless, anti-Americanism in Eu- rope at least has always had a distinctively French tinge. It is in Paris that European ambivalence about America takes polemical form.

Philippe Roger has written a superb history of French anti-Americanism, elegant, learned, witty. This enjoyable exercise, in the very best traditions of French scholarship, richly deserves to be published in English translation, unabridged. The book’s argument is far too subtle and intricate to summarize briefly, but the word “genealogy” in the title should be taken seriously. This is not strictly a history, since Roger treats his material as a “semiotic bloc”; and he doesn’t pay much attention to the record of French “pro-Americanism” that would need to be discussed to present a balanced account.

Instead, in nearly six hundred pages of close textual exegesis, Roger demonstrates not only that the core of French anti-Americanism is very old indeed, but also that it was always fanciful, only loosely attached to American reality. Anti-Americanism is a récit, a tale (or fable), with certain recurring themes, fears, and hopes. Starting out as an aesthetic distaste for the New World, French anti-Americanism has since moved through the cultural to the political; but the sedimentary evidence of earlier versions is never quite lost to sight.


Roger’s book is strongest on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His coverage of the twentieth century stops with the generation of Sartre—the moment, as he reminds us, when it became conventional for French anti-American texts to begin by denying that they were. That seems reasonable—there are a number of satisfactory accounts of the anti-Americanism of our own times and Roger is interested in tracing origins, not outcomes.4 And by ending short of the present he can permit himself a sardonic, upbeat conclusion:

What if anti-Americanism today were no more than a mental slavery that the French impose on themselves, a masochist lethargy, a humdrum resentment, a passionless Pavlovian reaction? That would offer grounds for hope. There are few vices, even intellectual ones, that can long withstand the boredom they elicit.

Unfortunately, there is a fresh twist in the story. Anti-Americanism today is fueled by a new consideration, and it is no longer confined to intellectuals. Most Europeans and other foreigners today are untroubled by American products, many of which are in any case manufactured and marketed overseas. They are familiar with the American “way of life,” which they often envy and dislike in equal parts. Most of them don’t despise America, and they certainly don’t hate Americans. What upsets them is US foreign policy; and they don’t trust America’s current president. This is new. Even during the cold war, many of America’s political foes actually quite liked and trusted its leaders. Today, even America’s friends don’t like President Bush: in part for the policy he pursues, in part for the manner in which he pursues it.

This is the background to a recent burst of anti-American publications from Paris. The most bizarre of these was a book by one Thierry Meyssan, purporting to show that the September 11 attack on the Pentagon never happened. No airliner ever crashed into the building, he writes: the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the American defense establishment to advance its own interests. Meyssan’s approach echoes that of Holocaust deniers. He begins by assuming the non-existence of a well-accredited event, then reminds us that no amount of evidence—especially from firsthand witnesses—can prove the contrary. The method is well summarized in his dismissal of the substantial body of eyewitness testimony running counter to his claim: “Far from warranting their evidence, the quality of these witnesses just shows how far the US Army will go to distort the truth.”5

The most depressing thing about Meyssan’s book is that it was a best seller. There is an audience in France for the farther reaches of paranoid suspicion of America, and September 11 seems to have aroused it. More typical, though, is the shopping list of complaints in books with titles like Pourquoi le monde déteste-t-il l’Amérique?, Le Livre noir des États-Unis, and Dangereuse Amérique. The first two are by British and Canadian authors respectively, though they have sold best in their French editions; the third is coauthored by a prominent French Green politician and former presidential candidate.

Characteristically presented with real or feigned regret (“We are not anti-American, but…”), these works are an inventory of commonly cited American shortcomings. The US is a selfish, individualistic society devoted to commerce, profit, and the despoliation of the planet. It is as uncaring of its own poor and sick as it is indifferent to the rest of humankind. The US rides roughshod over international laws and treaties and threatens the moral, environmental, and physical future of humanity. It is inconsistent and hypocritical in its foreign dealings and it wields unparalleled military clout. It is, in short, a bull in the global china shop, wreaking havoc.6

Much of this is recycled from earlier criticisms of America. Peter Scowen’s complaints (his chapter headings include “Les atrocités de Hiroshima et de Nagasaki” and “Une culture vide”), like those of Sardar and Davies (“Amer- ican Hamburgers and Other Viruses”) or Mamère and Farbiaz (“L’américanisation du monde,” “Une croisade qui sent le pétrole” [A crusade smelling of oil]), blend traditional themes with new accusations. They are a mixture of conservative cultural distaste (America is ugly, rootless, and crass), anti-globalization rhetoric (America is polluting the world), and neo-Marxist reductionism (America is run by and for the oil companies). Domestic American critics add race into the mix—not content with trampling over everyone else, the US rides roughshod across its own history.7


Some of the criticisms of American policy and practice are well founded. Others are drivel. In their catalog of claims against America, Sardar and Davies blame the US for the cold war, imposed on a reluctant Western Europe: “Both France and Italy had major Communist Parties—and still do [sic]—but with their own very specific histories that owed little to Russia.” “International communism,” in other words, was an American invention. This revisionist myth died many years ago. Its posthumous revival suggests that an older, political anti-Americanism is gaining new traction from the Bush administration’s foreign ambitions.8 Once a rogue state, always a rogue state.

According to Emmanuel Todd, however, there is no need to worry. In his recent book, Après l’empire (also a best seller), he argues that the sun is setting on imperial America. We are entering a post-American age. America will continue to jeopardize international stability. But Europeans (and Asians) can take some comfort from the knowledge that the future is theirs. American military power is real, but redundant; meanwhile its tottering economy is vulnerably dependent upon the rest of the world, and its social model holds no appeal. Between 1950 and 1990 the US was a benevolent and necessary presence in the world, but not anymore. The challenge today is to manage America’s growing irrelevance.

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.


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.

This Issue

May 1, 2003