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Europe for the Right Reasons: A Conversation with Stanley Hoffmann

Michał Matlak
Any American newspaper will tell you this. Those poor Europeans, they don’t know what they are doing! They are not exactly doing brilliantly, but the notion that the whole thing will collapse, that there will be no EU, is plainly absurd.
Stanley Hoffmann.jpg

Salzburg Global Seminar

Stanley Hoffmann speaking on European-American Relations in 1984

Stanley Hoffmann, a longtime New York Review [contributor]( and professor of international relations at Harvard University, died on September 13. The following conversation is drawn from Michal Matlak’s unpublished interview with Hoffmann, which took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 2011.
—The Editors

Michal Matlak: Europe is not in good shape.

Stanley Hoffmann: Any American newspaper will tell you this. Those poor Europeans, they don’t know what they are doing! I am originally from France, and I recently went back to see some friends. It looked perfectly normal to me. They are not exactly doing brilliantly, but the notion that the whole thing will collapse, that there will be no EU, is plainly absurd. There are ups and downs—this is a period of down, but it is not the end of the story.

As a Pole I have to ask you about one of your Harvard colleagues, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Is Europe important to him?

I don’t think he has ever shown any interest in European unity. He was always fascinated by and worried about the Soviet Union and nothing else. I liked him very much. But then he was a great supporter of the Vietnam War which I thought was a disaster and unwinnable. Now he has completely changed. I don’t think he remembers that he was such a supporter of the war. I was quite surprised at a conference which took place in Berlin about ten years ago to hear Zbig explaining that what the US did in Vietnam was a form of colonialism. He would never have said that earlier. In other words he was wise enough to change his mind. We are exactly the same age.

Zbig is a complicated guy. There was this permanent battle that went on between Zbig, representing the hard line on Russia, and Cyrus Vance, who wanted more accommodation, more flexibility. And the relations between the two of them were just awful. The story of my department was, for years, the battle between Zbigniew and Henry Kissinger. The difference has been that Kissinger never took Zbigniew seriously, and Zbigniew could not tolerate Henry, because Henry was there always before Zbig in occupying the high positions.

But isn’t Brzezinski closer to your worldview than Kissinger?

No, I don’t think so. I could write a book on Henry, which I will not. Everything is very complicated with Mr. Kissinger. However, on the issue of nuclear weapons, he was a moderate and many of the hard-line Republicans never forgave him for being—I wouldn’t say an appeaser, but that is how they saw it. There was very recently, in The New York Times, a long front-page review by him of a new and very long biography of George Kennan. And what I found remarkable about Henry’s article was that it said nothing. I went through all of it and you don’t know at the end what he really thought. And he was very good at that.

What about Kissinger’s views on human rights?

He didn’t have a policy on human rights. He didn’t like the notion of human rights. He left Europe in 1938 and came here—he is five years older than I am. I was in France during the occupation of France by Germany and some of my best friends were deported because they were Jews. I managed not to be deported because of, as the French would say, le hasard des circonstances. It could have happened. My best friend who was French but of Romanian origin was deported because he managed to get home from the high school where we both went just at the moment when a Gestapo truck was stopping in front of his house. And since he looked very Jewish, he was arrested and killed. I was lucky. One realizes that one really is not the master of one’s fate in those circumstances.

On the question of going into Libya [to support the 2011 uprising], I reacted as somebody who lived in occupied France, and it seemed to me that if one could save lives of people who were totally innocent and could be arrested at any minute, one has a moral duty to do so. I understand perfectly that if you are good realpolitiker, you do not care. And Henry is a good realpolitiker. Which means that the average guy will never find much sympathy with him because he doesn’t operate at that level. He operates at the level of Bismarck. I’ve never been at the level of Bismarck or even of Nixon, and I think that if one can do something to save lives one should. So [Henry and I] were never made for 100 percent agreement. Zbig’s position? I do not know.

It seems difficult to reconcile your concerns about human rights with the reality of politics.

This is one of the reasons why I never went into politics. I am not made for it. I would not be very good at it. It was fascinating working with people like Zbig. Although for me, my most impressive co-graduate student was not Zbig, was not Henry, was not [Samuel] Huntington. It was somebody who was not known at all because she was never in politics; she was a thinker. She was a woman from Riga called Judith Shklar and she was by far the biggest star of the department. She was unbelievably great. Unfortunately, she died in 1992, as a result of a stroke. She and her husband had a house in New Hampshire and by the time she got to the hospital, they couldn’t save her. If she had lived half an hour away from the hospital she could have been saved.


Why do you admire her so much?

She taught the history of political thought. First in the traditional way, from the Greeks to the present. And then she got more and more interested in American political thought and wrote quite a lot about American political philosophy. And I think she had more influence on students than did Zbig and Henry, who always had one foot in Washington. Everybody knew that they wanted political greatness; she was above all a teacher and a thinker, and she was absolutely extraordinary. So in terms of just plain intelligence, I think she was the dominant figure in the department, even though this was at a time when my colleagues did not take women very seriously. When she and I wanted to eat together at the faculty club we had to go in by different doors. That lasted until 1970. But she was quite extraordinary.

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David Levine

Zbigniew Brzezinski

But aren’t there politicians who are able to combine moral ends with Realpolitik?

Well, if I had to choose one political figure whose contribution I think was a very positive one I would take [former European Commission President Jacques] Delors, who was a Christian Democrat—and something of a socialist. He didn’t want to construct a new Europe just for political reasons; he wanted it very largely for humane reasons—to make it impossible for those countries to spend a few more centuries fighting each other.

You knew John F. Kennedy. Did he belong to the same group of successful idealists?

Although I knew Kennedy a little, I did not like him, for purely personal reasons. He was very much an opportunist, very intelligent. I knew all three of the Kennedys. The youngest one, Teddy, who died about three years ago, was my student. He was not a genius, but he was a good person. He spent much of his time as a member of the Senate helping people get visas to the United States. He saved people. And he never really thought much about himself, because he didn’t think he was quite smart enough to reach the heights. But I liked him. The other two, Bobby and John Kennedy, struck me as hard-nosed, calculating machines.

So you don’t see in their politics a strong connection to human rights?

I think that the one who developed [this connection]—just before he was murdered—was Bobby Kennedy. He started as an aide of [Republican Senator Joe] McCarthy, so he travelled a great deal, so to speak. John F. Kennedy, I couldn’t quite figure him out. In any case his assassination was a disaster, because his successor, LBJ, did some very good things in some areas relating to human rights, but foreign policy was not his domain. But who are we to pass judgment on everybody?

What about the other president you know, Barack Obama?

I do like Obama. I have met him. I thought his two books were excellent. Particularly the first one, Dreams From My Father. It is a very eloquent book; he writes well and he is a very good speaker. He does what he can. He doesn’t have the ease Franklin Delano Roosevelt had. But FDR was an American aristocrat. And you have lots of people, including Newt Gingrich and some others, who still wonder whether Obama is really an American. It requires a certain amount of chutzpah for somebody like Obama to be president because he knows there are a number of people who will never forgive him for being half-black. And for the time being America is ungovernable. The Constitution—and all the additions that have been grafted on it—make effective government almost impossible. For almost every important measure you need a 60 percent majority in the Senate. It is almost impossible to get this. So nothing works.

The US system is not as presidential as it seems, then?

I will not write this because I will be stoned to death immediately. But when it comes to effective government, the French constitution is much better than the American one.


You wrote a book on former French President François Mitterrand.

He was not an admirable politician. I met him once or twice. Highly intelligent, but also a narcissist. He moved from the far right to the left. He was a highly cultivated man. But he was not a man of profound ideas. The good thing is that he continued to work on European unity, but otherwise he didn’t get very far. You know, I am an old Gaullist, simply because, if one lived in France during the occupation, the voice of de Gaulle was the voice of hope. And that was invaluable. My wife and I wrote a little book on de Gaulle and after it was published we went to interview a few of the people who had worked for de Gaulle, one of whom was his foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville. And one of the questions we asked was, What is it that attracted you to de Gaulle? In the case of Couve de Murville, who had not been a Gaullist in the first stage of the war, after the occupation began, what had attracted him to de Gaulle ultimately, he said, was l’evidence. And that was true for many of us. I have learned more about politics by studying de Gaulle than by studying Mitterand.

What was distinctive about de Gaulle’s approach to politics?

De Gaulle was very flexible when it came to the personalities with whom he worked. [The banker and influential advocate of European integration Jean] Monnet was an important figure. He was for the French rather controversial. He had been very un-Gaullist in the first years of de Gaulle’s appearance, and he had too much faith, as many businessmen do, in non-political methods. Still, they worked very well together. It was de Gaulle who made Monnet the head of [economic] planning. And he was of course a superb creator of the French planning system. In fact after the liberation, some of the people who were most useful to France were not politicians or ex-politicians; they were business people, technicians, civil servants, who were totally indifferent to the battles between socialists and Christian democrats.

The whole French national social security system was created by another one of these men, Pierre Laroque. He had started by serving Vichy because he wanted to protect French industry from being taken over by the Germans. Then, the people in the Vichy suddenly discovered that the man was a Jew, so he lost his job. He disappeared into resistance activities and when de Gaulle came to France after the liberation he made this man the founder of the social security system, which is still there, intact. He created that whole system from scratch. Politicians could not have done that because they had too much political baggage.

Why are there so few leaders with a strong vision today, especially at the European level?

That has to be explained, let’s say by the force of circumstances. [Recently retired European Commission President] José Manuel Barroso was here a couple of times. I had the impression of a highly intelligent man who was only concerned about the future of Mr. Barroso. And that was certainly not the case with someone like Jacques Delors.

Is President Obama interested in Europe?

He is very much an internationalist. He has a lot of friends among the European leaders and in that sense he is vulnerable, because he is seen as listening too much to others and to the Europeans in particular.

So Americans consider Europe a liability.

At this point, I think, Americans who are interested in Europe tend to be historians. If you look at American historians, there is a still a large number who work on Europe—the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the politics is shifting and it’s hard to know in what direction. For example the former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had a deep belief that it is in the interest of the Europeans to be led by the Americans because they would never be able to do anything much by themselves, and because the basic issues had not fundamentally changed—Russia was still a formidable question. For younger people I don’t think that is true at all. Because they emerged at a time when the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore. And in the last ten years, people have been more concerned with what’s happening in China or India than in Russia. After Gorbachev, interest in Russia declined considerably. In a sense it was, “Look how brilliant the Chinese are at modernizing, and the Russians are ridiculous.” Which I’m not sure is entirely fair. But that’s how it is.

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