America's Abdication and the Fate of the World
What exactly happened in Kirkuk?
Was it an isolated and temporary deviation?
Can the blame be placed solely on an ignorant, inconsistent president?
I have lived in the United States. I have traveled the country extensively. Thirteen years ago, retracing the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, I wrote a book about it. At the time, the country induced in this friendly observer a sense of vertigo. With this background, I have a simpler explanation. Unfortunately, it is also more worrisome.
The story begins a very long time ago.
And upon hearing it, one will understand that the position of the world’s policeman, the protector of democratic values, or even the loyal ally of those I fault it for abandoning is not quite “natural” for the strange country that is America.
I remember the pages that Hegel devoted to the newborn United States in his Lessons on the Philosophy of History.
In substance, he wrote that its emergence was, of course, a major event.
Its appearance was part of the great linear movement from east to west that Hegel called universal history.
Because America lies at the far western end of that arc, it is there, Hegel insisted, that we can expect to witness the denouement of the inexorable plot in the course of which nations, through battles and conquests, contradictions faced and overcome, schisms, reconciliations, heroic acts, and negativities forsworn, are born, grow, and die.
With just one reservation—albeit a sizable one.
America was too big a country, almost empty, in fact—a country in which the land seemed like a sea and the people like sailors contending with waves of sand and rock.
It is a country whose spatial immensity imposed its law on a people of shepherds who roamed with their flocks to the sound of a cantilena that bore less resemblance to a country ballad than to a whaler’s ditty.
It is, incidentally, the mirror image of the country that Melville would describe some years later in Moby-Dick, seeing in the rolling of the ocean’s waves, below which panted the heart of the White Whale, an expanse not of water but of “long-drawn virgin vales,” a cascade of “mild blue hill-sides,” a “rolling prairie” where, like a “distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts” above the “high rolling waves,” “the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure.”
So that America, according to the philosopher of universal history (speaking like the first great bard of the American pastoral, though turning him on his head), is ultimately the site of a “perpetual motion,” a restless “migration” with no final port, a place that presents the “impossibility of getting one’s bearings.”
Waves or grasses, it doesn’t matter; stagecoaches surfing into valleys or birch bark canoes bobbing on the languor of an immense swell, they come to the same: the key point is that nothing lasting will ever be built there.
The same is true of the houses that Jean-Paul Sartre—revealing himself to be a Hegelian, or Melvillian, of stature—described in his great survey of America, published just after World War II, as always having a summary and almost uncouth aspect, set right on the ground, fragile, temporary, like a camp or caravan.
The same applies to the American hamlets about which so many travelers from Europe, accustomed to towns laden with history, rooted in dense soil, and with a discernible center, have wound up remarking: they make you think of interrupted visits or settlements living on borrowed time; you expect them at any moment to be dismantled, moved elsewhere, transformed; there they are—inhabited, bustling, alive, yet seemingly already on their way to their fate as a ghost town.
But the same applies, too, to the state that is, in proper Hegelian terms, the ultimate form of the house, the hamlet, the settlement, the city, the nation, and that is not able to find, any more than the rest of these, the conditions required for a stable foundation.
Hegel concluded that such an America was indeed the continuation of Europe; that it surely was, as one heard from all quarters, the “country of the future.” One might even say, as Tocqueville would indeed later remark, that a “secret design of Providence” called it to hold “in its hands the destinies of half the world” and eventually to become the face of “the universal”—but only an eventual universal, one that is to come but is not yet mature, a universal still unsuitable, still insufficient, one that, for some time yet will embody only partly the uppercase universal of Mind.
In short, if one accepts the Hegelian term predication to signify how a historical power expresses itself and articulates its relation to the universal, if one consents to define “imperial” as the way in which some historical powers affect the rest of the planet and impose themselves on it, America’s word can be only half-imperial because it is only half-predicative.
The American nation, as Hegel sees it, has its strength and its power.
It has waged victorious wars.
It will give birth to artists, writers, thinkers, whale hunters, heroes and monsters, slaves and masters who will battle each other without mercy.
But it lacks—and will continue for a long time to lack—something of that splendor, that self-confidence, that hubris that characterized, for example, the absolute power of seventeenth-century France or Renaissance Italy. It lacks, and will long lack, the imprimatur, the scar, of total authority.
I remember the circumstances in which I first discovered those pages from Hegel and, for the sake of clarity, would like to return to that moment.
The time was shortly before May 1968.
I was in the first year of the preparatory course for the École Normale Supérieure at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, where I would skip the conventional philosophy courses in order to run over to the Collège de France to listen to the philosopher Jean Hyppolite, who was then in his last year of teaching. It was Hyppolite who gave the French language its first proper translation of Hegel and went on to provide a constant stream of learned commentary on Hegelianism.
I had also just met Benny Lévy, an Egyptian Jew unrelated to me, who was already a student at the École Normale and became my philosophy tutor by a circuitous route: My father had contacted the Hellenist Jean-Pierre Vernant, who, like himself, was a veteran of the Free French forces during World War II. Vernant in turn contacted Louis Althusser, his comrade in the Communist Party and my future professor, who led me to Benny. At the time, Benny Lévy was the charismatic leader of the most radical Maoist group in France. Only a quarter of a century later would he become a master of Orthodox Judaism. The strangely predestined nature of this chain of friendship still amazes me fifty years later.
One day, sitting in a café near the Collège de France with two friends and Benny, who was still assembling the components of a Maoism that he wished to be as philosophically exemplary as it was exemplarily radical, I found myself face-to-face with Jean Hyppolite, the legendary professor who, in a gravelly voice coarsened by smoking, was endeavoring, text in hand, to tell us the story of America according to Hegel, while miming, with the gestures of an orchestra conductor, the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectics.
This was a time, it must be remembered, when the name of this austere scholar, Jean Hyppolite, was engraved alongside those of scholars of similar mettle on the pediment of the pantheon of thinkers most highly regarded by radical young minds.
It was an odd time when, to paraphrase a French poet, or rather two, we were at once unreasonable and highly prone to ratiocination, rebellious and logical—and when the more severe the mathematics, the more inflexible the science, the more doggedly and scientifically our professors stalked the strict and naked truth, the more they seemed suitable (by virtue of a reversal that had little to do with dialectics) for mobilization into the little army of those who were going to help us break the history of the world in two.
For the young people we were, there was in that a paradoxical episteme in which rigor was related to rebellion; in which the canons of knowledge seemed like guarantors of the desire for revolution; and in which the most abstract and ethereal analyses, those most detached from immediate political issues, appeared under a halo of metaphorical meaning meant as a secret code for the cognoscenti—that is, for us. Behind Louis Althusser’s “epistemological break,” we discerned proletarian revolution. Under the pavement of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization lay the ash-strewn shore, littered with the nameless and unconfessed, that we dreamt of finding. And when Jean Hyppolite, with his strong jaw and massive features in constant movement (causing him to resemble an anxious Jean Gabin), spoke to us of the “semi-predicative” America according to Hegel, when he described America’s embarrassed empire and its discomfort with predication, we could only take him at his word and, in his words, hear a denunciation of the Trotskyites and other leftist sects with which we were competing, who believed, as do the populist movements of today, in a tentacled, diabolical, all-powerful American imperialism responsible for all of the world’s problems. Not us.
It is always useful to remember the path that truths had to take to reach the wall of our convictions and find a chink in which to lodge.
In our case, this is how the knot was tied, through a dialogue of auditors with a Jean Hyppolite who could not have cared less about the fierce determination of the Latin Quarter’s Maoists to stand like a revolutionary aristocracy against the buskers of the Communist International but who inspired in us such great respect that his word was gold.
I am proud to say that, since that moment, I have never engaged in the sin against sense that is anti-Americanism.
Never, since that day, have I thought that the United States was a force of evil busy building an empire of the type that all the true colonial powers built before and after it.
There is, of course, the founding crime of the extermination of the American Indian, but that was taken to heart and has been duly mourned—in the process, the famous “political correctness” that, in other settings, has caused so much damage found one of its noblest applications.
Likewise, there is the bloody shadow cast for so long by the smug practice of slavery—but then came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama.
And the fact is that, if there is a trap into which I have never fallen (from the time of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, where I got my political education, right up to the election of Donald Trump, which appalled me as an admirer of America), it is the hysterical condemnation, the demonization, the malignant hypostasis of an “inner” and “ontological” America—the very concept of which has always struck me as a sure sign of the worst kind of thinking.
Imagine a scale capable of weighing the good and the bad that people do. On such a scale, Hiroshima; the support given to dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, and the rest of Latin America; the napalm used in Vietnam; and, now, “America First.” But don’t they weigh less than the role of the United States in the two world wars? Its two rescues of Europe? Its strong, constant, and ultimately victorious stand against various forms of communism? Its punishment of the butchers of the Bosnian War? The liberation of Kosovo? The war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? The worldwide fight against radical Islam, up to and excluding the treatment of Kurdistan?
But it is not only that, on balance, the United States seems to have done more good than harm. It is that Hyppolite’s idea impressed me from a philosophical perspective and struck me as a valid proposition in the realm of mind and truth. How amazed I was when I saw that this same idea was embraced by André Malraux (one of my masters of life even more than of thought) when he declared, in a letter to the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, written a few weeks after Malraux’s scheduled departure for Bangladesh in 1971: “The United States is the first country to have become the most powerful in the world without having sought it. Alexander wanted to be Alexander, Caesar wanted to be Caesar, but you never wanted to be masters of the world.”
André Malraux was disapproving.
Specifically, he disapproved that Richard Nixon’s America, which was allied with Pakistan, would not use force to stop the massacre of the Bengalis.
He found it unacceptable “that the country of the Declaration of Independence should crush the wretched as they fight for their own independence.”
Hyppolite, by contrast, was not judging but rather simply observing.
Specifically, he observed that America was what it was: modest, reluctant to impose itself, and, by virtue of a law that proceeded from the singular way it had come into the adventure of being and spirit, condemned to wield semi-predicative power.
But here, in the conjunction of Malraux and Hyppolite, was one of those alignments of the stars that decide the fate of a young man.
In the end, the proposition, validated by a master of truth and by a professor of courage, gained the force of law.
The United States is a power, but one that never entirely sought empire’s glory.
It is an empire, if you will, but a recalcitrant one, whose nobility has always been to balk at imperialism.
All right, it has sometimes looked like an imperialistic empire—but a clumsy, awkward one, sometimes too heavy-handed, at other times too quick on the draw.
Imperialistic, yes, but often of necessity, as when no one else was left to confront the Nazis and their allies—and even then immature, adolescent: Didn’t the Americans confess as much when, succumbing to an unbelievable Freudian slip, they named the Hiroshima bomb “Little Boy”?
It is an empire, in other words, that is an exception to the unabashed imperiousness, punctuated by wars of conquest, that was the common principle of the succession of empires according to Polybius (Persia, Sparta, Macedonia, Rome) and the prophet Daniel (who added Babylonia).
So it cannot be ruled out that, with its present retreat, America is returning to a state that, on balance, it finds more natural than the position of world fireman that it has occupied for a little less than a century.
Some may find this reassuring.
Others—friends of America and of the values for which it stands—find it heartbreaking and are appalled to see the country take stances like the one it took during the Bangladesh war or, more recently, during the battle of Kirkuk and the war in Kurdistan.
But, once again, we are dealing with a law that is both metaphysical and political.
And its secret lies in Hegel more than in the caprices, the character, and the tragic errors of Donald Trump.
Copyright © 2019 by Bernard-Henri Lévy
Translation Copyright © 2019 by Steven B. Kennedy