American foreign-policy analysts are divided these days into two camps: those who believe the United States is a twilight power, and those who think that the only threat to America’s superpower status comes from a self-induced crisis of confidence, brought about by wimps in high places who are steering us toward decline. President Barack Obama appears to be in the first camp, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s right.
One way to understand Obama’s presidency is as the stewardship of a leader who must subtly make his countrymen confront a fact they would prefer to avoid—namely, that the age of American prosperity is over. From that perspective, passing healthcare legislation was all-important to his presidency because without the economic boom of the post-World War II era, the state is now being forced to care for its aging population by dividing up a shrinking pie. As for Obama’s foreign policy, it is not a matter of making the United States appear to behave in a more modest and polite fashion after eight years of George W. Bush’s stubborn unilateralism. Rather, reality itself has humbled us.
But if the American century is coming to an end, it’s not just on account of Bush’s failures or the worldwide economic crisis, but because of a larger historical divide that we have barely begun to fathom—the end of the Cold War.“There was a balance of terror during the Cold War that people didn’t acknowledge,” Marc Weitzmann, a French journalist, literary critic, and novelist, told me recently in Paris. “The violence of the Cold War was sent to the Third World. These conflicts existed in faraway areas, places that we didn’t care about, like the Middle East. Now they’re fought out everywhere. As it turned out, the Berlin Wall wasn’t between East and West Germany, it was protecting the citizens of the West from violence.”
Weitzmann and I were having lunch near his apartment, at the Hotel du Nord, a quiet restaurant on the site of the 1938 Marcel Carné movie of the same name. A short, powerfully built 51-year-old man with a shock of red hair and intense blue eyes, Weitzmann speaks English with the fluid wit and mania of a New Yorker. He splits his time between Paris and New York, where he’s become close to writers like Philip Roth and Paul Berman. Weitzmann and I first met more than a decade ago, when he was still safely in the mainstream of Parisian literary culture and writing regular book reviews for Les Inrockuptibles, a leftist weekly that resembles a combination of Rolling Stone and the New York Review of Books. In the aftershocks of Sept. 11, Weitzmann’s former colleagues came to consider his qualified support of Bush, the war in Iraq, and Israel heretical. His intellectual re-orientation began when Weitzmann moved to Israel to write a book about the recent massive Russian migration, the post-Cold War world, and globalization. The end of the peace process and the onset of the second intifada caught him by surprise, and he started to investigate his Jewish roots, a legacy that was largely obscured by his parents’ communist convictions. It is perhaps partly his family history that makes him especially sensitive to the significance of the Cold War, a conflict fought on four continents between two nuclear superpowers for nearly half a century.
The Cold War is again drawing attention from the French intelligentsia, with articles recently featured on the covers of news magazines and intellectual journals. This indicated that France is among the first countries to wake to the fact that it is not a post-Sept. 11 world but one still shaped by the Cold War and its conclusion, an aftermath that we have yet to account for properly. The spectacular nature of Sept. 11 and the consequences of those attacks obscured the remarkable fact that a war that had so profoundly shaped the modern world had only recently come to an end.
If Germany was the Cold War’s strategic battlefield, Weitzmann told me, then France was its “ideological battleground,” which makes his home country an ideal perch from which to understand the reality we inhabit now. A case in point is the part former President Jacques Chirac’s France played in opposing the Iraq war.
“There was anti-Americanism on top of it,” said Weitzmann, “but the French just wanted peace restored, and peace of mind. But they never understood that during the Cold War things were never that stable to begin with. The Cold War was a great time for Europe, especially France. There was stability and prosperity, and it was all protected by the Americans, and Europe didn’t even know it. This schizophrenia was possible as long as the Cold War went on, but as soon as it was over, the contradictions appeared. The French were afraid of the new context, so they hung on to what they knew in order to explain it: The U.S. was evil, and the Jews were manipulating things.”
Weitzmann’s new novel, Quand J’Etais Normal, or When I Was Normal, is about the insecure political context that has beset post-Cold War France. Set in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, when Paris was sharply divided between pro-war and anti-war camps, it is the story of a French Jewish family—“a chaotic family,” according to Weitzmann—muddling through a landscape of political chaos, paranoia, and Jewish anxiety and insecurity.
“The anti-war demonstrations were composed of Chirac supporters, leftists, and Muslims,” Weitzmann said. “And the pro-war demonstrators were basically Jews. The Jews were scared of the climate in France, and for good reason: These anti-war demonstrators were openly anti-Semitic. Along with images of Chirac, you had Hamas songs. There are both 5 million Muslims in France and also the biggest Jewish community in Europe today.”
Weizmann says that anti-Israel rhetoric has largely disappeared from French political discourse even if anti-Israel sentiment hasn’t changed much. In contrast to the Chirac years, said Weitzmann, “with Sarkozy there is no link between popular resentment toward Israel and the official government position.” But hostility toward the United States has different roots, which the election of Obama did little to quell. “The fact that a black man is president impresses Europeans for the wrong reasons,” Weitzmann said. “They see Obama’s election as a victory for Third Worldism. In the end, his election was a message from America to Americans, not to the world.”
The United States, Weitzmann argues, are no longer capable of playing the role of world leader because the world itself has changed. “Coming out of World War II,” Weitzmann said, “the American idea was that the U.S. is the only country capable of fighting terror regimes, the Nazis and the Soviets. Europe needed to be rebuilt, and the U.S. was the only free country able to lead the way. The legitimacy of that leadership depends on the fiction that there is indeed a Western world to be led.”
Weitzmann explains that by fiction he doesn’t mean that the idea is false, only that every identity is created, and this is how America’s postwar identity came about. “The idea that there is such a thing as the West is how the U.S. legitimized its leadership.”
In other words, the real challenge to American leadership is not the economy or even the desire of some U.S. policymakers to reduce our international profile but a lack of legitimacy. “World War II was the moment that the idea of what America was and the reality coincided,” Weitzmann said. “You liberated the camps, you beat the Nazis, and so on. But now the landscape is different. Now what you think you are is in conflict with what others think of you.”
The question then is not just whether the United States is capable of leading but whether anyone is interested in or capable of following. Western Europe is scaling down its global commitments. France and Britain are planning to share aircraft carriers, as their economies won’t permit them to operate independent modern navies. “Europe is trying to exist without military power,” Weitzmann said, “but there is no economic power without military grounding.” The irony is that a U.S. victory in the Cold War revealed Europe’s impotence. “Bush’s big mistake,” Weitzmann argued, “was that he did not understand that if Europe is militarily impotent, if Europe is effectively dead, then the U.S. has lost its legitimacy to lead the West.”
It’s worth remembering that French intellectuals condemned the naiveté and imperial greed of our political classes for almost 50 years after the end of World War II and, as Weitzmann said, ignored the fact that their freedoms were ensured by American economic and military might. If Weitzmann’s frightening thesis is correct that there is no longer a West for the United States to lead, it’s a concern that was shared by members of the Bush Administration. In particular, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld distinguished between Old Europe, which included France, and New Europe, the Central and Eastern European states once behind the Iron Curtain. In the wake of the Cold War, New Europe still looks to Washington for leadership. Whether we’re capable of leading there and elsewhere, like the Muslim Middle East, remains to be seen.
In the end, though, the American century was never about history, or the notion that it was simply our turn in the great historical cycle. Rather, we are self-generated, self-willed, born of the desire to recreate ourselves. We took that privilege and responsibility upon ourselves. It is difficult to imagine what the United States is without the idea that we bear a great responsibility for the fate of others and are willing to lead.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).