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US in European thought

March 11, 2012

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AMERICA’S rise to the status of the world’s premier power has not been without criticism from the European intelligentsia.

In a widely discussed book on America, Après L’Empire, credited with having influenced the position of the French government on the war in Iraq, Emmanuel Todd writes: “A single threat to global instability weighs on the world today: America, which from a protector has become a predator.”

The actual invasion was followed by much criticism and the barely concealed glee of European observers who saw American forces being bogged down in a long and difficult engagement.

Max Gallo, in the weekly magazine Le Point, drew the typical conclusion about American arrogance and ignorance: “The Americans, carried away by the hubris of their military power, seemed to have forgotten that not everything can be handled by the force of arms ... that peoples have a history, a religion, a country.”

According to French analyst Jean François Revel, “If you remove anti-Americanism, nothing remains of French political thought today, either on the left or on the right.” This stands true for many other European thinkers, who consider anti-Americanism as the lingua franca of the intellectual class.

More than half a century ago, the novelist Henry de Montherlant had one of his characters say: “One nation that manages to lower intelligence, morality, human quality on nearly all the surface of the earth … I accuse the United States of being in a permanent state of crime against humankind.”

Anti-Americanism, arguably containing some elements of prejudice, has been mostly a creation of European philosophy, with some of the greatest European minds of the past two centuries contributing to it. This view has been exported to much of the globe, shaping for example views in pre-Second World War Japan, where many in the elite studied German philosophy.

Similarly, in Latin American and African countries today, French philosophy carries much weight, and thus these countries even today exhibit a typically French-centred view of anti-Americanism. In fact, much of the Arab anti-Americanism today owes its lineage to European political thought.

One finds the origins of this thought in The Federalist Papers, in which Alexander Hamilton offers the comment: “Men admired as profound philosophers gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America — that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.”

It may be pertinent to remember that it was a leading strain of scientific thought at the time. Prejudiced as this view certainly is, this was further refined by the European romantics. They argued that the aberrant attitude of the Americans resulted not from the workings of the physical environment, but the basis of intellectual thinking. This was a reflection of outright disdain for upheavals such as the French Revolution, which inspired aversion among conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. The United States, whose revolution was a precursor to the one in France, was often implicated in this critique. Joseph de Maistre went so far as to deny the existence of ‘man’ or ‘humankind’, such as in the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal”.

According to Maistre, “There is no such thing in this world as man; I have seen in my life French, Italians and Russians ... but as for man, I declare that I have never met one in my life; if he exists, it is entirely without my knowledge.”

According to this thought, not only was the Declaration based on flawed premises, so too was the US constitution with its proposition that men could establish a new government. “All that is new in [America’s] constitution, all that results from common deliberation,” Maistre warned, “is the most fragile thing in the world: one could not bring together more symptoms of weakness and decay.”

By the early 19th century, America became the target of many romantic thinkers. The poet Nikolaus Lenau, sometimes referred to as the ‘German Byron’ was the archetype of romantic thought at the time: “With the expression Bodenlosigkeit [rootlessness] I think I am able to indicate the general character of all American institutions; what we call Fatherland is here only a property insurance scheme.” America’s culture “had in no sense come up organically from within … There was only a dull materialism.

The American knows nothing; he seeks nothing but money; he has no ideas.” Then came Lenau’s haunting image: “the true land of the end, the outer edge of man.”

The romantics were followed by the anti-materialism philosophers. Nietzsche led the way, arguing that Americanism was the quest to reducing everything to a materialist paradigm. “The breathless haste with which they [the Americans] work — the distinctive vice of the new world — is already beginning ferociously to infect old Europe and is spreading a spiritual emptiness over the continent.”

A disciple of Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger proposed the concept of Amerikanertum (Americanness) which was to be “not geographically but spiritually understood”. Americanness is “the decisive step by which we make our way from a dependence on the earth to the use of the earth, the step that mechanises and electrifies inanimate material and makes the elements of the world into agencies of human use”.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger offered an explanation of Americanism removed from the concept of the American nation state as an attitude, a worldview. Americanism is “still unfolding and not yet full or completed essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times”. For Heidegger, America was katestrophenhaft, the site of catastrophe.

Heidegger espoused a way for Europe so that it had to find an identity in being in ‘the middle’; it would necessarily have to be in a state of a ‘pole of opposition’ to America.

Even though echoes of pure prejudice are sometimes prevalent in early European thought regarding America, the scene post Second World War, post communism and post 9/11 would see this chain of thought crystallising into what is known as the hegemony debate.

The writer is a security analyst.