Friendly Questions to America the Powerful

Pierre Hassner
Friendly Questions to America the Powerful - Pierre Hassner

When what W. Fulbright called "the arrogance of power" meets what Hedley Bull called "the arrogance of impotence," the result can only be misunderstanding and mutual bitterness. A Euro­pean addressing American friends in their present mood is tempted to remind them of Hegel's comment on Napoleon faced with the Spanish guerrillas: "the impotence of victory" or of Havel's formu­lation on the "power of the powerless." But he knows that while victory has its risks, as Paul Schroeder has reminded the readers of National Interest, the risks of defeat are not necessarily to be pre­ferred, nor the power of the powerful to be dismissed lightly.

A great number of misunderstandings arise from the failure to think through the notions of victory and power, of war and of terrorism, of hegemony and empire.

What Kind of War, Against What Kind of Terror?

Contrary to what many Americans believe, Europeans have known for quite a long time about the evils of terrorism and the need to fight it, including by violent means. Equally, they know that the world has become a very insecure place due to the ability of small groups of fanatics to inflict unprecedented harm upon civilization. Most recognize that a world ruled by law, from which inequalities of power and the possibility of war have been eliminated (an American idea, more than a European one), or a multi-polar world based on the rivalry and cooperation of several more or less equally powerful states (a nostalgic dream of some Europeans which looks more unreal every day), are impossible. In the real world, the United States is much stronger in the classical sense, i.e. militarily and economically than any rival state or coalition and it is the most effective force for good today as yesterday, against totalitarian threats. But the legitimacy and efficacy of America's bid for hegemony and of its war on terror depend on a more differentiated view of the world, than its current mood combining a feeling of victimhood, of vulnerability and of invincibility seems to allow. If a feeling of moral and military supe­riority over the rest of the world is considered as the essential basis of America's war on terror and of its hegemony it risks compromis­ing both. There is more to hegemony than superiority, more to power than military power, more to terrorism than al Qaeda or Islamic fun­damentalism, more to the fight against them than "war" in the clas­sical sense, more to ruling the world, dealing with its problems and fighting its dangers than in the philosophy of American unilateral­ism or benevolent empire.

On the difference in the attitudes of Americans and Europe­ans towards the war on terrorism, the best introduction to under­standing is the formulation by the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who says: "The Americans feel they are engaged in a war, the Europeans feel they are engaged in preventing one." But this is only half of the truth. The other half is that both Americans and Europeans are engaged in a war against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations which are waging war on them, but that both have an interest in avoiding that this war be turned into a war of the West against the rest, or into a clash of civilizations, or into a war between rich and poor, North and South, center and periphery, former colonizers and former colonized, or of Christians, Jews and perhaps Hindus against Muslims. It is absolutely crucial to maintain this distinction which is based on differentiating between the organized ter­rorist movements based on a hatred of liberalism and modernity and on ideological fanaticism, and on the other hand the sources of their recruitment, of their support, or of the sympathy they inspire in the greater part of the world-which are feelings of humiliation, oppres­sion and exclusion. This distinction is all the more important as it is precisely the strategy of the terrorists to blur it by attracting repres­sion on wider circles of the population which they falsely claim to represent.

It is absolutely essential to dispel the feeling of Western weak­ness based on previous passivity, American as well as European; it is just as essential not to fall into the trap of believing that punishment and retaliation will by themselves provoke the end of terrorism rather than feeding it by inspiring despair and bloody revenge. Most Ameri­cans are emphasizing the first aspect more, and most Europeans the second. This is the part of truth in Robert Kagan's interpretation in terms of power and weakness, although if by power one means ef­fectiveness in the struggle against terrorism rather than superior tech­nology and defence budgets, the performance of American intelli­gence is rather inferior to that of European intelligence. Moreover its post-Vietnam legalistic rules, as well as, on the military level, the doctrine of zero-death and the primacy of force protection are no more European than recent ideas of peace through prosperity and democracy or of global governance. On the European side while it is perfectly true that, particularly in some smaller countries, weakness produces an instinct for accommodation at all costs, it is no less true that some other countries are accustomed to living with terrorism and fighting it and that all may have a better sense than most Ameri­cans for the perceptions and the passions of the rest of the world.

The formula of the war against terrorism and its equation with the war of Good against Evil contain a basically admirable message: the unconditional opposition to deliberate attacks on civilian populations. But the translation of this condemnation into a strategy raises a host of moral, legal and political problems.

First, the objectionable word in the expression the 'axis of evil' is not that of 'evil' but that of 'axis' which seems to negate or neglect the necessary analytical and strategic differentiation between vari­ous separate or loosely connected movements and states.

More importantly, if the discriminating criterion is that of death and suffering inflicted upon civilian populations, and if the quality claimed is moral clarity, it must equally apply to strategic bombing directed against cities (those of the allies in World War II, those of Russia in Chechnya, those the U.S. Air Force used in Vietnam and which General Short, unlike General Clark, would have liked to use in Serbia) to reprisals on towns and villages and probably to most economic embargoes.

Any more specific interpretation must move away from moral absolutes in at least one of four possible directions. Is it, as some recent presidential pronouncements would seem to suggest, a Holy Alliance of all states, or of all Great Powers against all insurgent movements, where each ally brings his own definition of terrorism corresponding to its national or ideological opponents; like the Chechens, Kashmiris, Albanians, Chinese dissidents? Or is it a war against global or transnational terrorists leaving aside local move­ments? Alternatively one could see the war as an international police action against authors of war crimes, of crimes against humanity or of genocide without distinguishing between states and non­governmentals movements or individuals. Finally, at the opposite end, the war can be seen as a defensive operation by the United States and anyone willing to join it against those terrorists who threaten or inflict harm on it and its allies (i.e. mainly against Islamic terrorists) while leaving aside all others or even joining forces with them.

It is clear that American policy and public opinion tend, today, to neglect these distinctions and to lump the last two options to­gether, to the extent that the United States and those who wish it well are considered as the incarnation of the Good, while those who wish them harm are considered as the incarnation of Evil. This may be perfectly legitimate in some political and strategic circumstances, just as it was to be allied with Stalin against Hitler. But it does not justify, giving a clean bill of moral health to the man who perfected the destruction of Grozny and is plausibly accused of organizing terrorist bombings against his own people, or to the authors of genocide in Tibet or even to the man responsible for the massacres of Sabra and Chatyla and for countless reprisals against civilian populations.

Similar problems concern the notion of war. It is legitimate to speak, metaphorically, of a war against terrorism as one speaks of the war against drugs, cancer or poverty and to connect it to the eternal war between good and evil although, as religious writers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Michael Novak have warned, seeing ourselves as Children of Light against Children of Darkness carries the danger of self-righteousness and hubris and may lead us ultimately to be­come fanatical ourselves. One should never lose sight of Arthur Koestler's saying during the fight against communist totalitarian­ism: "We are defending a half-truth against a total lie."

However that may be, this never-ending conflict and this meta­physical confrontation should sharply be distinguished from the con­cept of war as established by the Western tradition, unless one falls into the trap laid by Osama Bin Laden's declaration of jihad. A war, classically, is an organized activity that has a beginning and an end, and has rules both concerning the legitimate ways of waging it (jus in bello) and the legitimate causes for declaring it (jus ad bellum). Of course our time offers many examples of undeclared and unfin­ished war, but this does not suppress the need for moderating and legitimizing rules substituting, however imperfectly, the rule of law and the judicial authority present in domestic affairs. This is essen­tial for the status of combatants who must either be protected as prisoners of war or judged as presumed criminals.

Of course terrorists pose a special problem and necessity may dictate executing them summarily in times of war. Necessity may also, in an emergency, lead to disregard of legal guarantees in order to prevent an imminent crime or catastrophe, although it should never justify torture even with such thin alibis as practicing it by proxy or outside one's own territory. But the point is that the burden of proof should be on those who practice the exceptional treatment, and that in principle and in the long run no man or state should be deprived of legal guarantees and no authority should be the ultimate judge in its own cause. This, at least, is what has always been understood as the doctrine, recognized and applied sometimes with excessive le­galism by the United States. What is deeply worrying is not that this principle be breached in extreme circumstances but that the breach should be made into a generalized doctrine, the criticism of which should be branded as un- or anti-American. A teacher I have in com­mon with some of the more hawkish members or supporters of the Bush administration, Leo Strauss, has shown that the difference be­tween Machiavelli and Aristotle, was that the former took his bear­ings by the extreme cases and delighted in showing how far they could be carried and how they revealed the truth about politics, whereas the true statesman, in the Aristotelian sense, took his bear­ings by the normal case and, while knowing that no action can be totally excluded in front of an evil enemy, made every effort to return to the normal priorities and behavior as quickly and as completely as possible. What amazes the foreign friends of the United States is the ability of Americans to move between the extremes of Kantian ideal­ism and Machiavellian realism.

The same applies to the new doctrine of pre-emption. No rea­sonable person would deny that if a state has reliable information on a terrorist or any criminal act being about to be perpetrated, it will not wait for the deed to be done but will seize the suspects. Nor would many deny that a pre-emptive strike against a state who is, to the best of one's knowledge, about to attack you is justified in cer­tain circumstances. And finally while the Israeli strike at the Osirak nuclear reactor was criticized by most, including the Reagan admin­istration, it appears retrospectively justified, particularly against a state with which Israel was in principle at war. But all this does not detract from the fact that a central concern both of political philoso­phy and of modem strategy has been precisely to avoid the security dilemma, the 'reciprocal fear of surprise attack,' the temptation or the necessity of a 'launch on warming' or of pre-emptive war. Cer­tainly, once again, the new American doctrine is based on a concern that is just as valid and urgent the impossibility to deter terrorists who welcome suicide and who offer no territorial targets for retalia­tion. But once again, to build upon this situation a doctrine centered around the idea of unilaterally launching a first strike against any state which possesses or builds weapons of mass destruction (like the United States itself and several of its old or new allies), is suspect of helping terrorists, and hence may, one hypothetical day, facilitate the use of the former by the latter against the United States, means extending the notion of pre-emption to an arbitrary and open ended 'anticipatory defence.' It means creating a situation of permanent or open-ended exception and insecurity. In practice it means perma­nent war, since there will always be some terrorists and some weap­ons of mass destruction left, and since suspect states that have been deterred so far will themselves be tempted to pre-empt. Even con­ceptually, the only end in sight would be total and, so to speak, to­tally uncontrolled control by the United States.

What Kind of Power for What Kind of Rule?

This brings us to the other series of ambiguities, that which surrounds the notion of American hegemony or empire. There is no question that the conditions for American supremacy have grown with every conflict of the last century. Neither World War I, nor nazism, nor communism, nor messianic terrorism were invented or provoked by the United States but in each case its role was decisive in resisting the threat to freedom and civilization and in each case until the last it emerged less scathed than the other powers and able to extend its influence to new territories (which is already happening again for instance in Central Asia) and to the organization of peace. But in each case there were daunting obstacles particularly in the way of the latter task, inducing the contrasting temptation of exces­sive ambitions and of withdrawal. The aftermath of World War I and World War II stand, of course, in stark contrast in this respect.

Woodrow Wilson's excessively idealistic faith in abstract principles and international institutions was followed by a partial retreat to half­isolationalist unilateralism except in economic matters. In the forties and fifties, on the other hand, the United States, managed to estab­lish its hegemony solidly on the three pillars of military protection, economic aid and the creation of multilateral institutions. In all these respects it maintained a high degree of superiority and of freedom of action, while giving its allies a feeling of belonging and, participa­tion, helping them to recover from the war and to unite, thereby run­ning the risk of building up potential rivals, in what Churchill called ''the most unsordid act in history."

Building a new order after November 1989 and, even more, after September 2001 is a much harder task because of several changes that pull in different directions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union created a constraint that, while not immune against misunderstand­ings and failures like in Vietnam, did discipline both the withdrawal impulse and the adventurous one. Today the nature of the threat en­courages both. Anarchy and civil wars in far away lands encourage the temptation to withdraw or the reluctance to intervene; decentral­ized fanatical terrorism encourages unilateralism and the temptation to pre-empt. Economically, the international scene has become more complex and more difficult to control; other actors have grown and make it more difficult for the United States either to withdraw from the world or to control its institutions: reciprocity becomes inevita­ble and the cost of ignoring it increases. Last but not least, global issues involving security (like non-proliferation, the police and fi­nancial fight against terrorism and money-laundering) the environ­ment or world health and hunger are increasingly calling for multi­lateral cooperation and institutions. While the use of force can less and less be left to multilateral institutions and even to coalitions of the willing, the prevention and resolution of conflicts can less and less be left to the unilateral actions of one power, even to an imperial one. Hence the oscillations of the Clinton and even more of the Bush administration, sometimes in a matter of weeks, between, for instance, passivity and engagement, attempts at mediation and alignment on Israeli policy in the Middle East.

The basic tendency, however, is in the direction of the primacy of unilateralism and military power, in a way that may harm the le­gitimacy and the long-term stability of American leadership. What seems to stand in the way of the acceptability of American hegemony, in this respect, are two kinds of exceptionalism, which one may call the imperial and the nationalist one.

The imperial one consists in a complete asymmetry of rights and duties between the hegemon and the rest of the. world, in the refusal to recognize any superior law or authority that might limit its freedom of action. The last ten years have been occupied by the de­bate between sovereignists and interventionists, the first claiming that the sovereignty of states was the basis of international order, the second that it should give way to the right of intervention in favor of human rights. The United States seems to have solved this dilemma as far as it is concerned, by claiming for itself, both absolute sover­eignty and the absolute right to infringe, including by military force, the sovereignty of others. The Serbian government should be co­erced into surrendering Milosevic to the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, but it is inconceivable that an American should be indicted, whatever his behavior, by an international court. The United States has the right to detain and interrogate without judgment or access to legal counsel any foreigner, but no foreign or international authority has similar rights against an American. This feeling is so strong that it leads the United States to collide with its best allies, including Britain, and to veto a peace-keeping operation in Bosnia based on an American negotiated agreement and crucial for the future of this country. No wonder, then, that the warnings of Burke, relayed by Owen Harries in The National Interest about the lack of credibility of the notion of a "benevolent empire" look more and more pro­phetic.

This is all the more so when exceptionalism offers not only the grandiose face of imperial hubris, but also the more narrow-minded one of parochial interests. Any imperial power has to balance its interests as a nation and its interests as a leader, which include the interests of the system it leads, i.e. of its empire and to some extent, nowadays, of the planet. This is what Arnold Wolfers called "milieu goals" as opposed to "possession goals" and Albert Hirschmann the "influence effect" as opposed to the "supply effect."

This is what was well understood in the days of George Marshall. The paradox of the Bush administration is that it is both more ambitiously imperial and more narrowly national than before. It does not hesitate to abandon its free-trade gospel in favor of the interests of its steel industry or of its farmers or to harm its crusade against weapons of mass destruction because of the distaste of its biotech industry for international intrusion. More importantly, while the imperial logic ultimately leads to Caracalla's edict, by which the Roman emperor extended citizenship to all the subjects of his em­pire, the current American policy pushes to the extreme the absolute distinction between Americans and non-Americans, between the human rights of an American citizen and of an alien, between the value of an American life and that of allied soldiers, let alone of civilian populations or of enemy combatants. Similarly, what seems shocking is not the rejection oft he Kyoto treaty, which may well be justified, but the way it was presented in terms of the absolute prior­ity of American economic interests over global and ecological ones. This distinction has always been there and is reflected in the U.S. Congress's reluctant attitude toward international treaties even when they correspond to American ideas and ideals. But it should be miti­gated rather than cast in stone ifA merica is to rule by invitation and consent rather than by force alone.

This is all the more necessary since Americans are not pre­pared to undergo the risks and the costs - moral and political as well as economic – of direct rule by military occupation. Pure empire is as utopian as pure rule of law or oft he United Nations or as a truly multi-polar balance. Only a combination oft he three can be promis­ing. In these days when one is rediscovering pagan virtues, Ameri­can students of antiquity would do well to remember - leaving aside the crucial question of the difference between what is acceptable in modem, individualistic society and among the ancients - a number of lessons. Students of Thucydides should remember what follows Pericles's triumphant Funeral Oration and should beware of repro­ducing the expedition to Sicily. Students of Aristotle's Politics could apply to international empire the distinction between well-ordered regimes - like monarchy and republic - who govern in the interests oft he ruled, as well as oft he rulers and by law rather than arbitrarily and corrupt ones like tyranny. Finally the notion oft he mixed regime may well be fruitfully applied to the international order: America should aim at a regime which combines its monarchical rule with respect for international law and multilateral institutions; and those can have no effective role of advice and consent if they do not con­tain an element of autonomous or non-American power, hence of multi-polarity. The choice is between authoritarian, if not tyrannical, rule tempered by anarchic resistance and hegemony tempered by law, by concert and by consent.

This is a modified version of an article originally published in the Fall 2002 edition of The National Interest.