Reflections on the Letter of the 30 in The Guardian
What immediately drew my attention, when recently seeing in the British Guardian a letter that was ringing alarm bells and crying the death of Europe (“Fight for Europe or wreckers will destroy it”, The Guardian, 25 January 2019), was the first name in the list of 30 European intellectuals having signed the letter. Among them were names of a quite a few authors whose writings I, like most Europeans and not only them, have enjoyed reading for years, but the first was Bernard-Henry Levy (BHL, as the French shorthand him). BHL is indeed well known, at least in France, for his ability to self-promotion. This may also explain the place of his name in the list.
I have read also quite a lot of what BHL has written, but unfortunately mostly with considerable disappointment. And this does not so much apply to his writings on philosophy or pretending to be philosophical. So, his 2006 book American Vertigo, having pretentions of being a kind of new Alexis Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”, excelled mostly in superficialities. However, there are much more serious problems with this intellectual, whose signature opens the list of the authors of the letter in The Guardian. So, already in 1981, he advocated the cause of the Afghan Islamists, among them certain Oussama bin Laden. Calling for arming these “freedom-fighters” he claimed in December of that year on French TF1: “I believe that today the Afghans have no chance of triumphing if we are not going to intervene in internal affairs of Afghanistan’ [Bernard-Henry Lévy, journal télévisé de la nuit de TF1, 29 Décembre 1981, in “Quand les Djihadists étaient nos amis” (when the jihadists were our friends), The Monde Diplomatique, Févrer, 2016].
His interventionist strive has not weakened since. On the contrary. Although BHL may have exaggerated his role in dragging in 2011 France, together with its NATO allies, into the Libyan debacle, he certainly did whatever he could to encourage President Nicolas Sarkozy, who may have had personal and weightier reasons for getting rid of Moammar Gaddafi, to intervene militarily in Libya. In any case, the destruction of Libya as a result of NATO intervention is one of the reasons of the current increase of the illegal migration from Africa into Europe. Whenever there has been a chance for a Western military interference in the non-Western world, BHL has always been seen crusading. Notwithstanding that none of these interventions has made the countries, where interventions have taken place, better run, freer and more prosperous, or the world, including Europe, safer, BHL is not sprinkling ash on his head. Instead, he is looking for new adventures, for new dragons to slay. It is, therefore, not accidental that Pascal Boniface, the Director of the Institute of International Relations and Strategy (IRIS) in Paris, dedicated in his book on intellectual forgers and experts on lies many pages to BHL (Les intellectuels faussaires: Le triomphe médiatique des experts en mensonge, 2011).
Be that as it may with Bernard-Henry Levy, though having even one bad apple may sometimes spoil the whole bunch, the letter of the 30 is in itself a worrying symbol of the division of Europe without any signs of the search for, or even desire of, understanding those who differ, to say nothing about trying to look for compromises. It is a liberal-elitist declaration stating that those who don’t think like us are, almost by definition, wrong and dangerous. And what a name-calling for those who dare to differ: “arsonists of soul and spirit”, “false prophets who are drunk on resentment”, “delirious”. The letter certainly does not follow the maxim that one of the greatest European liberal thinkers Baruch Spinoza bequeathed us: “Do not mock, do not weep, do not hate. Understand”. And though such an intolerant cris du cœur has become too widespread in Europe as well as over the Atlantic, one could have expected better from an intellectual elite
Like the authors of the letter, I am not happy that Great Britain, where as a citizen of Estonia and the European Union I live, is in the process of leaving the Union, I don’t like many things that President Trump is doing (but are his American opponents doing any better?), and most importantly, I am for a strong and independent Europe. But Europe of today is sharply divided into elites and the masses of people. In France such a tendency is reflected, primarily, in the movement of “yellow vests”. In Britain, these are mainly pro-and anti-Brexiters. In most European countries the divide is sharp between those who favour migration and those who prefer to constrain it. And more generally, the divide is between those elites that have benefited from processes of globalisation and those who are left behind. This is indeed a period in the history of the Old Continent when a visionary political leadership is called for. Today Europe is in dare need, but completely lacking, of statesmen like Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer or at least politicians of the calibre of Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Helmut Kohl or Gerhard Schroeder in their better moments. Today, when it is needed more than ever before, Europe is short of leader who can say “no” to Washington – an attribute President de Gaulle expected from those who sought to become his successors (Gabriel Matzneff, Venus et Junon, La Table Rond, 1999, p. 50) Gradually but steadily political leaders in the Old Continent have lost the ability to foresee and to lead. And the main reason for such a sad state of affairs is that after WWII Europe has lost its strategic independence. The American nuclear umbrella, being justified in the post-war bi-polar world but having lost its raison d’être after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has had also its price tags. One of them has been the strategic dependence from Washington. Not only political, but also quite a large part of intellectual, elites have lost the ability to think in ways different from what is accepted as mainstream in America. Pascal Boniface in his most recent book “Requiem pour le Mond Occidental” (Eyrolles, 2019) – the book that notwithstanding its title, is much more optimistic than the letter of the 30 since it not only diagnoses the present European crisis, but also outlines remedies for overcoming it – analyses the reasons of the current “closing of the European mind” (here I am paraphrasing the title of Alan Bloom’s famous book “Closing the American Mind”). Boniface observes: “It is difficult to think differently from the environment not only as a precautionary measure against being marginalised, but also and foremost because of the incapacity to think differently owing to the feeling of being part of the same world, Western, democratic and peaceful, that is, moreover, threatened by others”. And such a feeling has been constantly brought home (into European homes) by the American led mainstream media while its docile acceptance by Europeans is not only a sign of strategic conformism but also of intellectual laziness.
However, now we live in the world that is radically different from periods that most of living today Europeans can remember. Analogies may come only from some distant past. The balance of power in the world is rapidly changing. Not only the Cold War bi-polarity but also the unipolarity of the 1990s is already in the past and a new multi-polar world is gradually emerging. The mass migration is hitting Europe, terrorist threats persist, and inequality is reaching unacceptable levels. In such a situation a “new thinking” is needed. Intellectual timidity and moaning about the rise of populism is not an answer. Even more counter-productive is shifting the blame to others, as the letter of the 30 does, when claiming that “the continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin”. Even if the authors may have in a hurry confused the Kremlin with the White House, the current American brazen meddling in Europe (e.g. sanctioning of European companies that are doing business with Iran, the campaign against the Nord Stream II), instead of soft nosiness of Clinton and Obama administrations, and Trump’s open scorn for European politicians should have served as a wake-up call for the latter. For Europe to be strong, it is necessary to start reconciling interests of elites and peoples not by calling names and attaching labels but trying to understand and also being ready to compromise. Presenting Russia and its President as a bogeyman is not only an anti-Russian, but also an anti-European policy. Russia is a European country and alienating it is not in Europe’s interest. I am not at all sure that it is even in the American enlightened (too much to expect?) interest. Although the Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok (or to the Urals) may be somebody’s nightmare in Washington, even bigger nightmare should be a Beijing-Moscow axis. And not only in Washington, but also in European capitals.