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Twilight

The end of the Cold War, argues French writer Marc Weitzmann, was more significant to U.S. foreign policy than the attacks of Sept. 11

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Marc Weitzmann. (Olivier Roller.)
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Obama in the Mideast

Part 1 of 2: Elliott Abrams, Robert Malley, Dore Gold, and Andrew Exum consider the president’s policies in the region.

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.

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European fatalism has long been the flip side of European utopianism. During the latter Cold War era, Jean-Francois Revel and his ilk were convinced that the Soviets would win, because the West was simply too soft to resist them. As it turned out the West had more backbone–and the Soviets less–than he imagined.

That included Europe, as it turned out: rather than succumb to Eurocommunism, European governments during the 1980s effectively suppressed their homegrown, Soviet-sponsored terrorist movements, elected Thatcher and Kohl, and deployed theater-range nuclear weapons to counter Soviet SS-20s. Its seemingly unstoppable momentum checked, the Soviet threat promptly melted away.

I suppose it’s easy to see echoes of the 1970s–or even the 1930s–in today’s lackadaisical Western response to external threats from the Middle East, China and even Russia. But it’s worth remembering that the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, and the 1970s to the 1980s. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme–and the next line of this particular couplet is pretty easy to predict.

The Cold War never ended. The Russians may have changed regime names, but not their designs nor many of their methods. As Keyser Soze said in The Usual Suspects, the cleverest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince everyone he didn’t exist.

Weitzman sounds like an interesting guy who delves into subjects that are near to my heart.

I’m not sure I agree with the all or nothing approach of the first paragraph of this article; it’s pretty heavy handed. I think commenter Dan Simon has provided a much more balanced outlook onto what lies on the looming political horizon.

In a broad sense, I doubt that Americans and ‘Old Europe’ even agree on what Western Civilization is. Old Europe tends to see it as a repository of literature, art, and architecture that is contained in its capitols, plus whatever its intellectuals are busy contemplating in cafes and universities.
America’s version has more to do with personal liberty, and even if in its most basic form it’s nothing more than consumerism, it holds tremendous appeal to parts of the world that are not made up of Old Europe, but rather their former colonies.

While Europe’s star certainly hinges on America’s fortunes, I wonder how true the converse is. While many Europhiles celebrated the triumph of their continent in the 90s as it bloodlessly overcame the Cold War and developed the EU, and again as the euro overtook the dollar, few of them appreciated that all of it was a product of American largesse; the Pax Americana. America helped defeat the Axis, America saved Europe from Soviet expansion w/the Marshall Plan, and NATO allowed Western Europe to prosper under American military cover. No American bombing of Serbia in 1999, no Euro currency two years later.
As America’s power wanes, so does Europe’s. In fact, Europe’s goes even faster. The Euro currency was supposed to be their big debut on the world stage, the first truly European (ie no American involvement) endeavor since WW2. Well, for a few years, they looked pretty good. But now the Eurozone is in deep trouble, and the framework of the EU itself is in danger of collapse. And to think, they had the arrogance to believe the euro really would replace the dollar as the world currency.
Well, the EU would never have been viable as a superpower because you need to be able to project military force for that, and they still depended on America’s. Nonetheless, it’s surprising that their collapse would arrive as the result of a banking crisis.
Yeah, I’m calling it a collapse because even if some sort of compromise is reached, Germany has already showed itself as a bully to the smaller nations, and once that particular specter occurs, the bloom is off the EU rose. The whole endeavor was designed as a mask to give Germany cover as it grew resurgent after WW2, which it most certainly has. But the EU didn’t only give Germany cover, the eurozone also gave Germany a great export market; in reality P’gal or Ireland weren’t the biggest economic winners from the EU, Germany was.
The EU can fall apart and no one cares, but the US is still needed as a superpower; no one else is able.

Friends this is a very hectic process of selecting the finalists. Specially when the nominations are so many. Its better they take their own time and get the right ones on the final lists. – Madam, there’s no such thing as a tough child if you parboil them first for seven hours, they always come out tender. W.C.Filelds 1880 1959

Its not common for a US President to be cynical of his own country. Cynicism is not a fundamental pillar of our society as it seems to be in Europe. Forward-looking optimism is our favored pillar. Its what makes us stand out in the world. Thus, President Obama does not fit in well within our nation. It is why most Americans wonder how our nation could produce someone who is so cynical. He appears to be un-American. It is why so many of us wonder if he is, indeed, American.

I’ve said that least 4861231 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

nice concepts, but how about just now not weblog for the day you do not need anything to mention… ;) quality over amount! http://www.xpanda.getlisted.co.nz/screen-doors-nz

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Twilight

The end of the Cold War, argues French writer Marc Weitzmann, was more significant to U.S. foreign policy than the attacks of Sept. 11

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