September 27, 2003

Not Neo-Cons or Neo-Straussiansm, But

Not Neo-Cons or Neo-Straussiansm, But Neo-Hobbesians

In an interview (French language) in Le Figaro, Peter Sloterdijk opines that neo-conservatives seek to return world politics to a "state of nature." He therefore labels them neo-Hobbesians.

Sloterdijk's "Critique of Cynical Reason" remains a wonderful text. Who can forget his treatment of the haunting picture of the entry sign at Auschwitz that read "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Labor is Liberating"? Little surprise, in his narrative, such events help an "enlightened false consciousness" take root after such grotesquely cynical treatment of the most evil barbarism.

But, as do many Euro-intellectuals these days, Sloterdijk goes off the deep end a bit when it comes to the USA. Not only are brutish neo-Hobbesians populating the Beltway--but Europe has become the idlyic America of the 18th Century:

"Nous sommes devenus des AmŽricains du XVIIIe sicle, proclamant notre droit ˆ vivre dans des espaces o l'histoire ne peut plus nous atteindre."

Translation: "We [the Europeans] have become the Americans of the 18th Century, proclaiming our right to live in the spaces where history can not reach us." [ed. note: yes Sloterdijk does credit Robert Kagan for having made related arguments recently]

But is that what America's founders were seeking? To live in a blissful nation unscarred by History's march?

No, I'd wager. The Founding Fathers were boldly staking out a new polity--not with the goal of creating a paradise outside of history--but with the hope of creating a freer society than that which they had come from. But the key point is that they were surely conscious that threats would gather and need to be confronted to retain the fruits of liberty achieved in the new polity. They had not embarked on a frivolous mission with the chimerical goals of "escaping" history.

Ultimately, Sloterdijk is too tempted to analyze the state of world politics through overly ironic lens thus reaching too cute conclusions:

"Les Etats-Unis se sont construits justement pour Žchapper ˆ la rŽalitŽ europŽenne dŽcrite de faon exemplaire par Hobbes. Car l'auteur du LŽviathan justifiait philosophiquement l'absolutisme Žtatique. Les premiers AmŽricains sont les ennemis de cet absolutisme et ils n'ont qu'un rve : fuir une Europe o Hobbes a raison. Or aujourd'hui, que voit-on ? On voit les AmŽricains faire leur le pessimisme ontologique de Hobbes et se convertir ˆ l'idŽologie mme dont le rejet constitua la raison d'tre de leur nation!"

Translation: "The U.S. built itself precisely to escape the European reality described in exemplary fashion by Hobbes. Because the author of Leviathan justified philosphically state absolutism. The first Americans were the enemies of this absolutism and had but one dream: to flee a Europe where Hobbes was right. And today, what do we see? We see Americans make Hobbes' ontological pessimism their own and convert themselves to this same ideology whose very rejection constituted the reason for their nation's creation!"

Doubts about Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, de-mining protocols, and the like do not, even collectively, evince a desire among key policymakers in Washington to return to the "state of nature." Nor does sober analysis evidence attempts by the Administration, acting pursuant to Presidential direction or imperatives, to purposefully make irrelevant any of the varied post-WWII international security/economic architecture. And note only two post-WWII conflicts (Korea and Gulf War I) enjoyed explicit UNSC approval.

So what is it about this latest war in Iraq that causes this intense distrust of U.S. policymakers among so many in Europe, these hyperbolic arguments bandied about by intellectuals about a reversion to the "state of nature"?

I think we need to conclude that it's the presence of a sole hyperpower that's really to blame--the resentment of a behemoth like hegemon without any counterweight(s) on the international stage. It was all tolerable in the '90s when the actions undertaken were either in response to direct aggression against a neighbor (Kuwait) or to tidy up Euro-messes (Bosnia, Kosovo). But its seemingly gotten a bit too burdensome now. And many need to lash out because of it--often in irrational manner.

There's more to this, of course, and we share a bit of the blame. But the lion's share of the lashing out against the U.S. on this side of the Atlantic, I'd wager, stems from the simple fact that the hyperpower appears so omnipotent.

The international system is off-kilter and unmoored from traditional balance of power politics. This has upset many in Europe who, particularly post 9/11, fear that American policy is taking a militaristic turn without any nation (or group of nations) able to restrain such perceived tendencies. All this helps expain some of the happiness (barely concealed) at the perceived comeuppance of the U.S. in Iraq during the post-war slog.

Posted by Gregory at September 27, 2003 09:04 PM

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