The Magazine


Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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But pride of place for invoking hegemonic America to oppose NATO action in Kosovo goes to Washington's old nemesis, Regis Debray. For those who may have forgotten, Debray is the scion of a wealthy French family who made his early career fomenting Third World revolutions with Che Guevara. In a lengthy and "philosophical" article, again in Le Monde, Debray contended that the Kosovo crisis demonstrates just how far Europe has become America's colony. Not only militarily but in thought and culture, argues Debray, Europe has adopted the "seal of American foreign policy and made it our own: moral idealism plus technological superiority . . . the idea of right plus the machine." This combination of universalism and technology represents a "flight from political reasoning." All of Europe has been "deprogrammed" to adopt American ways of thinking. A mind has become Americanized when it simplifies everything, when "the notion of time is replaced by that of space, when historical thinking is replaced by technological calculation, and political thinking by moralistic thinking." Above all, the Americanized mind is one that cannot appreciate historical context. It finds its purest expression in a media-saturated world. "With CNN, all the planet becomes America."

Debray sums up America's relation to Serbia as follows: "a stop and go empire, arrogant and without memory, moved by a Manichaean mythology, sees itself invested with supreme power, a power of life and death, over a region that in a sick state of its own suffers like no other from an excess of memory." The Kosovo situation, for all it reveals about the crisis of Europe, represents for Debray an opportunity. A NATO failure would force Europeans to realize the extent to which they have become Americanized -- "as uncultured and shortsighted as their leader." Kosovo can become the opportunity to rescue the European mind from Americanism.

As detached as these views may seem from anything happening in the Balkans, they draw on a long tradition of European intellectual thought that has invoked the symbol of America to generate opposition to any notion of universal norms. This tradition extends as far back as the Romantic reaction against rationalism, when the German poet Heinrich Heine described America as "that pig pen of freedom / inhabited by boors living in equality." In the current phase of the struggle, the far Right champions the particularities forces of nationalism against America while the postmodern Left celebrates the free-floating idea of "differences." In both cases, the defeat of America is understood to be the real battle of our times.

This general line of argument, in less virulent form, has a wide following in European intellectual circles, and it has proven itself quite capable in other circumstances, such as during the Gulf War, of generating sentiment against any kind of military venture led by the United States. If this discourse has so far remained largely on the sidelines during NATO's bombing of Serbia, it is only because its exponents feel that it is too fine a position to be endangered by any association with the likes of Milosevic.

But the few intellectuals who have been wielding this discourse have positioned themselves adeptly. It is not their argument that Milosevic can be excused, but that the American mind is utterly too coarse to solve the problem. NATO's policy -- America's policy -- is one without subtlety and comprehension: It is clueless. These intellectuals are trying to attach their long-standing argument against "Americanism" to the possibility of a failure of the Kosovo war strategy. If people wake up at some point to see that this policy has produced no worthwhile result on the ground -- if Clinton's Kosovo policy becomes the international equivalent of his ill-fated siege in Waco -- then these thinkers hope to extract a victory for their larger argument against universal norms. Their position also offers the political bonus of a foreign scapegoat. If the policy fails, Americans will have only themselves to blame; Europeans can shift the onus onto America.