The Magazine

Imperial America?

From the April 5, 2004 issue: The paranoid tradition in European thought.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Living on over-extended credit in a country hysterically obsessed with security, where the death penalty is increasingly used and racial obsessions are out of control, Americans, collectively and individually, just cannot cut the imperial figure. The U.S. military appears to be powerful, but that is only because it attacks weak adversaries. The real purpose of "gesticulations" in Afghanistan and Iraq is to impress the Europeans and the Japanese, who must at all costs be kept in the illusion that they either need the United States or should fear it.

To this broad picture of the global situation, Todd adds a curious theoretical gloss based on his theory that rising literacy produces falling birthrates. The good news here is that, together, lower birthrates and rising literacy mean a more liberal, democratic, peaceful environment. The bad news is that along the way, one can expect some confusion: Societies that are rapidly becoming more literate tend to produce distraught young men who can vent their rage by, say, flying airplanes into buildings. But not to worry, it passes.

After the Empire is silly, mean-spirited, and anti-Semitic bile, bigoted to a degree that borders on racist condescension. It is poorly written and foolishly argued. When Todd thinks he has data supporting an argument, he uses them; when he wants to extend the argument to an area where there or inadequate data, he offers sweeping intuitions (Russia's "stability," America's "racial maelstrom"). One wishes, as they say in France, that Todd took the trouble to look in front of his own nose--for in France, the public school system, famous as an engine of "republican integration," is a shambles in poor neighborhoods. This would not, to a researcher trained in empirical social science, necessarily prove anything other than that France is going through a patch of trouble in this area, just as any complicated society does from time to time. But it is from such evidence in other countries that Todd decides America is collapsing into a mad and blind bully.

After the Empire shows all the usual and tired themes of such screeds. There is first of all, as Jean-François Revel showed in last year's L'Obsession anti-américaine, an old quarrel of the French (and European) left with the doctrine of liberty. For all its supposed conversion to liberal ideas, the book remains deeply convinced that international trade, to take one of Todd's manic obsessions, is a form of grand larceny.

IN A SPIRITED ATTACK on French bigotries, the historian Pierre Rigoulot has shown that sinister references to "Jewish lobbies" now take the place of explicit references to a "mongrel nation" and that sort of thing. Rigoulot, whose L'Antiaméricanisme recently was published in France, notes that there is not a canard in the French catalog of American sins that was not common currency during the Vichy regime on the extreme right and the Cold War coming from the extreme left--including our lousy food, our low cultural level, and, one of Todd's favorites, our inept warriors. The hysterical fear of a "predatory capitalism," a declining United States that cannot fight, failed integration, religious bigotry, and the rest of what Todd seems to think emerged in the late 1990s (presumably because he was pro-American in the 1980s) have been around for ages.

Rigoulot, who is a historian about the same age as Todd and underwent a similar cultural history, refers to anti-Americanism in France as a "ready made" system of thinking, and much of it does indeed seem simply a vulgar form of intellectual sloth. But as Rigoulot also points out, sloth combined with hatred is cause for alarm. French anti-Americanism often, though not always, blends into anti-Semitism, which has become politically acceptable in France in the past few years.

Todd himself manages to put in some condescending words about American Jews' overwrought worrying, and he claims French Jews are far more reasonable about their own situation than Americans make them out to be. The reality, as Michel Gurfinkiel and others have noted, is that the violence directed at Jews and Jewish institutions is at a level unseen since World War II. French Jewish emigration, toward Israel and the United States, is likewise at unprecedented levels. Todd prefers the facile cliché that Israel, with the support of the "neoconservatives who will be the gravediggers of the American empire," has lost sight of its original values. The ultimate cliché within the cliché is that a state that defends its people is abandoning its values.

False social science, fashionable clichés, ill-mannered condescension, ahistorical readings of America's own sense of its international mission, gloating predictions of decline and doom--there is absolutely nothing to recommend this sorry excuse for a book.

Roger Kaplan is author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.