In This Review
American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

By Bernard-Henri Lévy. Translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Random House, 2006, 320 pp.
Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America

By Josef Joffe

Norton, 2006, 256 pp.

American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville.

By Bernard-Henri Lévy. Translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America.

By Josef Joffe.

Although the administration of George W. Bush seems to have moderated both the substance and the style of its foreign policy recently, the consequences of its earlier behavior continue to shape international life. Bush's actions during his first term, especially the invasion of Iraq, unleashed waves of anti-Americanism, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. The fallout has greatly complicated the already difficult task of managing U.S. power in a world grown suspicious of U.S. ambitions.

Two new books by Europeans firmly in the anti-anti-American camp shed light on this sorry state of affairs. In American Vertigo, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a leading French public intellectual and latter-day philosophe, attempts to follow in the footsteps (often literally) of Alexis de Tocqueville as he explores whether the United States today is still the democratic, hopeful, and open society of Democracy in America. In Überpower, Josef Joffe, perhaps the most important strategic thinker in Germany today, investigates the rise of anti-Americanism worldwide, ponders its implications for U.S. grand strategy, and prescribes a treatment for Washington's current foreign policy ills.

Much of the critical reaction to American Vertigo so far has revealed that Americans remain morbidly sensitive to slights from respected foreign observers. The same easily wounded amour-propre that inspired legions of American literati and newspaper editorialists to denounce nineteenth-century travel writers such as Fanny Trollope and Charles Dickens has blinded many readers to the true nature of Lévy's book. Although blasted as the work of an unenlightened and condescending Euro-snob who fails to grasp the majesty of U.S. democracy, the book is in fact an artfully constructed, unblinking defense of the United States against European (especially French) anti-Americanism, a stance all the more remarkable and courageous in the age of Bush.

Yes, Lévy waxes self-righteous about his noble and sensitive opposition to the death penalty. Yes, Lévy finds the mixture of Americans' puritanical fear of sex and their consumerist obsession with it to be creepy and disconcerting. Yes, Lévy descants on his opposition to the war in Iraq and condemns what he considers to be the excesses of neoconservatism in U.S. foreign policy. But it is easy to see where his deepest sympathies lie.

Lévy argues, rightly, that the United States has lost neither its republican instincts nor its democratic soul. Debate and dissent still flourish there. Civil society remains independent and suspicious of the state. There are a lot of fundamentalists running around, but they have not turned the country into the dystopia of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. Nor has nationalism vanquished democracy, although the United States today, as in Tocqueville's time, is vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority. And despite his disagreements with right-wing intellectuals such as William Kristol, Lévy admires their attempts to engage with the world of ideas. Indeed, it is within the American left that he finds an obsession with money and a near-total absence of ideas.


Ironically, Lévy's tribute to the unchangingly democratic nature of the United States makes one of Tocqueville's concerns more salient. Tocqueville believed that international affairs was the Achilles' heel of U.S. democracy. He thought that a successful foreign policy required qualities that democratic societies generally lack, and that those qualities democracies generally have are worse than useless when it comes to confronting the dangers of the real world.

Joffe draws attention to this problem in a very precise and pointed way in Überpower. Joffe recognizes that a successful U.S. foreign policy would need to be thoughtful, subtle, and sophisticated -- but he also realizes that it is questionable whether U.S. public opinion would be able to sustain such a policy. He argues that anti-Americanism constitutes a major and growing problem for U.S. foreign policy and, perhaps even more serious, that powers such as China, Russia, and the European Union are beginning to unite against the United States. An Atlanticist and anti-anti-American to the core, Joffe feels that these developments are troubling not only for the United States but for the international community as a whole. There is important work to be done in the world, he argues, and only the United States can do it.

Joffe maintains that systemic anti-Americanism is akin to a belief that the United States is in "a permanent state of crime against mankind," in the words of the twentieth-century French novelist Henri de Montherlant. Joffe identifies five classic marks of anti-Americanism: reducing Americans to stereotypes, believing the United States to have an irremediably evil nature, ascribing to the U.S. establishment a vast conspiratorial power aimed at utterly dominating the globe, holding the United States responsible for all the evils in the world, and seeking to limit the influence of the United States by destroying it or by cutting oneself and one's society off from its polluting products and practices. Joffe cites a number of extremely disturbing documents, cartoons, and statements from the Arab world demonstrating a full-fledged ideologically based form of anti-Americanism that displays all five traits. A less virulent form of the disease has infected Europe, Joffe argues, and he is able to bring forward an uncomfortable amount of evidence to support his point.

Students of modern German history will note resemblances between the anti-Americanism Joffe describes today and the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Joffe welcomes the comparison. In both Europe and the Arab world, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism frequently travel together, as Joffe ably shows. He believes that the relationship between the two ideologies stems from the representation of Americans and Jews as symbols and agents of modernity and globalization. American and Jewish cultures (exemplified by Hollywood), U.S. and Israeli power, and U.S., Jewish, and Israeli economic success all permeate the world and force others to adapt. As a result, the losers from globalization blame everything they dislike about globalization and modernity on the Americans and the Jews.

Joffe's argument fairly neatly explains regional variations in levels of anti-Americanism. In Latin America and the Arab world, where the costs of globalization and modernity loom large and their benefits seem difficult or impossible for ordinary people to grasp, anti-Americanism is potent. In Europe, where the experience of globalization and modernity has been less negative, there are growing fears not only that the increased competition of the U.S.-led international economy will overwhelm the European social model, but also that the rise of Asia will further endanger Europe's place in the world. And one finds perhaps the deepest hatred toward the United States outside of the Muslim world among certain strata of Russians who still resent the loss of the influence they enjoyed during the Soviet empire.

But other regions have had different experiences. In India and China, for instance, large numbers among both the elite and the population at large have come to view globalization and modernity, and thus to some degree the United States, more favorably. As both countries have opened up to the world economy, their poverty rates have fallen while incomes have increased, and their ranks in the international pecking order have risen. In India, once a hotbed of dependency theorists, strategists of nonalignment, and Marxist critics of all things American, there has been a dramatic and widespread decline in anti-Americanism in recent years. A poll conducted by the BBC in January 2005 showed that 64 percent of respondents in India believed that Bush's reelection in 2004 made the world safer. In China, Japan has replaced the United States as the primary object of nationalist ire. Plenty of opposition to specific U.S. policies remains in both countries -- especially to the Iraq war in India and to U.S. support for Taiwan in China. But at least in China, the atmosphere is noticeably freer of the kind of all-encompassing anti-Americanism present after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.


Joffe never quite defines the connections between anti-Americanism, the hatred and fear of capitalist modernity that uses Americans (and sometimes Jews) as scapegoats, and international great-power opposition to the United States. He clearly worries, however, that heightened anti-Americanism will facilitate the efforts of lesser powers to contain the United States. To avoid such an outcome, Joffe argues that the United States must "balance like Britain," "bond like Bismarck," and supply international public goods (IPGs).

Joffe contends that just as the United Kingdom maintained the balance of power in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States needs to be a force for stability not only in Asia, where it must limit Beijing's aspirations, but in much of the rest of the world. Even Europe still needs U.S. involvement, Joffe writes, because European reconciliation continues to depend on the security structures the United States erected during the Cold War. And Joffe proposes that just as Bismarck sought to prevent an anti-German coalition by forming deep ties with both Austria and Russia, the United States should work with Russia and China to form a strategic triangle and serve as the central power in a "hub-and-spokes" arrangement that keeps India and Pakistan off a collision course.

But these strategies will not be enough by themselves to secure U.S. primacy. Although the United States is far more powerful than any other international actor, it will fail to achieve its goals if other countries do not see its power as legitimate. Joffe quotes the dictum of Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass that "the United States does not need the world's permission to act, but it does need the world's support to succeed." The United States can bolster its legitimacy by producing IPGs that other states want. Much of international security, for example, is an IPG provided by the United States, as are various economic public goods, such as monetary stability and a liberal trading order. An Atlanticist such as Joffe is well aware of the degree to which the production of IPGs was a major element in U.S. strategy during the Cold War. Because the United States historically placed a higher priority on IPGs than the United Kingdom under Lord Palmerston or Germany under Bismarck did, it became a greater power than either ever was.

On this point, however, Joffe shifts from admiring analyst to critic. Since 9/11, he writes, the United States has "flagged as an investor in global public goods." The United States is relying increasingly on bilateral trade deals rather than strengthening the multilateral system, dodging or disregarding international institutions that do not help it, and allowing its trade deficit to continue to expand. And Joffe notes that the international community sees many U.S. policies, such as certain aspects of the war on terrorism, as international public bads. These "public bads" heighten opposition to U.S. power.

Joffe urges the United States to get back to the business of producing IPGs, which will ultimately reconcile other countries to its primacy. Providing these goods is tough and lonely work, as Joffe recognizes. The United States had to make major investments in institutions such as NATO and the UN to put them on their feet, shouldering more than its share of the burdens and allowing other countries to reap disproportionate portions of the rewards. Those were painful steps, but Joffe believes more such moves are necessary now. "To endure in the 21st century," Joffe concludes, "this hegemon must soften the hard edge of its power with the world's consent. Otherwise the 'cittie upon a hill' will be a high, but lonely place." Or as Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all."

Such sentiments are beautiful, moving, and even true to a degree. But they leave tough questions unanswered. The changes in U.S. policy that Joffe recommends -- strengthening the multilateral trading system, providing a more effective security umbrella, promoting smoother political and economic relations among key developing countries -- would almost certainly accelerate the rate at which capitalism is changing the world. And if Joffe's argument about the origins of anti-Americanism is correct (it is largely persuasive), such policies would fan the flames of the ideologues' anger in many regions. The European social model would be even more endangered, and European governments, worried about both their immigrant populations and their homegrown opponents to globalization à l'américaine, might well find it difficult or impossible to take a frankly pro-American line. Worse, in the eyes of Joffe's anti-Americans, Israel would likely be a prime beneficiary of a more liberal and dynamic international order, while the Arab world would fall further behind. In this scenario, the glittering skyscrapers of a prosperous West might become ever more compelling targets for radicalized fanatics unhinged by the consequences of U.S.-led modernization and globalization. Offering more of America to those who hate the America they already have will not produce the calming effect on world politics that Joffe desires.

Moreover, U.S. voters, who have elected Bush on two occasions (well, one and a half), are probably unwilling to undertake the diligent, determined, and self-denying multilateral institution building that Joffe wants. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center on the American public's attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy found that although elites favor supporting the production of various high-toned IPGs, the foreign policy priorities of the public as a whole are (in descending order) defending the country against terrorism, protecting U.S. jobs, curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, stopping the spread of AIDS, promoting U.S. energy independence, fighting drug trafficking, and controlling illegal immigration. These findings offer little encouragement either to neoconservatives seeking to wage more wars to make the world safe for democracy or to liberal internationalists such as Joffe who want the United States to provide more IPGs.


Joffe's nightmare is a world that still needs the leadership that only the United States can provide but where other powers are working to bring it down. This seems unlikely. Any ranking of great powers in the coming decades would put China, India, and Japan in second, third, and fourth places, although not necessarily in that order. Conflict between the United States and any combination of these three seems increasingly improbable. The rise of India, the economic recovery of Japan, and the continuing development of middle powers in Asia have made a bid for hegemony less attractive to China and thus the prospect of such an attempt less alarming to the United States. At the same time, Asia's increasing economic power will assure both China and India that U.S. influence in the region is unlikely to be stifling. And although Bush and the war in Iraq are unpopular in Japan, the Japanese public seems broadly content with a foreign policy that is closely aligned with the United States on strategic issues. What is more plausible than the coalition of anti-American great powers that Joffe fears is that a lesser power -- Russia, perhaps -- may look to organize a coalition of all who are discontented, in debt, or otherwise demoralized and depressed. Such a group would be both disagreeable and dangerous, but its formation would not be a catastrophe.

When considering the future of U.S. foreign policy, Lévy's instinct to look back to Tocqueville's era makes sense. When Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32, the country's public opinion and democratic system seemed poorly adjusted to the requirements of diplomacy. Yet since Tocqueville's day, the U.S. political system has consistently managed (although rarely on the first attempt) to muster sufficient public support for international policies that worked reasonably well in increasingly complex and demanding circumstances. The best prognosis is more of the same. The United States often makes mistakes, but it generally manages to do what it must even if it often fails to do all that it should. One hopes that it will continue to benefit from the counsel and perspective of the European Atlanticist intelligentsia who have played such a conspicuous and honorable role in the creation of the most free, most peaceful, and most stable international community in human history.

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  • Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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