The mixed-up debate over the new European patriotism
By Jefferson Chase, 7/20/2003
THE IRAQ WAR has made for some strange bedfellows, in philosophy no less than in politics. On May 31, Jrgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida issued a joint declaration, ''After the War: The Rebirth of Europe,'' in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and France's La Libration. In it, the great theoretician of communication and consensus and the doyen of deconstruction put aside their considerable intellectual differences to call for a unified European response ''to balance out the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States.'' But what they were really after was the creation of ''a European identity,'' a sense of patriotism to rival that which, for better or worse, has dominated the United States since Sept. 11.
This was always going to be an uphill struggle in the fragmented Europe that the authors describe as a ''post-national constellation.'' While the two men's proposal attracted a chorus of supporters, from the American philosopher Richard Rorty to the Italian novelist Umberto Eco, European public opinion has thus far remained unimpressed, dismissing the declaration as containing, in the words of one Zurich pundit, ''too much cultural-historical abstraction and too little political substance.'' As George Bush Sr. found out at the end of the Cold War, it's one thing to say you have a vision, it's another thing to say what it is.
''After the War,'' which was written by Habermas and endorsed by Derrida, picks up on two main ideas expressed in ''Philosophy in a Time of Terror'' (Chicago), a recently published book of dialogues with the two men conducted by the Vassar philosophy professor Giovanna Borradori. The first idea is that Europe, in contrast to the United States, has overcome a history of national chauvinism and militarism and now favors international legal bodies over force as a means of resolving conflicts. The second is that Europeans define equality not just in the American sense of fair treatment (for Americans) before the law, but as a social contract including relative equality in standards of living, which it is the state's duty to maintain and which applies (at least in theory) to the world as a whole.
These are by no means negligible differences, but they hardly yield a clear European agenda to counterbalance that of the United States. Habermas and Derrida postpone, or skirt, this issue by treating Europe as an ongoing project to be negotiated. They imply that a European identity will arise because it has to: ''The political-ethic will, which makes itself felt in the hermeneutic of processes of reaching mutual understanding, is not an arbitrary phenomenon.'' Clearly, we're a long way from ''When in the course of human events....''
The basic European dilemma is that while many Europeans may want a more effective European opposition to George W. Bush, no one wants a direct confrontation with the United States. Significantly, Habermas and Derrida advocate ''balancing out'' rather than ''resisting'' or ''combating'' American hegemony.
Such reluctance makes sense, given Europe's economic and military dependence on the United States. The European Union, including Britain, spends less than half of what the Pentagon does every year on defense, and there is no will to increase those expenditures. On the question of what, precisely, Europe should do to realize its still coalescing world vision, Habermas and Derrida suggest throwing more weight around in international organizations like the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF. But that is, of course, what Franois Mitterand, Gerhard Schrder and Vladimir Putin tried to do in the UN during the run-up to the war in Iraq-with very little success.
In some respects, Habermas and Derrida are surprising exponents of European muscle-flexing. The rationalist Habermas long warned against the knee-jerk anti-Americanism prevalent on the American and European left. He also supported the 1991 Gulf War as a justifiable war of consensus against an enemy who threatened the West's open society. Derrida, whose thinking was shaped by the Maoism of 1968 Paris, has been primarily interested in breaking down consensus and certainty, advocating a vague ethics of global ''hospitality'' against the West's imperial faith in reason and progress.
Although Habermas and Derrida define their ''post-national'' European patriotism as an intellectual allegiance to democratic and Enlightenment principles, they also stress the need for Europe to elicit the same sort of emotional connection from its citizens as its individual member states, and the United States, do from theirs.
In other words, the two mandarins have come to recognize the practical need to stir up a popular European patriotism. Habermas has been forced to question his austere association of the democratic public with reason alone, while Derrida finds himself having to appeal for a consensus to check what he sees as a worse sort of imperialism. As a kind of mental national holiday-a European Fourth of July, if you will-they propose Feb. 15, 2003, when millions of demonstrators took to the streets across Europe to protest the looming military action in Iraq.
But that public expression of sentiment has been no more lasting than similar protests against the Gulf War in 1990. While there is continuing outrage at the American-led occupation and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the streets of Europe today remain conspicuously empty of demonstrators motivated by a revolutionary sense of European solidarity. Instead, newspaper headlines in Europe have been dominated this summer by the row between Italy and Germany over the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's use of a Nazi comparison in the EU parliament and an Italian tourism official's dismissal of German holiday-makers as boorish louts.
Indeed, in many of the discussions following the Habermas-Derrida declaration, ''European patriotism'' has seemed to consist of little more than ''anti-Bushism.'' Writing in the current issue of the intellectual journal Lettre International, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek begins his catalog of the ''absolute moral bankruptcy'' of the Bush administration with a stinging criticism of the EU's lack of solidarity in opposing the Iraq war and France and Germany's sheepish ex post facto legitimization of the outcome in the UN. What's missing is a positive vision of European identity, or much indication of how even a negative one could be translated into politics.
As Europeans seek to define themselves vis- -vis the United States, they also face their own internal problems of identity. The largest countries in the EU-Germany, France and Britain-all have significant Muslim minorities, many of whom live as poorly integrated resident aliens. The title of a recent collection of essays by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar asks a telling question: We, the People of Europe? In it, he argues that Europe has to rethink its definition of citizenship if it wants to eradicate the social segregation he considers tantamount to apartheid. But changes to the EU's definition of citizenship, including expanded rights for aliens, would likely meet with stiff resistance from smaller, more homogeneous member states-as well as from traditionalists everywhere.
Of course, it is perhaps too easy to laugh at Europeans' often cartoonish squabbling, or at philosophers' unsteady steps out of the ivory tower and into the jungle of post-9/11 global politics. Even some non-Europeans have been raising similar issues. Writing in Munich's Sddeutsche Zeitung, the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty warned that America's hegemonic ambitions might not only worsen the terrorist situation, but could even lead to a nuclear confrontation with China or Russia. He called upon Europe to intervene against those ambitions-for America's sake-and suggested some halfway concrete political goals for a new EU foreign policy: the eradication of founding nations' veto power in the UN; the transformation of that institution into a global parliament with an effective military; and worldwide, UN-enforced nuclear disarmament even of NATO powers. ''The EU,'' wrote Rorty, ''will have to show the world a vision of the future, to which Washington will react with contemptuous ridicule.''
Though he supports the Habermas/Derrida initiative, Rorty argued that a new European identity and foreign policy would carry a heavy cost: direct confrontation with the United States. He encouraged Europeans to develop the sort of Euro-patriotism that would allow them to bear this burden, arguing that the alternative to solidarity would be sheer humiliation.
Even Rorty admitted that his vision of the future represents an ''ideal'' and even a ''dream.'' On the other hand, Rorty asks, why shouldn't one ponder a dream that ''might do nothing less than save the world?'' It's bizarre to find a pragmatist arguing for what is, from the perspective of Realpolitik, pie-eyed idealism. Yet if there's anything Americans have learned after Sept. 11, it's that the world is a lot stranger than we thought.
Jefferson Chase is a writer living in Berlin.