France’s Leading Lady
L’Ensauvagement: Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle (L’Ensauvagement: The Return to Barbarism in the 21st Century) By Thérèse Delpech 366 pages, Paris: Grasset, 2005 (in French) Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq dashed illusions that history had ended with the triumph of the liberal democratic order. But that hasn’t stopped the ...
L'Ensauvagement: Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle
(L'Ensauvagement: The Return to Barbarism in the 21st Century)
By Thérèse Delpech
366 pages, Paris: Grasset, 2005 (in French)
L’Ensauvagement: Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle
(L’Ensauvagement: The Return to Barbarism in the 21st Century)
By Thérèse Delpech
366 pages, Paris: Grasset, 2005 (in French)
Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq dashed illusions that history had ended with the triumph of the liberal democratic order. But that hasn’t stopped the search for strong historical currents to carry the world toward a better future. Globalization was one hopeful current, but it has been dammed by the political and economic debris of so many boats that did not rise with the tide. Instead of large historical forces carrying us where we want to go, we reluctantly must confront the fact that events and trends are the products of human choice.
One group that has been willing to recognize the enduring imperative of choice are American neoconservatives. They deployed U.S. power to create benign new realities in the Middle East. If that power were not so overspent, they would probably do more to shape China or North Korea’s future as well. But neocons are small in number, and American to boot. Globally, it’s hard to find leaders determined to bear the risks of public action on behalf of human liberty and justice.
And France is the last place where many people, especially Americans, might look for serious, rather than preening, calls for international action. Yet Thérèse Delpech is thoroughly French, and her fine book, L’Ensauvagement: Le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle (L’Ensauvagement: The Return to Barbarism in the 21st Century), is a cry for Western political leaders to muster the intellectual and moral clarity to act on behalf of human liberty. Delpech, a strategist for the French Atomic Energy Commission and a research associate with the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research, artfully blends a detailed knowledge of international security affairs with broad history, philosophy, psychology, and literature. Her work garnered the prestigious 2005 Prix Fémina de l’essai, which honors the most outstanding book-length essay on any topic.
L’Ensauvagement rejects the assumption that "never again" will the civilized world experience barbarism on par with the Holocaust, a world war, the Soviet death camps, and the Cambodian killing fields, to name just a few. It could happen again, Delpech warns with an unusual combination of elegance and toughness. Europeans largely have lost touch with heroic ethics, with the feeling that it is necessary to act courageously on behalf of what is right in a world where plenty of wrongdoers remain. Just because Nazism and Soviet Communism were vanquished does not mean that goodness and civility are destined to prevail.
To puncture denial, she constructs a clever and evocative historical device. The year 2005, she writes, resembles 1905. Yes, the charm of the belle époque lingered in the air a century ago, but just over the eastern horizon Japan was handing Russia a shocking military defeat. Russia then experienced its first revolution. The year also marked the United States’ entrance onto the center stage of international affairs, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation of Russo-Japanese peace. And, Delpech notes, Sun Yat-sen heralded the formation of a nationalist movement in China, sowing the seeds for revolution. None of these events, save the Russo-Japanese War, seemed globally historic at the time. And, yet, each signified and precipitated revolution, repression, and war on a tremendous scale, as well as, in the case of the United States, the coming to power of actors who could contain the damage and promote order.
"If 1905 did contain numerous signs and even pressing warnings, one should not infer that 2005 is rich in premonitory events," writes Delpech. But it might be, she argues. The major powers of East Asia stir fitfully. Institutions and initiatives intended to manage global dangers are at best moribund — the United Nations, climate change negotiations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. Al Qaeda attacks have spread to London and Amman. Europe’s integration project is dead in the water. The nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea fester unabated. Responsible decision makers and opinion shapers, she writes, must pick up a telescope and watch the horizon to see where their actions and inactions may lead. Today, Europeans and other leading actors are moving without conscious direction. Aimlessly, they are going somewhere, but they fail to know where. Delpech warns that without a correction, without purposeful action to defend liberty where it is threatened, we will wander into 21st-century versions of World War I.
But it’s not as though Delpech’s list of worries is new. Unconventional terrorism, state disintegration in Africa, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and the irreconcilability of Israeli-Palestinian interests are obvious. Less obvious, though, especially to many Europeans, are problems arising from the failure to integrate Turkey into Europe, massive disorder in Pakistan, self-destructive authoritarianism and revanchism in Russia, instability in major-power relations stemming from the rise of China and India, and the lingering, divisive legacies of the past century’s violence in East Asia. Neither the future of Taiwan nor of North Korea is close to settlement, and together, they pose the planet’s worst prospect of large-scale war. Delpech’s innovation is her insistence that a failure to address these problems energetically now could lead to a massive loss of life, treasure, and spiritual well-being, not only in the afflicted areas, but in the broader world — especially in complacent Europe.
Delpech may be too alarmed by memory of 20th-century surprises in Europe, but her warning over East Asia is prudent. The 20th century never really ended there, and the potential of large-scale violence is real. Delpech challenges the French tendency to sacrifice the rights and interests of millions of Chinese and Taiwanese to raison d’état. She resists China’s unilateral assertion that there is one China and that Taiwan must accept Beijing’s "one country, two systems" formula. To mitigate the risks of Taiwan’s declaring independence, she argues provocatively that Europe should initiate a "campaign to recognize Taiwan" diplomatically.
That is too insouciant. However, it is difficult to disagree with Delpech that China and Taiwan could find themselves as Germany and France did in 1914, heading to war because they cannot step back. European arms sales to China will not help matters, Delpech rightly argues. Her call for Europe to recognize "the crimes that communist power committed against the Chinese people since 1949," as was done with the Soviet gulags, also has merit. Most important, she urges, Europe must stop pretending that the security problems of East Asia should be left to the United States. Whether through arms sales policies, trade negotiations, human rights forums, or old-fashioned bilateral diplomacy, Europe should not forget the importance of the values and interests that link the West, and should resist the temptation to play balance-of-power politics against the United States.
Readers in France and elsewhere will find strong parallels with recent conservative thinking in the United States. Delpech defends action on behalf of freedom, even if she risks appearing as a neocon in French clothing. Like the American neoconservatives, who have endured criticism for promoting vague notions of freedom without pragmatic ways of realizing it, the author doesn’t offer guidance on judging when morally inspired action can do more harm than good. How should the West weigh trade-offs between its values and preferences and the need to build coalitions with states such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and, yes, China? But, if Delpech does not offer solutions to these dilemmas, she, unlike many, does not let this paralyze her. She challenges her European readers not to dismiss wholly that which is valid in American discourse and action, even if Washington’s policies and style du jour are counter-productive. If the United States is not the best actor to promote enlightened values and practices in the world, she implies, then Europe should not righteously pout and posture; it should mobilize its own vision and resources. Faulty heroism does not mean the world can do without heroes. The difference between foolery, tragedy, and greatness is in the particulars of what we do, and Delpech often leaves policy details to others. But that doesn’t mean her trumpet shouldn’t be heard.
George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini chair as well as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Twitter: @PerkovichG
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