Posted: March 12, 2004
Editor's Note: In its Summer 2003 issue, the Claremont Review of Books published "Making Citizens," an essay by W.B. Allen, which, inter alia, criticized Pierre Manent's 2002 address at Harvard University. In subsequent issues, Daniel Mahoney, Paul Seaton, and others have written letters in defense of Manent. In the Winter 2003 issue, Allen wrote to reaffirm his observations, and Jeremy Rabkin commented in his own letter. We are pleased to present Pierre Manent's response to these critics.
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t is a novel experience for me to be the talk of the town on the Pacific shore for a lecture held on the Atlantic seaboard. The feeling is not as exhilarating as you might expect. Indeed, my two American critics have simply bludgeoned me without any regard for truth or even plausibility. First, as Daniel Mahoney and Paul Seaton have already stressed, Professor Allen indicted me for the very ideas I have spent the best part of this last decade combating. At least he expressed his putative disagreements without animosity. I hope I will be able some day to persuade him that we are really not so far apart.
I have no such hope concerning Professor Rabkin. Since we have already had a long private exchange before his public outburst, there is no misunderstanding left to clarify. In his view, any dissenting voice coming from France must be a tainted voice because everything French is essentially tainted. I have no answer to that. Jeremy Rabkin has levelled against me the accusation I have been taught from childhood to consider as the most ignominious accusation in the public realm. When one is willing to bring the gravest imputation against a fellow human being, one ought to have some regard for the rules of evidence. Professor Rabkin has shown none. I have never before in this country come across such an angry contempt for the most elementary rules of civil association. My friends and colleagues at Boston College bear witness to the understanding and friendship I have found among them. They are much too generous in their assessment of my merits, but I have grown accustomed to American open-mindedness and generosity to which Allan Bloom introduced me some 30 years ago.
Now, let me try to put in a nutshell the general principles which account for the political judgments I have ventured in this ill-fated lecture.
Man being a political animal, the scope and meaning of our actions are at the same time induced and circumscribed by the political regime: what we today can aim at is at the same time induced and circumscribed by our belonging to democratic nations. Accordingly, there is no pure or universal democracy: a democracy released from the constraints and opportunities of national self-government is pure pie-in-the-sky. This is why I have been so critical of the European enterprise after the Maastricht Treaty inasmuch as it intended to get rid of the European nations. Any viable European Union can only result from a deepening collaboration among a finite and modest number of European nations.
Part of the current transatlantic misunderstanding arises from the fact that the United States is still, or once again, a full-fledged and proud nation, while European nations—including my own—have long decided or been forced to trim their sails, and to substitute "societal governance" for political self-government. While the old European nations are drifting toward a new, apolitical democracy which I have just asserted cannot really endure, the United States relies more and more heavily on the high-handed instruments of old, Hobbesian sovereignty. My modest proposal was for holding back the former and somewhat unbending the latter: fine-tuning our respective regimes by listening to the other's music would go a long way toward giving meaning and content to the hackneyed phrases about the "Atlantic community."
The difficulty with the new American posture is that you cannot be at the same time a self-governing nation and the head of an empire bent on making the world safe for democracy. Aristotle remarked that no Spartan deliberated about the best form of government for Scythia. How long, how seriously, how wisely can Americans deliberate about the best regime for Iraqis, for example? There is a yawning non-sequitur in the neoconservative doctrine: the more you stress the national character of democratic self-government, the more you cast doubt on the legitimacy and feasibility of regime - and nation-building in faraway lands.
The vitality of their national beings is at the heart of the close friendship between the United States and Israel. Conversely, the European nations engaged in the process of shedding their national selves are more and more uncomfortable with Israel's national struggle. Since Israel is a nineteenth century "European" national enterprise that came to fruition in the second half of the twentieth century, she is "too national" for post-national democratic legitimacy while open to the accusation of thwarting the "legitimate national aspirations" of the Palestinian people.
What I wrote about Israel in my lecture is born from a keen, indeed an alarmed sense of her growing vulnerability. What I reproach Ariel Sharon for is not defending Israel but rather pushing Israel into a corner where she will have the utmost difficulty in defending herself. Most European critics of Sharon fault him for exercising inordinate force; I would rather fault him for failing to see Israel's growing weakness.
I do not know whether peace is possible with the Palestinians, more generally with the Muslim world. I take seriously those who say it is not because of the self-awarenesss of Islam and the way it views its relations with Jews and Christians. But if it is possible at all, it is only on the basis of two states separated by the pre-1967 border (of course with the indispensable tinkering at the margins). This old staple of French diplomacy has now become official American doctrine. Indeed, President Bush is the first American President to make explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully the case for a Palestinian state. Now, if this is the only hopeful and rational perspective, there is no justification for the building of settlements beyond the line: they serve only to expose Jewish citizens and the soldiers who protect them to terrorist attacks, and to enrage even those Palestinians who are willing to live "side by side" with the Jews. (A few weeks ago, Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister and one of the so-called Likud princes bred to the dream of a Greater Israel, said that Israel cannot continue occupying the West Bank and Gaza, with all their Palestinians, without losing a Jewish majority and eventually having to argue in the world against the universal principle of one person, one vote.)
The Israeli people have a momentous choice before them: either they pursue the current policy which means the end of democratic Israel sooner rather than later, or they draw the line and save the Zionist dream by circumscribing it. I understand that such an heroic act of self-restraint will not necessarily induce the other party to answer in kind. But Israel will keep her overwhelming force, she will have the full support of the United States and the renewed and relieved sympathy of most Europeans. And the generality of Palestinians will at long last have a personal interest in making this peace work.
The United States, Israel, and the European nations are parts of what was called "the West." The West presently confronts a new set of deadly enemies who must be opposed with the utmost determination. Americans are understandably frustrated by the obstinate refusal of Europeans to think and act politically, by their sanctimonious pacifism and lackadaisical military. But America must be careful to resist an anti-political temptation of its own. It cannot exercise its unique responsibilities in a way that ignores the existence of other nation-states. Most of the latter welcome American leadership but do not want to be ruled by an American imperium. The growing transatlantic divide can only be bridged, as Francis Fukuyama has recently suggested, "by a degree of American moderation within a system of sovereign nation-states"—with the help, I would add, of a modicum of European seriousness of purpose.