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History Strikes Back
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C : quite a mess for such a short book
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
In History Strikes Back Hubert Védrine argues that the 'West' -- and specifically Europe -- has failed to rise up to the challenges of the post-Cold War world order, and that was is needed is a return to some good old fashioned diplomacy, and a more unified European front.
One major consequence of the West's feeling of superiority -- and Manichean worldview -- was that foreign policy became superfluous. After all, since the West had one, why bother to negotiate with repugnant regimes ? Why deal with despots ? Why seek to compromise with dictators when Western values would be imposed on them whether they liked it or not, by choice or by force ? All we had to do was threaten, lecture, and penalize the holdouts.While this may describe how America (under the jr. Bush administration) has handled Iraq, Iran, and Hamas, everywhere else foreign policy has continued pretty much as usual -- certainly even the Americans have been going through the motions, even if their efforts in places such as Darfur and Palestine can, at best, be described as half-hearted.
Védrine lays a good deal of blame on American neo-conservative ideology, especially regarding policy towards Israel, summing up that:
Their alternative solution was to democratize -- whether they liked it or not -- the neighboring Arab countries, which, they somehow believed, would make those countries pro-Western and pro-Israeli. That process would allow the Israelis to keep the occupied territoriesAmusingly, what Védrine is opposed to is only the approach -- by the end he's spouting similar nonsense about how a solution (the details of which he, of course, doesn't offer) to the 'Palestinian problem' will make everybody happy and friends again:
The spiral of peace and modernization would extend to Syria -- and therefore to Lebanon -- and transform them. The mage of the United States and the West would be quickly and profoundly enhanced in much of the world. Israel would be relieved of a problem that weakens it and weighs heavily on its foreign policy. It would gain considerable influence, including among Arab governments and Palestinians who want to improve their ties with the West but cannot so long as the unbearable status quo endures.See ! It's all so simple !
Yes, what Védrine finds suspect and is opposed to is that whole effort at democratizing the region -- "whether they like it or not", he tellingly writes, without being clear about who 'they' might be. That the regimes of the region are opposed to democratization would be no surprise -- but how about the citizens ? Ah, but Védrine doesn't have all that much interest in citizens: he likes state actors -- and he's a strong supporter of sovereignty -- whereas, of course, all that really matters are individuals. But foreign policy focussed on individuals (and their rights and happiness) seems far too messy for him.
Védrine is dismissive of American efforts at democratization in the Middle East under the jr. Bush administration but hardly mentions that, in fact, American policy has been actively anti-democratic in the region, save (arguably) in Afghanistan and Iraq. While there has been occasional token support for democratization elsewhere, active policy has consistently undermined that, most notably in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Even Védrine has to admit, right near the end, that:
The West also showed its incoherence in imposing free elections on the Palestinians and then refusing to recognize their resultsSurely that should have been the starting point of his discussion -- that for all the talk of a specific policy or ideology (democratizing the Arab countries of the Middle East, as he sums that part of it up) the reality (the Realpolitik, if you will) has from the start been a very different one. Védrine never allows for the idea that if the United States had forcefully insisted on imposing its values -- those values, at least -- then they might also have earned some local respect. Demanding free elections (or at least a move towards them) in Egypt -- or, better yet, in Saudi Arabia -- would show that America stood behind its values; instead they cozy up to corrupt and vile dictators -- hardly a way to win over the minds and hearts of the local man in the street (and the woman in the home). There are valid reasons for propping up the sclerotic Mubarak regime, or for the hand-holding relationship the jr. Bush has with the decadent Saudi royals but the cost -- of national integrity and any moral credibility -- are very high, and the long-term prospects poor (recall America's buddy, the Shah of Iran, and how that worked out ...). All this is debatable; disappointingly, Védrine doesn't even consider any of it.
Védrine's consistent democracy-bashing is fascinating, as he is even reduced to noting that: "democracy has never taken hold instantly, or completely, in any Western country, not even in the United States " -- yet he never bothers to consider whether American policy in the Middle East really has been one of trying to impose democracy; apparently the fact that they've held a few elections in Iraq and Afghanistan is proof enough for him -- regardless of the fact that Saddam Hussein used to hold elections of sorts too, and the Iranians regularly do as well ..... He mouths support for things like human rights, but he really doesn't want to have much to do with individuals -- mere citizens. No, he likes the big stage:
We must neither abandon the multilateral system nor create an ideological "community of democracies" which would certainly complete the process of turning the Un into the League of Nations. On the contrary, we must relegitimize the multilateral system and make it more effective. And that process requires the rehabilitation of states.(We're amazed he was able to restrain himself from adding: "Vive la France !")
He does say that, over the long term, democracy is worth striving for -- but:
Instead of simplistic and often brutal policies that are based on force and ignore local realities, we need a smarter policy that takes advantage of the potential for democracy in every society, even the most stagnant and archaic ones.Yet Iraq and Afghanistan are the exceptions; imposing (or even calling for) democracy is far down the list of American priorities (and even farther down on the European list), while what is perceived as self-interest leads to a general policy of turning a blind eye to dictatorial malfeasance the world over, and only in the cases where there's little cost do even just voices get raised in complaint (Mugabe's Zimbabwe, for example). Védrine's focus on imposed democratization allows him to phrase his argument in a specific way; too bad it really is practically irrelevant.
At least he is on firmer footing when he discusses state actors and, for example, how Europe should or can act -- i.e. how unified or federal the European Union might become . And he does offer a provocative argument about European passivity (and notice how all of a sudden he is speaking about 'citizens' rather than states ...):
Since the Second World War, citizens of western Europe have believed in a post-tragic world, turning their backs on power except in the area of trade. They hate the idea of power, an attitude driven by their desire to overcome their past; and by their pacifism, idealism, hedonism, Atlanticism, and even historical exhaustion. They want to become a big version of Switzerland (even though the Swiss, in fact, have maintained a fighting spirit) -- a rich, safe, protected area that takes humanitarian and philanthropic action through its NGOs.Needless to say, he is not impressed (even those Swiss have at least maintained a 'fighting spirit', he feels compelled to rub in -- despite the fact that the Swiss haven't mixed it up with anyone in ages) -- though he doesn't make much of an argument why this is such a bad thing. He can warn of all those people elsewhere (billions ! he reminds readers), cultural differences, etc. etc., but he doesn't make much of an argument beyond the obvious one: if the Europeans gang together they'll be big enough to wield some sort of clout (military, financial, etc.) and that's what they need. Presumably under French leadership .....
Védrine is about as old world and old school as it gets. This is a book that could have been written in 1815 (or, given the anti-democratic fervour, it's perhaps more in an 1848-mode). And Védrine doesn't help himself or his case with over-simplified and/or undocumented statements such as: "French foreign policy is welcomed by three-fourths of the world" or that the September 2001 attacks in the US: "were particularly stunning because they were perpetrated against American citizens, who thought -- along with the rest of the world -- that America was invulnerable".
Védrine has an agenda, and he awkwardly fits his arguments around it, grabbing on to convenient bits of recent history but without bothering much with all that there is to them. It winds up making his stand look wobblier than it actually needs to. A more focussed argument (as well as a better-reasoned one) would have helped -- though on their own the chapters on EU federalism and France's role in the contemporary world are the most interesting, because he is on the firmest ground.
Modestly interesting as a politician's book, History Strikes Back is poorly reasoned and presented and very far from convincing.
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Hubert Védrine was born in 1947. He was the French Minister for Foreign Affairs 1998 to 2002.
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