Interview with French Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy 'Europe Has Lost Confidence'

On the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Europe faces an uncertain future and a lack of identity. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Bernard-Henri Levy about European symbols, EU anxiety, and where European intellectuals are wrong on terrorism.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your new book “American vertigo,” you describe an America which has lost faith in its values. Do you think there is a parallel phenomenon in contemporary Europe? A sort of “European vertigo?"

Bernard-Henri Levy: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Europe has certainly lost confidence in itself. This was something that, when I was a young man, we never imagined would happen. But, now it’s clear that we could do ourselves in. And I’m ashamed to say that it’s France leading this new trend, especially by rejecting the constitution. We’re not sure that this project has a future, or at least we’re not sure what it is.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you describe the European identity that inspired your generation?

Levy: “Identity” might already be the wrong word. It’s not an identity, but a lightening of identity. All Europeans already have our heavy national histories. European nations are bound within by history, by language, by culture, sometimes by skin color. The idea of Europe is to lift above all of that, to abstract from all the qualities that caused hate and war. It is very similar to the American identity, whose achievement is to unify all the disparate parts: people with different backgrounds, ideas, races and religions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: American identity works because it can rally around collective symbols, like the flag or the constitution for instance. Does Europe also need collective symbols?

Levy: Yes. The euro is a great achievement. It’s a symbolic achievement. But, the European constitution was a missed opportunity. There were certainly problems with the document. It was too long, and too dry, too detailed and not clear enough. But, it’s what we needed. Again, it’s a lack of confidence, a preference to turn inward, because of anxiety, rather than look outward. Europeans need something that we can point to and call ours.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can a distinct European culture be developed? In your book, you mention the role of myth-making.

Levy: America creates myths by focusing a lot of energy on its history and using it –- not always, but sometimes -- for constructive purposes. Europe needs to develop a sense of collective history -- we need to write books from a European perspective, to teach it in schools as well. The other day, I was talking to a very great European, (Former German Foreign Minister) Joschka Fischer. He said to me, if the European Union has a constitution, then it has to mention Auschwitz. He’s absolutely right. That is the black ground common to the entire continent of Europe, and that needs to play a role. We can all agree that we reject that bitter past.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is European identity then a negative project -- defined by what it’s not, rather than by what it is?

Levy: Yes. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a negative project. We all come together and agree what we are not. The European Union should not be prescribing an identity. We know what that’s like, when a government tells its people how it should look; what it should be doing. That’s the first step towards totalitarianism. We reject the horrors of our past: That should be enough. Even if it doesn’t sound like it at first, that’s an identity that Europe can go out into the world with and take a leading role.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: French President Jacques Chirac has mentioned the need for a “multi-polar” world. Does Europe somehow need to separate itself from the United States?

Levy: Absolutely not. I would hope that Europe always has a privileged relationship with the United States. The alternatives are not attractive. I would sooner want a strong partnership with the United States -- even with (US President George W.) Bush, who I think is the worst president in a long, long time. I would sooner want a friendship with Bush than with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. That’s absolutely clear. The United States is a democracy, and that’s who we should want to be allied with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book, you write about how impressed you are by the intellectual response in the United States to the war on terror. Are European intellectuals on the same wave-length?

Levy: I’m most impressed by the liberal intellectual response to the problem of terrorism. The political philosopher Michael Walzer and my friend the American philosopher Marshall Berman both have completed very influential analyses of Islamic terrorism. They have both shown the very clear links between Islamism and fascism. If you trace the history of Islamist terrorism, you see that its founders were great admirers of European fascism. They read the texts of European fascism, they quoted them in speeches and letters. This is not from the Koran -- the Koran doesn’t teach you how to repress people; there’s nothing in there about women having to cover their faces, there’s certainly nothing about suicide bombing. Suicide is condemned in the Koran, much less suicide that takes other people’s lives. We are not dealing with Islam, a religion. We are dealing with Islamism, a modern expression of fascism. And this perspective has not been particularly influential here in Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do European intellectuals focus on instead?

Levy: There a three pretty common ideas in circulation -- none of which are correct. First, people say that terrorism is a result of poverty. Other people say that terrorism is caused by a lack of integration of Muslims in European society. And the third is that terrorism is caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look at any recent terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe -- Sept. 11, the bombings in Madrid and London. The terrorists were not poor -- most were middle class. The European Muslims were well integrated. And there was no sign that any of them were concerned about Palestinians. In general, Europeans need to get a wider perspective on the problem of Islamism. Even if the Israel-Palestine question were solved -- and I think and hope that one day soon it will be -- this wouldn’t stop one person from becoming a terrorist.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The problem of terrorism is not a social problem but a purely ideological one?

Levy: Yes, it is an ideology. Islamic terrorists are new examples of an old problem with fascism.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you say that the West should consider Iran a fascist state?

Levy: Yes. Absolutely.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should the West intervene militarily?

Levy: I wouldn't say that. I definitely don’t agree with that sort of rhetoric from the United States -- this idea that all the major conflicts of our age need to be solved militarily. I reject the idea that there is some sort of existential “clash of civilizations." I am an interventionist, but not a militarist. War should always be a last resort.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nonetheless, in your book you are quite sympathetic when it comes to neo-conservatives. Your main objection seemed to be that they discredited the idea of intervening in other countries.

Levy: I had three main objections to the neo-conservatives. First was the way they have discredited foreign intervention. America has the opportunity, and I would say the responsibility, to do a lot of good in the world. But, now after this total failure in Iraq, no one will trust any use of power because they weren’t prepared. The second objection is related: Neo-conservatives don’t think that creating a democracy is hard work. American conservatives think that all things happen automatically and that problems will just solve themselves. This is the way they approached Iraq -- they assumed that democracy would just bloom automatically. The third objection I have is that neo-conservatives have no sense of balance and proportion. The conservatives want to revolutionize the world all at once. And that’s a dangerous proposal.

Interview conducted by Cameron Abadi

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