George W. BUSH’S reelection, despite an appalling track record and a high-handed style, has revived two thorny issues in U.S. foreign policy: whether the American superpower is turning into an empire, and how to close the “transatlantic rift” that now separates it from Europe. Fortunately, Regis Debray’s quirky and biting “Empire 2.0,” recently released in the United States, boldly answers both questions at once: It’s time the United States behaved like the empire it has become -- and it should start by annexing Western Europe.
Coming from Debray, the proposal can only be facetious. A respected left-leaning French intellectual, who advised the French government on whether to ban Islamic head scarves in public schools, Debray’s stint as an acolyte of Che Guevara’s in Bolivia in the 1960s won him a few years in jail there. He presents this book in someone else’s name, as a letter from his fictional friend Xavier de C***, a former French diplomat who has embraced all things American and become a civil servant of the United States. Fearing the ominous rise of terrorism, Islam and China, De C*** advocates incorporating European liberal democracies into a United States of the West. Formal integration under Washington’s command is the only way to ensure that Western civilization won’t soon become, as De C*** puts it, “as conspicuous as a Dior show window in a Jakarta slum.”
A classics buff, De C*** appeals to Washington by invoking the emperor Caracalla, who in the 3rd century granted citizenship to all free men living in Rome’s far-flung provinces to help ward off advancing Goths, Persians and Moors. As the Roman empire of today -- equally optimistic, pragmatic and legalistic -- the United States would likewise benefit from formally absorbing its subjects. Doing so would help Washington police the world and allow it to crossbreed Yankee liberalism with welfare economics and American mass culture with European high arts. By welcoming Europe’s tens of millions of Muslim immigrants, America would also win the Arab world’s goodwill.
Europeans, for their part, could upgrade their current status as “second-class Americans” to full citizenship, gaining more rights and recognition. That would be a big improvement, De C*** argues, because their European Union has proven a disappointment: It’s a glorified trading zone whose “only forceful idea is a refusal of the use of force.” Spinning small observations into grand political theory, he sees the failure of this soulless technocracy symbolized in its bland currency. (The dollar, with its George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns, is a “lesson in heroism.”) The EU, he concludes, “is Emporium rather than Imperium.”
If it wasn’t clear enough from this bombast -- and from the wink to Jonathan Swift in the subtitle -- that the book is satirical, the postscript leaves no doubt: the narrator, Debray tells us, subsequently died for his convictions, killed by a stray U.S. bomb while on a Pentagon mission in Afghanistan. This sober epitaph is also Debray’s chance at a rebuttal. As he derides De C***'s pedantic tendency to compare the United States to ancient Rome, he shrouds his friend’s argument with the portent implicit in those allusions: The American empire also will crumble in due course.
Despite its central irony, however, the book remains disquieting, because Debray never completely undermines De C***'s case. Debray goes out of his way to bolster his friend’s credibility, calling him “a strategist, resolute and without illusions,” whose “predictions always hit the bull’s eye, ten years in advance.” And he does little to rebut the main argument, responding mostly with tepid words of comfort. “Islam is not our enemy, but our cousin in difficulty,” Debray says. “As for France, it may have momentarily lost its way, but it has known other dark moments.” Offering little analysis, he vaguely invokes the ideal of an egalitarian republique and yelps a saddened call to “thumbing one’s nose at powers, thrones and dominions.”
There is no question that this feebleness is deliberate; Debray has forcefully defended Europe’s lasting relevance in the past. Before the Iraq war, he argued in the New York Times that Washington should question its “biblical self-assurance in its transcendent destiny” and learn from “Old Europe” that “the planet is too complex, too definitively plural to suffer insertion into a monotheistic binary logic.” Curiously, in “Empire 2.0,” Debray’s affected resignation has an equally powerful effect. By debunking De C***'s proposal without easing the fears it sought to address, Debray leaves readers with neither his narrator’s elated utopianism nor his own reactionary combativeness. Rather, we feel a nauseating apprehension that Europe’s demise may be inescapable. Against the backdrop of Bush the Unilateralist’s reanointment, the effect is particularly unnerving. More than recent treatments of the American empire complex, this whimsical yet somber book, fashioned like a dialogue from another era, sharply captures le malaise of our time. *