Commentary Magazine


Barbarian Sentiments, by William Pfaff

America in the World

Barbarian Sentiments: How the American Century Ends.
by William Pfaff.
Hill and Wang. 198 pp. $19.95.

Born sixty years ago in Iowa, William Pfaff has traveled far from home. For the past twenty years he has lived in France, from where he hap offered periodic tours d’horizon to readers of the New Yorker. It is in that magazine that much, perhaps most, of the material in Barbarian Sentiments originally appeared; what Pfaff has stitched together from these essays does not make for an altogether seamless garment, but the seams are also not too obtrusive. There is a sustained argument here, and one that tells us much about current intellectual dispositions toward America and its place in the world.

Writing in a leisurely, even languid, manner, Pfaff sets forth a Eurocentric, or, perhaps better, Europhiliac, case for American isolationism. He attempts to explain “how the American century ends”—and ends up suggesting that the American experiment itself may be drawing to a close. Although it might thus seem that his book belongs to the decline-and-fall genre of literature, for Pfaff the American instance is less a matter of a fall from greatness than a morning-after hangover following a binge of imperialistic self-delusion. “The accounts that history presents have to be paid,” go the portentous opening lines of this book. “The past cannot be put behind until it is settled with.”

Like certain Americans in earlier generations, Pfaff has found in Europe the maturity, grandeur, and gravitas lacking in his native land. Europe for him is composed of “achieved nations” with real histories. The picture, he writes, has changed dramatically since 1945, when America had just saved Europe from itself and the older culture seemed thoroughly exhausted. Today, by contrast, “The evidence . . . is that Europe’s dynamism, far from lost, is in fact intensifying.” Pfaff’s expectation is that the Single European Market foreseen for 1992 “will make of Western Europe the richest, most populous, and most productive industrial community on earth.” Hard though it may be for Americans to accept, “Europe in the future may count for more than the United States.”

It will certainly, in his view, count for more than the East. Among the myriad delusions afflicting the American mind, according to Pfaff, is the idea that the future lies in the Pacific. Here he provides some comparisons worth pondering. For all the excited talk about the economic miracle of the “four little dragons” (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), their combined gross industrial output is hardly larger than that of the Netherlands alone. Admittedly, there is Japan, but Pfaff believes that Japan is the exception and not the norm for Asian development.

Pfaff’s comparative data are instructive and should be taken seriously by those who tend to assume that the shift of world power from the Atlantic to the Pacific has already occurred. Yet the data also prove less than he thinks. We need to attend not simply to gross industrial output but also to growth rates, and to potential for growth. In Asia, unlike the Netherlands, there are hundreds of millions of people who might in the foreseeable future be brought into the productive circle of modern economics, with tremendous results. By contrast, the major nations of Western Europe, with birth rates considerably below what is required for population replacement, may be at or close to the peak of their growth potential.

Pfaff declares that the economic capacities of Western Europe far outstrip “anything that can reasonbly be expected of the Pacific Basin, at least in this century.” Perhaps so, but this century has only eleven years to run, a very limited time frame for someone so intent on urging the larger historical perspective. In short, one need not share Pfaff’s view that Paris (to do a turn on Henry IV) is worth more than the masses of Asia in order to agree that Paris is, and will continue to be, worth a great deal.

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Turning to developments in the Soviet Union, Pfaff displays views that are commonsensical if not terribly original. Gorbachev, he believes, is “condemned” to repeat the futile efforts of Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Andropov, each of whom tried to “square the circle of modern Russia” by combining initiative with central direction, revolutionary commitment with stability, and international advance with nuclear stalemate. Although he tends to underplay the differences between Gorbachev and his predecessors, Pfaff does seem correct in seeing Russia’s Communist leaders as captive to an ideology they cannot reject “without eliminating the source of their own legitimacy as the governors of the country.”

Pfaff contends that revolutionary forces at work in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe are quite beyond the control of Gorbachev or anyone else, and that Gorbachev may turn out to be “the Kerensky of this revolution.” He may or may not be right about this. His dismissal of Soviet expansionism as a thing of the past, however, seems somewhat premature. “All that is over,” he asserts with striking confidence; everywhere the Soviets are in retreat. His assurance on this point, one feels, may owe less to hardheaded analysis than to an understandable sympathy with the reformers in Moscow, locked as they are in a struggle with the “forces of Russian nationalism, reaction, and isolation.” Clearly Pfaff believes that Soviet isolationism would be regressive and dangerous—unlike, presumably, the American variety, which he favors.

Actually, as between the Soviet Union and the United States, Pfaff strikes an attitude akin to that of “moral equivalence.” In Angola, Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, he writes, both powers have contended through the use of proxy forces. “In this use of others, a kind of complicity grew up between the American and Soviet governments, and even between the two peoples, spared final responsibility for what their governments did, and evading a suffering that others experienced on their behalf.” Pfaff is impatient with the (American) suggestion that there is a significant moral difference between the purposes of the two powers. Democracy vs. Communism, freedom vs. tyranny—such language he sniffingly dismisses as “ideological.”

In Pfaff’s view, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. are victims of deterministic doctrines, the one derived from Marxism, the other from a naive assumption concerning the inevitability of democratic advance. To their credit, however, the Soviets are abandoning their delusions, while America seems to be incorrigibly addicted to the idea that it has some kind of mission to preserve and extend freedom. This idea, Pfaff repeatedly asserts, is a myth that “none of us believes.” Who exactly this “us” is remains unclear, although presumably Pfaff has a feel for the readership of the New Yorker.

Not only is the United States not a hope for freedom, but the young people of Europe—whose historical memory, as our advocate of the long perspective is forced to admit, does not extend even to America’s role in World War II—increasingly see it as a force of oppression. Therefore, the best thing we can do for the world is to give up our pretensions and stop meddling. For the truth, according to Pfaff—and it is a truth that “implies a fatalism which it goes against the American grain to accept”—is that the great majority of people in the world do not care a fig about what Americans call freedom. One cannot but wonder what the students in Tiananmen Square, with their replica of the Statue of Liberty, would have made of this breathtaking dictum.

Where, finally, should one locate William Pfaff in the confusing mix of contemporary discourse? He himself opines that his views have lacked an ideological home since the demise of an American patrician tradition in the 19th century. Clearly Pfaff shares that tradition’s preference for the more hierarchical order of the Old World. He bemoans the absence of a “political class,” an elite of a kind which our culture does not and apparently cannot provide. He is disdainful of the putative delusions of modernity and its twin aberrations of American-style democracy and American-style capitalism. And he is particularly scornful of those neoconservative intellectuals who have given a measure of respectability to “simplistic” notions of democracy. In this connection he quotes, approvingly, from George Kennan: “I do not think that the United States civilization of these last 40-50 years is a successful civilization. . . . I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.”

Given all this, one might classify Pfaff as a paleoconservative, a specimen of the isolationist Old Right, were he not, as we have seen, so clearly sympathetic with the standard causes of contemporary liberalism. It is perhaps more accurate to say that William Pfaff is a liberal isolationist.

Pfaff’s title comes from an axiom of Wei Yuan, of the 19th-century imperial Manchu court: “In order to handle barbarian affairs, you have to know barbarian sentiments.” Pfaff gives the distinct impression that, for him, the Americans are the barbarians. Whether he knows their sentiments, however, is a question very much in dispute. What is not in dispute is that, were they to share his sentiments, the world, including the world of his beloved Europe, would of a certainty be a much darker place.

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