Weekend Roundup: The Danger of a Weary West

A conversation with philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Nathan Gardels

Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels and Bernard-Henri Lévy in Los Angeles this week.

If the long age of Western dominance in the world is coming to an end, what comes next? How will we maintain a presence for our open-society values in any new order when the center of gravity of global wealth and power shifts to societies outside the North Atlantic, most notably China and Eurasia, by 2050? What kind of modus vivendi will fit a world with common interests, like climate, but sharply divergent values?

Despite being soiled by the well-known crimes of imperialism and follies of liberal interventionism, the Occidentalizing mission also imparted to the world attractive ideals of universal appeal — the rights of the individual, self-determination, consent of the governed through reasoned deliberation, checks and balances on political power, cultural tolerance and free expression. If these values are not aligned with the power to promote and defend them, their fate will be sealed by those with the power to oppose and defeat them.

For the moment, the prospects don’t look good. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk sees “the embarrassment of a helpless universalism” as the “American camp” disintegrates with a leadership “more repulsive than attractive.” In a scathing metaphor, France’s most famous engaged intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, sees that the “idea of West, having become gaunt, plain and barren, has begun to melt in the sun like a beached jellyfish” washed up like detritus onto the shores of history.

In the face of what he calls “America’s abdication,” Lévy pins his thin hopes on Europe, the other pillar of the West. He insisted in a conversation this week that Europe should not shrink before the challenges of the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who are riding on the inertia of past glories. “If the West had the morals, if we had the will, we could carve out a place in the world by 2050,” says Lévy. “We are stronger than we believe. Our adversaries are paper tigers. If they were to become miraculously faithful to the noble portion of their imperial heritage, that would not pose a problem for me. … But they are operating under fake values and fake culture.” As Lévy puts it, “a living culture is always renovating itself. It does not live in the past.”

Even in this twilight moment, he sees room for Europe to actively defend the idea of the West, for example by establishing a military base in Kurdistan to support that outpost of democratic values in a region given to strongmen, religious fanaticism and repression. Pushing back at least holds the line.

Yet Lévy harbors no illusions about Europe itself, so divided by national egoisms that any unity of action appears beyond reach, even as the survival of its civilizational legacy is at stake. He laments the pervasive “lassitude” that has taken hold, especially in his own country. It astonishes him that the nation that gave birth to the French Revolution, the “Rights of Man” and the “free the imagination” explosion of the May 1968 student rebellion is now pouring its once future-forging fire into a passionate fight against reforming the retirement system. In short, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and modernity has lost its inner civilization drive and is obsessed instead with the mundane effort to hang on to the insolvent spoils of its post-war heyday.

Though Lévy lumps China into the same category as Russia and Turkey, its steady and formidable advance to the top ranks of the global economy in only a few recent decades hardly suggests it is made of what he calls papier-mache. Its project of “rejuvenation” looks not so much to ride on past glories as to recreate the conditions for national glory once again by, above all, mastering the technologies of the future, including artificial intelligence.

Yet, as Lévy asks, where is the new creative impulse that accompanies this so-called rejuvenation? Where, for example, are the great new architects? Still, he notes, the seminal buildings in its urban areas are mostly designed by Western starchitects. Where are the writers with tales that resonant around the world?

George Yeo, the sage statesman who was once Singapore’s foreign minister, has made a parallel point about the hollow nature of a purely materialist idea of rejuvenation. “Healthy development is not only about opening up for economic wellbeing,” he said at the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council meeting in Beijing at the end of 2018, “but for enhancing the spiritual wellbeing of people.” China, he said, needs “sacred spaces” for spiritual renewal in its development outlook.

While it is true the China is striving once again to “be itself,” definitively out from under the Western yoke, Lévy argues that it has produced no values of universal appeal. He notes that even the awakened populations, especially the youth in its own cultural sphere in Hong Kong and Taiwan, don’t look to Beijing’s authoritarian ways for inspiration, but to the idea of the West. For any nation to become an empire and wield transformative influence over others, says Lévy, the values it promotes must appeal to those beyond itself and not merely serve self-interest.

This may not make China papier-mache, but will limit the extent of its capacity to replace the broad influence of the idea of West. For Lévy, this is the paradox where his hope resides. While the Western empires that once ruled are waning, their core values remain an inspiration in the world they are abandoning.

To conclude our conversation, Lévy recalled this quote from Edmund Husserl in his book “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man,” written in 1935 on the eve of the Second World War. It serves as both a dire warning for our own times across the entire West and a timeless marker of faith in the future, if even only a small handful of believers resist lassitude and defeatism.

“The crisis of European existence can end in only one of two ways: in the ruin of a Europe alienated from its rational sense of life, fallen into a barbarian hatred of spirit; or in the rebirth of Europe from the spirit of philosophy, through a heroism of reason. Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. Let us as ‘good Europeans’ do battle with this danger of dangers with the sort of courage that does not shirk even the endless battle. If we do, then from the annihilating conflagration of disbelief, from the fiery torrent of despair regarding the West’s mission to humanity, from the ashes of the great weariness, the phoenix of a new inner life of the spirit will arise as the underpinning of a great and distant human future, for the spirit alone is immortal.”