Sunday, February 23, 2003

Who's More Hobbesian?

Paul Berman thinks that Europe is Tocquevillian. True, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America to teach Europe (France, in particular) what the Americans knew about democracy on whose path they had advanced the furthest and whose defects they had combated successfully. But it is quite a stretch to say that the continent that has witnessed so many forms of modern despotism over the last century, nearly a catalogue of all the things Tocqueville says can go wrong with democracy, has imbibed Tocqueville's teachings. Would that Tocqueville had been so successful a teacher -- or that Europe had been so educable.

Covering everything (too quickly) from Hobbes, Kant, and Tocqueville to Abraham Lincoln, Berman takes some issue with the thesis of Robert Kagan's new book, Of Paradise and Power, where Kagan makes the argument that Americans are Hobbesians, viewing the world as inherently dangerous, and Europeans are Kantians, viewing the world as amenable to international law bringing about perpetual peace. Berman makes this correction to Kagan, because he thinks that Europe's inability to wield power reflects a Tocquevillian spirit. Berman cites as his evidence some remarks in Tocqueville's chapter on the three races in America, where he gives evidence of a majority (whites) tyrannizing minorities (blacks and Indians) -- the major problem of democracy, as Tocqueville sees it.

It is true that Tocqueville is pessimistic regarding a satisfactory conclusion to this domestic problem in America. But it is unclear how Berman extrapolates some of Tocqueville's remarks on the inadequacy of government to deal with this specific problem to general impotence in foreign affairs. Now it is true that Tocqueville says that it is difficult to get liberal democracies to fight wars, but nothing that we've witnessed recently in America dispels that. We have, after all, let Saddam live for over a decade now.

Moreover, Berman is incorrect when he argues that Europeans are more Tocquevillian because they cannot conceive of everyone embracing liberal democracy. Tocqueville's introduction to Democracy in America makes it quite clear that he thought democracy's spread was irresistible and unstoppable. In fact, this is why he took it upon himself to study it so hard and devise a "new political science" to combat its defects. Tocqueville wasn't necessarily the propagandist that Hobbes and other Enlightenment philosophers were, but he thought that democracy was more just in the final analysis and that it was foolish to try to oppose it.
If anything, France represents the pusillanimity, that ignoble desire for peace at any cost, that Tocqueville feared liberal democracy engendered. In this crucial respect France is more Hobbesian or suffering more from certain side-effects of Hobbes's thought, which takes fear of violent death to be the fundamental human passion, than the US.

Berman has bitten off a little bit more than he can chew here, as perhaps have I in trying to respond to him. His review of these thinkers, like that of many foreign affairs analysts, is unfortunately superficial. Calling Europe (or really just France) "Tocquevillian" because he thinks France is moderate betrays a poor understanding of Tocqueville, not because Tocqueville wasn't moderate but because France cannot muster reasonable support for liberal democracy anymore. Mostly, there are arguments against going to war which Berman should make more clearly than trying to hide behind so many thinkers.


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