The Nord Stream Pipeline (Photo via the Seymour Hersh Substack)
Artillery Row

A tragedy of manners

Is the US endangering its status in Europe?

When European elites assess their Russian counterparts, they are frequently little impressed. They lament their corruption, when making far milder judgements vis-a-vis their American peers, even if some of their sons have obvious substance abuse problems and immodestly blend the affairs of the state with private ventures. Do we find here unfair European double standards? Russians have long complained of it, as Carl Schmitt remarked when describing them in 1929. “For a century their psychological gaze has seen through our great words and institutions,” wrote the controversial German jurist, himself a penetratingly objective observer. 

Americans throughout their imperial legacy in Europe followed in the footsteps of the British

Arguably, the Russians have always been particularly adept at a sober realism. That worldview sees everything as a Machiavellian power struggle, reducing it to Lenin’s existential “кто кого?” — of who (кто) will in the end have his knee on the neck of whom (кого). It is no coincidence perhaps that this worldview may also be overdetermined by a difficult Russian history. Centuries under the “Tatar yoke” were later prolonged as Marxist materialism, which perceives a clear hierarchy between the “serious” process of production and “frivolous” culture that must be epiphenomenal and secondary. Russians know well how to toy with this reductionist view of things, sometimes blended in with an ironic self-awareness of their own “oriental backwardness”. Prigozhin, the head of the private military company Wagner, for instance, sent bloody sledgehammers in violin cases to the European Parliament. 

Perhaps the Russians are ultimately right in this worldview. The war in Ukraine again demonstrates to Europeans that military power is the basis of everything. These days, Europeans are becoming gradually and painfully aware that, at least for now, there is no place for them outside of the protection of a greater military power upon whom their lifelines as a trading power ultimately depend. 

History also urges us to take a more nuanced view, however. When having to “choose” between two inevitable dominations which offered themselves to a defeated and disarmed European continent in 1945, the Americans were by far the more popular sovereign. Americans throughout their imperial legacy in Europe followed in the footsteps of the British, who were perhaps the original avantgarde of “informalising” the political rule of their empire as a series of contracts. The historian Daniel Immerwahr noticed this in the American way of imperialism. From a certain moment in history, Americans started “hiding” their empire and preferring technology over territory. It is not that Americans did not make use of hard power — far from it. Yet, they also invented their “soft power”, the programmes of public diplomacy and personal exchanges, the hypnotic and enticing thrall of Hollywood, politicians with warm American smiles hugging stiff and awkward European statesmen. 

At least formally and publicly, the Americans remained open to their imperial subjects and treated them as equals, avoiding the more overt humiliations which had still been a feature a few years prior when the victors of the Great War imposed Versailles. We find here nothing less than a long victory march of “equality”. As remarked by the French philosopher Alain Soral, no regime in the modern epoch — from Communists, to Capitalists and Anti-Colonialists — can afford to not pay homage to it.

A new generation of American elites cares little about such trivial stuff as manners

The imperial configurations haunting the post-World War II world were accompanied by a new formal equality, which was perhaps a genuinely European invention. Decolonisation, for instance, enshrined the unequal relations between colonial powers and colonised powers in systems of formal sovereign equality and independence. Some cynics have remarked that in the case of Africa today, objective living standards are worse than under the dreaded colonisers. Is this not again underestimating the thymos of the peoples — that quiet pride which can make one pay a high price for a veneer of decency and status? Is it any wonder that today the most unequal societies the world has ever known are chaired by a brilliant system of symbolic heterogeneity, equality and diversity?

Perhaps this is the great divide between European and Russian sensibility which has doomed their relationship in the past. Europeans are an idealistic bunch that appreciate good form above everything. They have always preferred the suave American poker face and slick innocuousness of a Barack Obama to the harsh paternal reminders of “realities” from a Putin and his cronies. This is also one reason why Europeans have been so outraged by an ill-mannered Trump, by a Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland; and why they will be if Seymour Hersh is correct in attributing the careless terrorism against Nord Stream II to the Biden administration. 

Unfortunately, it seems that a new generation of American elites cares little about such trivial stuff as manners, probably viewed as reactionary and suspiciously colonial in the brave new world of Ivy League schools. Some suspect they have themselves become infected with a cynical materialism and lost their famed capacity to dream. For now, still, they are more popular with Europeans than their Russian counterparts, even if the latters’ rough edges have been smoothed by 20 years of London exile — but for how much longer?

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