A Conversation With the Last Liberal Interventionist
Bernard-Henri Lévy on cultural relativism, isolationism, Pax Americana, the Enlightenment, Greta Thunberg, Eric Zemmour, Derrida, Covid and much more.
Satellite images show Russian tanks, fighter aircraft, surface-to-air and ballistic missiles, and more than 100,000 troops massing along the border with Ukraine. Russian patrol boats are now stationed off the coast of Sevastopol, in the Crimea. The State Department has ordered the families of diplomats, in Kiev, to evacuate. Vladimir Putin, who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, looks to be attempting to resurrect the old empire.
But in America, the top trending stories here are about Covid, masks, inflation, the gyrations of the stock market, our listless president. Few are talking about the fact that the Pentagon has just put 8,500 U.S. troops on “high alert.” We seem mostly consumed with ourselves, a profound departure from the days when Americans grasped that we did not have the luxury of turning away from what was unfolding thousands of miles away. Now, some of our brightest minds are insisting that it’s not America’s problem to intervene in European border disputes. That Russians threatening to invade a democratic country in the middle of Europe isn’t really our business.
The philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy insists that not only should we care, but that we must. What is happening right now in Ukraine, he argues, has everything to do with us. It has to do with whether we still believe in Western values and in Western civilization—and if we really think those values and that civilization are worth defending and sacrificing for.
But BHL is a highly endangered species: the liberal interventionist. In the 1990s, his kind seemed to run the world. The West had triumphed over Soviet totalitarianism. We had arrived at the “end of history.” Then the first two decades of the 21st century happened.
Now he is out with a new book and documentary, both titled “The Will to See,” which urge us to reassess our turning away. We had the wide-ranging conversation below before those 100,000 Russian troops were standing ready at the Ukrainian border. But I am confident he would say that what is happening right now in those snowy woods might not seem like our problem, but likely will be. — BW
BW: Recently, my wife and I sat in a movie theater in Los Angeles and watched your new documentary, called “The Will to See,” in which you take the audience to the worst parts of the world. Syria. Iraq. Libya. Somalia. Nigeria. I have to tell you, I was heartbroken watching this film. There you were, in your trademark crisp white shirt, trying to shine a light on the worst human rights abuses in the world. And then, at the end of the film, we learn that literally almost every survivor, every hero, in the film is now dead, swallowed up by the very forces you are trying to expose.
BHL: Not quite all of them. But it’s true, when I think about it, the film is a cemetery. The young Nigerian woman with her arm macheted off in slices—her memory haunts me. I’m haunted by all of them.
Has the failure of all these liberation movements you have supported changed your worldview at all? Has it shifted you from optimism to pessimism?
No. There’s no connection between the two. Because at bottom I’ve always been metaphysically pessimistic and politically optimistic. I’ve always felt that death and disaster were the rule, but that there are exceptional moments, moments of light and grace. I live for these exceptional moments. They are what give meaning to existence, to the world, to the battle of ideas, to battle plain and simple. It’s true that many of the film’s protagonists have died. But I’m glad I made it—for others, for all the others who perhaps will not die. I saw the characters as doomed. I left the women fighters in Rojava, the Christian villagers in Nigeria threatened by Boko Haram and the Fulani militias, and the free men and women of Afghanistan feeling that they were doomed. I left brave women and men soldiers in Ukraine on the frontlines and I felt that they, too, were in peril faced with Putin’s tanks. In some cases, alas, it was true. But sometimes I was wrong. They fought their way out. And they’re still here, which is wonderful.
I want to understand what drives you to go to these places. Is it your humanism? Your Judaism? And how do those two intersect?
That is the hardest question of all. I made an entire documentary about this and am still not able to answer it. Humanism, yes, of course. Judaism, that goes without saying. My own. Which is the Judaism of Buber, Rosenzweig, and Levinas. But also an instinct. A simple instinct. About a situation that seemed to me just plain intolerable.
I supported the war in Iraq as a teenager because I believed in freedom. That is embarrassing to admit now, and feels so deeply naive. Obviously, the war was a mistake. Now, you didn’t support the war, but you did support the Arab Spring. And that did not turn out well, suffice it to say, for the cause of freedom. I wonder if your own thinking has shifted since then? How have you changed your mind?
No, I haven’t. Because there was a major difference between the Arab Spring movements of 2011 and the war in Iraq, which, indeed, I did not support. The former were based on a real, intense, and massive popular uprising, whereas Iraq was an American administration deciding, one fine day, based on half-baked intelligence, to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In Libya, no demand for democracy was parachuted in. Nobody rushed in to stir up a population that had gotten used to slavery and then forced democracy upon it. We came to the rescue—another thing altogether!—of people in revolt who wanted support and a reason for hope. We went in to tell them, “You are hundreds of thousands of people who have had enough of tyranny, who believe in freedom, who want honest leaders adhering to the ruling principles of the major countries of the West? Well, great! Welcome to the club!” That’s what we said; that’s what we did. And that has nothing to do with what occurred, unfortunately, in Iraq.
It seems to me that you are the last of a dying breed, or at least a very endangered species: You are a liberal. And you are an interventionist.
I hope the breed isn’t dying! It would be very sad if you were right. I made this documentary to convince young people—in the United States in particular—of the nobility of this form of interventionism.
OK. But so many of the ideas that you have spent your life advocating for—welcoming immigrants, advocating for more open borders, globalization, and so on—are now unpopular or falling out of favor. I wonder if you’d put your ideology and yourself on the couch for me. Why has liberalism failed? Or put another way: why has it fallen so out of favor?
Let’s change the prism and look at things another way. Liberalism was never as “in favor” as you say it was. The natural inclination of humans and their societies is egotism: Every man for himself. That certainly was true for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. But there are exceptional moments. They’re rare, but they come along. And the last 30 years of the 20th century were the longest and most intense of these exceptional moments. Perhaps because of an unprecedented prosperity in the West. Or because of a particular chance concentration of people who believed in the principles of universalism, involvement, and so on. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: No human community is intended for bondage any more than any other. Nothing—no cultural tradition or anything else—justifies the stoning of women, their mutilation, or their exclusion from healthcare or education. And nothing, no form of relativism, can promise enlightenment to some and eternal darkness to others.
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European elites—in Germany, as well as in France—think of their commitment to refugees as part of their penance for their betrayal of the Jews. And that makes good sense. But I can’t help but notice that they are letting in some of the most unregenerate Jew haters on the planet and, in so doing, unintentionally betraying the Jews all over again. If you disagree or think that’s unfair, I’d love to understand why.
You’re not entirely wrong. And I believe I was one of the first, in the early 1980s, to condemn that and to point to a new form of antisemitism that was clearing its conscience by defending the refugees, claiming to be opening itself to otherness, etc. And so what? I’m going to let those bastards set my agenda? Are we suddenly unable to count to two? Or, to the extent possible, with eyes wide open, to do two things simultaneously? To protect Jews, of course; not yielding an inch of ground in that respect. Without, in so doing, evading the imperative of humanism—and Judaism—of offering hospitality to the stranger at the door.
I see the rise of figures like Eric Zemmour as a response to the failures of Europe’s ability to assimilate refugees and migrants—and the denial of that challenge by so many in the mainstream media. Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes this point in her most recent book. She argues that the denial of such realities by politicians and journalists in the mainstream fertilizes the ground for the rise of right-wing populists. Do you agree?
I’m not sure I do. Europe and the United States had far-right populists before the influx of poorly assimilated migrants. Before World War I, half of France was proto-fascist, if those words have any meaning at all. But, unlike today, there were hardly any refugees from Muslim countries. The same was true of Germany (and France) in the 1930s, before the Second World War. I don’t have to draw you a picture: There was zero “failure to assimilate.” There was zero “denial” of any sort of difficult realities. Yet we still got Hitler. Here, too, the putative connection that we hear so much about between the rise of the extreme right and the migrant crisis falls apart, doesn’t check out, makes no sense.
You write this in your book: “In the cities of democratic states, I see the rise of injustice—and of incivility, cruelty, racism, and antisemitism. But among those whom Fanon dubbed the wretched of the earth, I see an explosion of extreme misery; even more marked inequality in the face of the virus and the devastating effects of climate change; I observe that the most unjust of injustices, the mother of all the others, is more than ever one’s luck in being born in one latitude rather than another . . . Never has the unity of the human race, a fragile but sacred principle since the origins of the Judeo-Christian West, been so monstrously challenged. My internationalism is a response to that.” Is the inequality between people in the developing and the developed world—a result of the accident of birth—the most underrated injustice today?
It’s the one we worry about least, at any rate. And now with that whole part of the left that’s getting into the act and telling us not to meddle because to do so would be “cultural appropriation.” This is ideology in the service of cruelty. One additional point, though. The accident, the disgrace, of one’s birth does not explain everything. There are other factors, too. You have poor governance. Mismanagement by corrupt governments. Radical Islam and its intent to subjugate a large swath of humanity. But what is certain is that to be a woman born in Afghanistan, Sudan, or Somalia does not help in overcoming these evil demons.
You have spent the better part of your life reporting from war-torn, impoverished regions. You entered the firing range of the war for independence in Bangladesh as a young man. More recently, you have been chased by armed militias in Libya. But fundamentally, you are a philosopher. So tell me about your intellectual roots. Who were your biggest philosophical and literary influences?
My literary influences? Too numerous to cite. Let’s say the great modern adventurers, and not only modern. Malraux, of course. Lord Byron and his dazzling trajectory ending in Missolonghi, Greece. Lawrence’s admirable Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And, much earlier, from Xenophon’s Anabasis to Chateaubriand, the great literature of travel, of escape and adventure. In talking with you, I realize that those who influenced me the most are in fact those who never had anything to do with this business of “cultural appropriation.” The phrase didn’t exist, of course, in Lawrence’s time, or Byron’s. But neither one had any problem whatsoever with putting themselves in the service, and nearly in the skin, of a persecuted Arab or Greek. As far as philosophy goes, that one’s easier: the Structuralists.
Jacques Derrida was one of your professors at the École Normale Supérieure. Many identify French intellectuals like him and Michel Foucault as key players in the rise of moral and cultural relativism. Do you feel that their influence, among others, has led to the elevation of relativistic thinking or “wokeness” in the West?
Yes. But as the result of a misunderstanding. And because of a totally idiotic reading of their books. Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” has nothing to do with what we impute to him today; nothing to do with “gender,” “wokeness,” and so on. Rather, it is a mode of philosophical thinking that consists of putting to the test the great oppositions that structure the field of metaphysics (inside/outside, absence/presence, single/multiple, same/other, etc.). It has nothing to do, truly, with any of the things that are gathered under this flag on university campuses. As for Foucault, if there was one thing that horrified him, it was the very idea of “identity.” He built his entire philosophy against even the temptation of identity-based assignment. It is his signature: I write not to have an identity, but to lose it.
What are the differences between today’s political left and the left of your earlier life?
Generosity. Yesterday’s left was generous. Today, a part of the left is incredibly sour, closed, and petty under its veil of self-proclaimed generosity. Yesterday’s left was Jews fighting for the civil rights of Blacks or Blacks fighting against antisemitism and defending Israel. Today’s left too often feels like everyone is for himself, everyone is staying home.
Why don’t Westerners care about humanitarian crises around the world? To use an example from your book, the ongoing massacre of Christians in Nigeria has received very little media attention.
True. Yet when you try, it works. I recently had a piece about this subject in the Wall Street Journal. A few weeks later, a delegation of Nigerian Christians had an audience with Mike Pompeo. It doesn’t happen frequently, I agree. But I ask you: how could it be otherwise with this feeble-minded part of the left is telling us that you must be Nigerian to talk about Nigerians and that, if the Nigerians aren’t talking, or can’t talk, or are forbidden from talking, it’s too bad for them but we can’t do anything? Speaking up for others, speaking for them when they are prevented from doing so, relaying their words when they lack the technical or political means of making themselves heard—there’s something noble in that.
Today, interventionism is decidedly unpopular among people across the political spectrum. There seems to be a consensus, for example, among liberals and conservatives that America’s involvement in Afghanistan was misguided. What would you say to those who argue that it simply wasn’t worth the immense cost?
On the first point, I don’t agree: As long as a few hundred American soldiers remained in Afghanistan, there was a free press and girls were going to school, music and poetry were allowed—in short, the intervention worked. On the second point, I’m afraid we’re going to come down with a thud and discover very soon the enormous cost of our retreat—a cost far greater than that of remaining there. The symbolic and moral cost, as well as the economic and military cost.
Do you think the U.S. was prudent and principled to invade Afghanistan?
Yes. Doing so was the essence of prudence. It was necessary to prevent another 9/11. To do that, it was necessary to destroy the regime. Afterwards, it will not have escaped your attention that the “invasion” turned gradually into a symbolic, very light, noncombatant presence that nevertheless served as a shield behind which a civil society came together. Let’s not fall for the propaganda of the Trumpists and their de facto allies on the so-called far left. Contrary to what the world says, the United States could have stayed far longer at a cost many times less than what their other deployments cost.
Is it paternalistic to assume that people around the world crave Western democratic norms? According to a Pew study from 2013, 99% of Afghans—men and women—desire to live under Sharia law.
I am aware of that poll. The same words do not necessarily mean the same things. When a woman in Kabul refers to Sharia, she is not advocating for the right to be stoned in the event of adultery. By the way, a real liberal, an interventionist worth his salt, would never deny that broad principles are flexible. We know well that they obviously cannot be applied identically in Afghanistan or Burma, but that they must be adapted.
Jean-Marie Le Pen has said, “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, my cousin to my neighbor, my neighbor to my countrymen, and my countrymen to Europeans!” You refer to this claim, in the book, as base, preferring Montesquieu’s wisdom that “If I knew something that was useful to me and prejudicial to my family, I would put it out of my mind; if I knew something that was useful to my family but not to my country, I would try to forget it; if I knew something that was useful to my country and prejudicial to Europe and the human race, I would regard it as a crime.” The takeaway being that humanity should be prioritized over the welfare of people in specific nations. How would you explain to Americans, for example, who say, frankly: This is nonsense. We need to look out for ourselves, we need to look out, first and foremost, for our own poor. Why should Americans who are unable to afford healthcare be taxed to finance foreign wars and aid investments that benefit faraway people?
I think a great nation can do both. Moreover, I believe that everything is related and that, as Thomas Friedman reminded us, the world is flat. Imagine an America that has lost its honor, its credit, its trust. An America that no longer commands respect. Well, in that case, the “poor people” you refer to would be even poorer. Give me a popular podium. I’m prepared to explain this. And, believe me, I will be convincing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made travel exceedingly difficult and even taboo. Moreover, many environmentalists (Greta Thunberg is one example) discourage air travel in an effort to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. Travel has been instrumental in your life. And you sort of ignored the lockdowns and traveled around the world during Covid. What is the importance of travel and why should we encourage it?
For the same reason. The world of Greta Thunberg, a world without travel, a world where we closed ourselves off from others, would be an impoverished world. Spiritually, of course. Civilizationally, no doubt. But also, in the most trivial sense of the word, economically. Globalization must be reformed. The ecological battle must be fought. And to correct the damaging effects of technology, we need much, much more technology. But the tragic error would be to try to undo everything.
You are a repository of philosophical knowledge. What do you want to say to young people who are beginning to shape their worldview?
The Enlightenment, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, has not yet said its last word. That is what I would tell them. Ignore the ideologues of identity. Ignore the fanatics urging you to retreat into yourself. Ignore the maniacs advocating “safe spaces” and “comfort zones.” Allow yourself to be riled up by the bubbling anger of things. If you don’t, you’ll be dead before you even begin to live.