“WE'RE LIVING IN TIMES MORE DANGEROUS THAN THE COLD WAR”

Pierre Hassner, international relations specialist and research fellow at CERI Sciences Po, analyses contemporary global affairs in his latest book, La revanche des passions. Métamorphoses de la violence et crises du politique (The Revenge of the Passions. Metamorphoses of Violence and Political Crisis), published by Fayard in 2015. Interview.

  • After the Cold War, there was talk of “the end of history” and expectations of a kind of “weak peace”. But that peace never came...

Pierre Hassner: Indeed, the theory of the end of history advanced by Fukuyama in 1992, which held that there were no new ideas and that therefore everyone must convert to capitalism, was illusory. But then at the time, the United States was the sole power and the economic situation was still adequate, so it's understandable that the theory met with some success. Moreover, after each war, the Cold War included, people expect the coming of a new international order (at the time, Bush and Mitterrand claimed that the UN would be resurrected). Just as after each disaster, there is a widespread cry of “never again” and a new impetus for change, before it all begins again.

  • So have we plunged back into a state of war, as some observers claim?

P. H.: First we have to agree on what we’re calling war and what we’re calling peace. “Real war and real peace may have died together,” said General André Beaufre. We’re currently living in an inscrutable muddle. Are we at war or at peace? The Russians talk of “hybrid warfare”, the Chinese of “unrestricted warfare”. We are faced with new forms of violence. Terrorists and spies have always existed but what with hacking, wiretapping and computer viruses we are in a cyber war, a mixture of war and peace which Foucault's disciple Frederic Gros calls “states of violence”. It's not the Third World War, it's not nuclear war, but neither is it peace or the rule of the UN.

  • How can states combat these forms of violence?

P. H.: The great danger is that the reaction to these phenomena may itself become violent. There are two possible developments: barbarians can certainly become civilised but the civilised can also turn barbaric, and that means fascism. States may not know how to fight these new forms of violence but they do know how to exercise repression, whether they’re democratic or not.
Liberal democracy is under attack from all sides. One explanation put forward is that liberals don't really believe in their own ideas and are not willing to sacrifice themselves for them. Liberalism offers nothing that allows man to rise above himself. In times of crisis we need real leaders, like Churchill or de Gaulle were in their day. Today’s advocates of liberal democracy don't really measure up; Obama is smart and has good intentions but he is too moderate and therefore passive. In addition, we are seeing a growing introversion – hostility even – in response to globalisation, towards refugees for example.
Moreover, the line between state and non-state, interior and exterior, induced revolts and spontaneous revolts has been significantly blurred. All sorts of conflicts have run into each other, and sayings that once seemed universal such as “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” no longer apply. We can see this with the Russians. Putin offers to form a coalition with the West against Daesh but at the same time, in the Russian media, we hear Putin's speeches explaining that Europe is dead, and martial metaphors claiming that the Russians are a nation of conquerors, that it's “in their genes”. Putin is a true leader who wants to restore a strong government and who knows how to mobilise the population, over which he exerts a real if fragile fascination.

  • Daesh and Russia have a point in common: a sense of humiliation and a desire to regain a part-real, part-imagined former glory.

P. H.: Absolutely. A survey has shown that Stalin – he who won the Great Patriotic War and defeated the German – was the twentieth-century Russian most admired by the Russians, while Gorbachev, the man who let the empire slip away, was the most despised. This is a good illustration of the idea of revenge; it is a question of regaining one's place, of having a strong state. Russian nationalism has a messianic tradition that is also found among Americans. The Russians believe they have a mission to save the world; already in the nineteenth century, the Slavophiles thought they had a duty to save Europe. The Russians need this calling to justify the empire. It also explains their relations with the BRICS, as they too have a score to settle with the West. In his book Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War, Richard Ned Lebow says wars are motivated more by a quest for standing and revenge than by territorial or economic issues.

  • Is Islamic fundamentalism a form of totalitarianism?

P. H.: I prefer to distinguish totalitarian ideologies from totalitarian regimes and totalitarian passions. The ideologies – Communism and Nazism – were inherently modern phenomena. Leszek Kolakowski said: “Communism is the bastard child of the Enlightenment and fascism is the bastard child of romanticism.” In both cases, an almost religious attachment to an ideology was combined with scientific claims; racial pseudo-science for the Germans and historical materialism for the Soviets.
People from Daesh, however, oppose everything that is not themselves, from other Muslims to the minorities of Iraq and Syria. Even Bin Laden who called for the killing of Jews and Americans did not go that far. Olivier Roy wrote that jihadism is a form of nihilism. But those who join the ranks of Daesh because they have a violent disposition, feel humiliated or are out of work find a version of Islam that promises them “heaven” if they kill unbelievers.
The passions are the same as those engaged in totalitarian regimes, as described in Carl Schmitt's concept of the total enemy, but people from Daesh are said to want not so much the death of those they kill as their own death. The surprise is that violence and the need for absolutes have resurfaced today in the form of a religious war.

  • Are there good and bad passions?

P. H.: Yes, all passions are not equal. To combat bad passions we need to make use of good passions such as solidarity.
Passion without moderation in its application or judgment leads to suicide or crime. Moderation without passion, like that of Obama, leads to weakness and inaction. The solution lies in marrying the two. Combining these opposites is the most difficult thing to pull off, but the whole art of politics is to aim for that balance. You can be guided by a passion if you manage to set limits.

  • Has anyone ever succeeded?

P. H.: Yes, after the Second World War there was a European passion, seen for instance in the federalist movements in favour of a United States of Europe. But after Mitterrand and Kohl, who both believed in the future of Europe (Mitterrand said “France is my country, Europe is my future”), that passion disappeared. All the leaders who followed have run Europe without passion. Today, the passion is found among anti-Europeans, while pro-Europeans are a reasonable elite. Whereas Europe was initially conceived as a way to reconcile national identities and globalisation, it is now perceived as a bureaucracy.

  • Could a new “order” of moderate passions be established?

P. H.: You have to know how to judge your adversaries; how to recognise those with whom you have different priorities but common interests, and those with whom it is impossible to find common ground. I don't think it's possible to negotiate with Daesh, which is made up of people who do not believe in dialogue. Even during the Cold War, dialogue existed. For example, while the Americans were bombing the Vietnamese, who were supported by the Russians, Moscow was negotiating the Salt agreements with Washington. The dialogue often focused on each camp’s means of destroying the other, but there was a dialogue, even if there was also the feeling that it was fragile and could easily veer onto slippery ground.
We are now living in times more dangerous than the Cold War, when rules existed. What is worrying today is that we are dealing with people who actually want things to spin out of control, who seem to want the end of the world.


Interview by Corinne Deloy


References
The End of History and the Last Man by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was published in 1992.

André Beaufre (1902 - 1975), Sciences Po graduate and army general, was the author of Introduction to Strategy, a major theoretical work on military strategy.


Frédéric Gros (Fr), born on 30 November 1965 in Saint-Cyr-l'École, is a French philosopher and specialist of Foucault. He is a professor of political thought at Sciences Po.


Richard Ned Lebow is an American political scientist and leading international relations theorist.


Leszek Kolakowski (1927 - 2009) was a Polish philosopher, historian of ideas and essayist.


Olivier Roy, French political scientist and specialist of Islam, is a research fellow at CERI Sciences Po.

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Pierre Hassner, La revanche des passions, métamorphoses de la violence et crises du politique, Fayard, 2015

 

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