In 1989, as the Soviet empire was imploding, Alexander Arbatov, a diplomatic advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev, addressed a brilliant remark to Westerners: “We are going to do something terrible to you. You will no longer have an enemy.” The disappearance of Communism indeed plunged Europe and the United States into a disorienting euphoria; for the “free world,” it was a symbolic catastrophe. There was something terrible and yet reassuring in the Soviet Union’s hostility: the East/West divide separated good from evil with razor-sharp clarity.
An enemy represents a guarantee for the future, a certainty of solidarity; it mobilizes individuals who would otherwise be ready to go their own way; and it overcomes the apathy that inheres in prosperous societies. The Cold War provided a polemical ordering of memory and of knowledge—a pedagogy for the problems of the present. The obligation to follow and check the adversary’s movements made us attentive to the slightest guerrilla actions and to the most local of conflicts; humanity remained a common concern. The threat that loomed over our social life restored an unprecedented clarity to our institutions, rights, and well-being. Democracy was once again fragile and precious, like a treasure that could be stolen at any moment.
Three decades later, the Old World, which meantime has been overcome with skepticism, seems to have provoked in its uncertainty the encroachments of two enemies: radical Islamism, in the double form of terrorism and Salafism; and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Both view the West with resentment, considering it, in the first case, guilty of hostility toward the religion of the prophet and, in the second, of having brought about the fall of the Soviet Union. There, though, the resemblance ends.
Vladimir Putin sees himself as a hyperbolic Westerner, despising European decadence in the name of the true European values that he claims to incarnate. “The liberal idea,” Putin told the Financial Times in June 2019, “has become obsolete.” All the ills that Russia suffers supposedly come not from Russians themselves but from Europe’s corruption, America’s malfeasance, and a satanic NATO. What the Kremlin’s master dreads above all is democratic contagion, an importation of the spirit of Maidan—Kiev’s Independence Plaza—into Russia itself.
From his time in the KGB, Putin has retained a founding principle of the Soviet state: the strategy of cutting a country into slices before swallowing what one intends to conquer—Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia; Crimea and the Donbass region of Ukraine; and, perhaps in the future, a piece of Estonia or Latvia. All this is in keeping with the adage, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” Russia’s financing of certain populist parties, such as France’s National Front, against Brussels; and its flattery of Slovakia, payoffs in Hungary, threats to Scandinavia, and pressure on Sweden—leading that nation to reinstate military service and to enter into a defensive alliance with Finland—underscore that Putin’s goal is to dislocate Europe, to avenge the affront of 1989. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, the meddling in French and American elections, the cyberattacks carried on by the hackers of the FSB (formally the KGB) or other information services: it all adds up to a significant offensive against Western interests.
Despite being a major revanchist, Putin enjoys surprising popularity in the West. A black belt in judo, he loves to parade bare-chested on horseback, to play with weapons, to swim in the Yenisei River, and to practice vigorous sports—all of which brings him admirers among the discontented. In France, the cult of this Muscovite Rambo extends from Marine le Pen and Philippe de Villiers on the far right to the extreme left of Jean Luc Mélenchon and the monthly Le Monde diplomatique, for whom Moscow remains the heir of the USSR, the only power truly to have contested capitalism. It is not love for Russian civilization, a passion for Pushkin, Gogol, or Rachmaninoff, that animates Putin’s French friends; it is anti-Americanism and a dangerous fascination for authoritarianism—for the tyrant’s scourge.
As for Allah’s extremists, the balance sheet is different. Hostility toward the now militarily degraded Islamic State (ISIS) is all but universal. Even Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which helped create ISIS to serve as a weapon against Iran, look with horror at the monster born of their dogmatism. (It was unfortunate that President Trump, during his official visit to Riyad in 2017, exonerated Saudi Arabia of any role in fomenting terrorism, placing blame on Iran alone.) We should be pleased that the highest authorities of Sunni Islam—notably, Al-Azar University in Cairo, have condemned this movement based on mass murder and fear.
Still, we should also be concerned that official Islamic disapproval of ISIS was late in coming, and somewhat muted. The hope that Islam will reform itself along the lines of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II runs up against the reality that many adherents of this great religion, the heir of a glorious past, cling to symbols of its identity that run sharply counter to modern liberal influences.
With the exceptions of Morocco, under the thumb of an enlightened king; fragile Tunisia, a little flame of Muslim tolerance threatened by extremists; and Hashemite Jordan, most Muslim countries have been oscillating between military despotism and theocracy: no-win situations. Even formerly liberal Turkey is slipping into authoritarianism and renouncing the secular legacy of Ataturk. Islam is a house divided; it is a damaged dwelling, filled with sadness but also with anger over the memory of its lost greatness. This is the wound that fundamentalists wish to heal by blaming it on the Crusades, on infidels, and on Zionists. Their opponents, the Muslim reformers, have the courage to call for opening Islam and deepening it, for undertaking a rereading of the Koran and of the sacred texts, in order to provide a shock of renewal.
We tend to forget that today’s Europe, unlike the U.S., wasn’t born of a covenant that said “all is possible” but of one that held “no longer is everything permitted”—not the destruction of cities, not ethnic cleansings, not mass killings. The total disaster of the twentieth century was needed to bring the Old World to virtue; without two world wars and their parade of horrors, the European aspiration to peace, hard to distinguish from an aspiration to rest, would never have taken root. What brought us from savagery to quietness was a saturation of murder. In Europe, democracy was what was left over when other, more violent, dreams were abandoned: a space of great diversity, where one could live, find fulfillment, and, if possible, get rich in proximity to cultural masterpieces.
Europe stopped caring about history, a nightmare that it left behind with great difficulty, first in 1945, and again after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Its dream was to take early retirement from the world, while offering itself as a model of reason, to which all peoples should conform. After ’89, it entered fervently into the era of the “post”: post-history, post-national, post-religious. Nations were an archaic political form. Frontiers would disappear and religions slowly dissolve, as superstitious forms of belief. Market competition and liberal democracy would guarantee prosperity and security.
This calm existence was supposed to be Kant’s “perpetual peace,” finally attained. There is a striking contrast, however, between the idyll that Europeans have recounted to themselves over the last 60 years and the latent, low-intensity civil war that is now the condition of certain areas of the European Union, protected by armed soldiers. Reality gives the lie to the fairy tale: millions of people, some within Europe itself, show that they’re ready to die for their God, while European populist movements contest the post-political utopia, proclaiming that peoples do not want to disappear, that borders protect before they separate, and that identity is not a product of nostalgia but a defining concern. History is grabbing Europeans by the collar.
Our enemy is anyone who wants to enslave us, colonize us, or annihilate us, whether by arms or propaganda—but we need to recognize him as such and attempt to parry his blows. The capacity to name the enemy is the prerogative of sovereign states, with the condition of not excluding a future reconciliation, once the conflict is won. It is necessary to respect one’s enemies and take them seriously: when they explain that they seek to crush us, we should take them at their word.
When, for example, the sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood, proposes that Rome, capital of the infidels, must be Islamized, or when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, during a visit to Germany, exhorts Turks to remain loyal to Ankara and to have five children each, launching a true war of the wombs—we must take what they say literally. These are not delusions of leaders gone astray; they are statements of programs to be put into effect as soon as possible, in the real world. The nations of old Europe, fattened by a half-century of security, can exhibit a remarkable deafness to such threats. In this context, it was encouraging to hear French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent warning about the “Islamist hydra,” which he was careful to distinguish from the religion of Islam by virtue of its being a “deadly ideology, which does not recognize our laws, our rights, our way of life.”
It is important not to confuse an intermittent and ancient rivalry with Russia with terrorist jihadism, a very different threat. Where Moscow is concerned, we must negotiate from a position of strength; with ISIS, al-Qaida, and their like, we must vanquish—while keeping in mind the dreadful possibility (so well captured by the Showtime television series Homeland) that the fight against terrorism can provoke further terrorism and fan the flames that it wishes to extinguish.
Russia’s size and military power exclude a direct confrontation. Putin is an adversary whom we have no interest in transforming into an enemy. The master of the Kremlin is “possessed,” in the Dostoyevskian sense, but he is a cool sort of demon, an aggressor, kleptocrat, and tireless lecturer. He started the fight with Europe; we must respond, within the limits of reason, without weakness or concession—neither war nor peace but a continual test of strength, cooperation under tension, a partnership of distrust. This will likely include maintaining economic sanctions against Russia and reinforcing NATO’s troops on Europe’s eastern borders to dissuade Moscow from any aggression against Poland, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, or Moldavia.
After the military defeat of ISIS, the question remains of the extent of the Islamist threat, Sunni as well as Shiite. ISIS will leave behind metastases that will continue to spread and require constant vigilance from European governments. We must hope for the rejection by Islam of nihilist violence and its adaptation to modernity, which is encouraged by the most enlightened minds among Muslim elites. This work, which will take decades, demands something beyond Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction: it will require persuasion, political intelligence, and empathy.
Europe’s error after 1945 was to mistake decades of peace for the eternal course of history. Peace was better seen as a parenthesis; we have no reason to foresee the progressive abolition of conflicts. Brecht said that war produces war, but so does a bad peace. And in its worst moments, Europe has sought peace at almost any price, an approach that can sanction grave injustice, as during the ethnic conflicts that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s—violence brought to an end only with American military intervention.
Until 2013, when French troops were sent to Mali to oust Islamist fighters from the north of the country, Europeans often insisted that military action was obsolete, and left it to others, reserving the right to criticize them relentlessly when they—the U.S. most notably, of course—went wrong in some misguided foreign mission. Yet this paradox remains: with the exceptions of France and Great Britain, which still have respectable armed forces, Europeans have delegated to America the job of defending them. Europe, for now without credible military means, continues to depend on the Yankee big brother for its safety. Why have we laid down our capacity for action?
Until recently, many Europeans viewed the soldier as barely tolerable unless he was a man of letters—a lesser figure than, say, the doctor or nurse. The refusal of armed conflict was directly linked with the rise of individualism and the decline of nationalism. In Europe, at least, the contemporary individual did not want to be dispossessed of his death in a collective conflagration. To act for a country or an ideology—that is, for a higher principle than one’s private existence—seemed an archaism in a hedonist society that touted self-fulfillment and love of life.
Everything changed in France with the terrorist attacks of 2015–16. Terrorism frightened us, but it also awakened a spirit of resistance. Despite the intentions of the terrorists, the attacks restored some fervor and flesh to my country, reviving patriotism and reminding us of the value of our way of life. The mass murders even brought the display of the tricolor flag in windows. When the French state kills a terrorist, it now leaves many of us happy or indifferent, instead of uneasy or outraged at the militaristic action; when then-president François Hollande acknowledged ordering assassinations in Iraq and Syria, for example, the public went along. “No quarter for those who threaten France,” he exclaimed before top military leaders in 2015. With death now lurking everywhere—in our cities, our streets, our train stations, and our houses of worship—we decided to go about our business; barbarism did not break us. We fought back.
True, modern military glory for the French and other Europeans is no longer that exalted by Alfred de Musset, who described the children born after the death of Napoleon as “drops of burning blood that had inundated the earth; they were born in the bosom of war, for war.” We hear an echo of this fervor in a comment by General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, for whom “the battlefield is the lost paradise of humanity, the paradise where virtue and human action are at their highest.” Today, our military confronts mainly transnational networks, and counters them with various methods: special operations, international disinformation, the progressive virtualization of combat, and targeted killings that involve more ruse than force. A modern European military career mixes a passion for service and the taste for adventure with the recognition of past atrocities; the modern soldier is a tethered hero who must control his emotions and carefully measure his use of force. But the terror attacks made soldiers heroes again, serving their nation, erasing earlier defeats and embarrassments.
Democracy is the peaceful codification of differences—agreeing to disagree. Opposition is the precondition of pluralism in the life of a nation. But there are useful enemies, too. The adversary puts us in the contradictory position of wanting to conquer him, yet also wanting to sustain him somehow, to preserve the energy he breathes into us. It is in this strange antagonism that a people can show its character. The threats it faces might harm Europe gravely, but they might also force it to take hold of its destiny and constitute a military force worthy of the name, preparing for the worst in order to avoid it.
That isn’t guaranteed, however. “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” wrote the historian Arnold Toynbee. What is wrong with our continent can be summarized in a few words: Europeans frequently have a low opinion of their own worth. When Islamists express their aversion for the West, or when nationalist Slavophiles express contempt for the Old World, they don’t have far to look; they have only to dip into the European literature and philosophy of the last two centuries. The prosecution of Europe goes on, led by a drumbeat that Europe itself often provides. Ever proud to beat its breast, it ostentatiously claims a universal and apostolic monopoly of barbarism. The Old World has vanquished its monsters—slavery, fascism, colonialism, and Stalinism—except for one: self-detestation. Its bad conscience is not remorse for a definite crime; rather, it has become for many an identity, a convenient refuge by which we withdraw from history. Our enemies understand this, knowing us better than we know ourselves. We fight first against ourselves, against our scruples and our devouring doubts. Someone strikes me—therefore, I am guilty. This is why, in one sense, we should thank Putin or al-Baghdadi, even if we cannot equate them, for their hostility. They help revive us by detesting us.
Europe must rearm itself, then, but it must also distinguish the battlefield from the confrontation of ideas. Conflicts with our enemies are not won only with tanks, bombs, and an adequate deterrent; they can be won at the cultural level, if we can convince our aggressors of our determination and the rest of the world of the eminent virtues of our civilization.
European pessimism, by contrast, is the expression of a political order with no grip on its future. But a continent that does not love itself cannot be loved by others and is morally preparing its own disappearance. It can be colonized because it has become mentally colonizable. We flirt with the pleasure of disappearing and present this erasure as a proof of high civilization. The drastic decline of the birthrate in Europe, compensated by uncontrolled immigration, is revelatory of lack of confidence in the future. Søren Kierkegaard liked to cite a certain Sebastian Franck: “A philosopher was asked how he began to become one. He responded: ‘When I began to be my own friend.’ If one asked a Christian when he became one, he would respond: ‘When I began to become my own enemy.’” One must not reject one’s demon but live attached to him as a fecund contradictor. It is one thing, though, to take in an intimate critic as a fertile irritant, and another to give shelter to a pitiless critic, who gives no respite. Western self-criticism too often swings over into systematic denigration and the deadening of our spiritual resources. Nothing is more Western than this passion for self-laceration. The spirit of criticism turns on itself and threatens to destroy itself, a morose pleasure that leaves nothing standing. Hypercriticism ends in self-hatred, ready for all renunciations.
“No power can destroy the Spirit of a people either from within or from without if it is not already lifeless, if it has not already withered away,” Hegel observed. Let us begin, if possible, to become once again friends to ourselves, in order to be friends once more to the rest of the world. It makes no sense for Europe to be so envied and yet to love itself so little, when it is the very example of a successful exit from the apocalypse of the twentieth century, of a harmonious marriage between power and conscience. If we do not change our mind-set, we will disappear over the coming century, pushed aside by rougher but more dynamic cultures. We have never been so close to collapse—or to a new start.
Top Photo: The terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016, including against the magazine Charlie Hebdo, sparked massive unity rallies around France. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)