Sunday Talk

Sunday Q&A: Josef Joffe on the Myth of American Decline

Josef Joffe on American exceptionalism, why Europeans hate Israel, and why China may not be the next superpower.


Josef Joffe is that rare European: a well-known and respected public intellectual, an academic with sinecures at prestigious universities on both sides of the Atlantic, the publisher-editor of the left-leaning German newspaper Die Zeit, and a staunch defender of the United States against reflexive and voguish European anti-Americanism. In The Myth of America's Decline, his first English-language book since a treatise of the “imperial temptation of America,” Joffe argues that despite consistent predictions of decline—and much to the irritation of the European cognoscenti—America will not be displaced as a superpower any time soon.

In a sprawling and discursive discussion, I spoke with Joffe about his new book, Israel, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, the politics of Günter Grass, and German guilt.

This is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

You point out in The Myth of America’s Decline that, historically, the idea of American declinism is bipartisan. It comes from both the anti-imperialist left and pro-Americans right.

Because declinism is not a diagnosis, it’s a device. In the ancient prophetic tradition. You paint the world in hellish colors and then offer yourself or your program as a savior. Thou shalt perish unless. And it has nothing to do with left or right. And there are so many examples in American history where it was used as a device for very prosaic purposes. Kennedy promoted the nonexistent missile guide. Ronnie Reagan did the same thing. When you complain that another nation’s more virile, nimble, and ambitious and will overtake the U.S. in short order, what you’re really saying is, “If you listen to me, if you elect me—whether left-wing or right-wing—of course perdition won’t happen but you will be led into salvation. The prophet is always a one-two punch. You will go to hell unless. After darkness comes redemption. It has nothing to do with left or right.

Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon? Is there, say, a Russian version of this?

It’s a very interesting question. I think it’s particularly American because American political theory really is important as a political theology. Think about what America is all about. We are reinventing the world anew. We are sailing across the ocean and we are replicating the escape of the children of Israel from Egypt. We shall go and build a new Jerusalem, whether it comes from John Winthrop and the “city upon a hill.” I don’t think any other modern democracy has that religious undercurrent in the sense of trial and tribulation, wandering through the desert, arriving in the promise land, and building a new Jerusalem. There is no such thing in France or Germany or England. If that is the case then the prophetic language of decline fits in very nicely. Thou must return. Thou must endure sin and return to virtue. That is the red thread of continuity, which runs from Decline 1.0 with Sputnik to Decline 5.0 with the post-crash. Here are the Russians, they will punish us for our sloth and hubris, but if we make Johnny read better!

It’s both metaphysical and highly prosaic. It’s a schtick.

President Obama is engaging in this argument about American exceptionalism too.

Again, that distinguishes American political rhetoric from the rhetoric of other western nations. And Obama made fun of that. Every nation thinks of itself as exceptional but with America it comes with a metaphysical kick—a redemptionist, quasi-religious kick.

It plays into anti-Americanism too. There is a constant in the European mainstream mocking American displays of patriotism. There is supposed to be some measure of self-hatred and distrust. Why?

This is a very important point. We [Europeans] make a distinction between pre-modern, modern, and postmodern. Pre-modern is Islam: tribal connections, no separation between God and state. Modern is the modern state: nationalism and the state as a supreme object of loyalty, which pretty much describes the 19th century and much of the 20th century. Then we get to the post-modern, which is a kind of Nietzschean transformation of values: patriotism sucks; the nation sucks; “my group is better than your group” sucks. One loyalty? No, multiple loyalties. One identity? No, multiple identities. I think post-modernism affects both sides of the Atlantic. Europe is more post-modern and the U.S. is more modern in the sense that it still adheres to the values of the nation state.

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There’s probably no difference in post-modernity between Palo Alto and Berlin, as opposed to between Palo Alto and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nonetheless I would say America is still a more national construction. And this imbues Europeans with a sense of moral superiority, meaning that we the Europeans are the moral avant-garde. We’ve overcome this reactionary way. Of course we’ve also learned that famous shibboleth of the Germans, that military power never solves any political problems, like the Nazis for instance. I think the core of the strife between the two sides of the Atlantic or of anti-Americans is the sense from Europeans that they are morally more advanced and socially too.

There’s a cheering of what is perceived to be American decline.

There’s another reason: Why do foreigners love to turn every wart into proof of terminal decline? Because for the others it is very hard to live with Mr. Big who is so much more powerful and who also occasionally throws his weight around as the Europeans no longer do. So it is reassuring—it’s soothing—to see Mr. Big cut down a bit and stumble. And that’s why European declinism is very different from American declinism. American declinism is the prophetic motif: If you will pray, thou shalt be redeemed.

Does it fog the moral mind, this desire to see Americans be punched in the eye. You have the 1960s have groups in Germany like APO carrying Vietcong flags, they’re reading from Mao’s Little Red Book.

That’s my point. If you don’t have power you don’t like those who have it. You’ve resolved for yourself, as have the Europeans, not to use power. Then you resent those who do still use power like the United States.

So you’ll forgive powers like the Kremlin? Edward Snowden can do this, Julian Assange can do this.

We forgive them insofar as Assange and company weaken American power and American authority. It’s probably more complicated than that, because let’s not forget Europe and the United States are also coming from a family squabble in which the smaller siblings pay a hell of a lot more attention to the big kids and vice versa. The greatest insult that America can pay to the Europeans is to be indifferent to them. But it’s not easy to share the savannah with an elephant like the United States, especially since Europe decided we will no longer try to be alive. We were for the last 2000 years, we were fierce and fearsome warriors. We conquered the four corners of the world. And then we did the ultimate shtick which was WWI and WWII, and now we shall draw more worth from the opposite--from the refusal of power and from the refusal to use it. But of course we want you, the elephant, also to behave like us because we are morally more advanced. This game proceeds in many layers.

Is there some sort of shift going on? Look at Libya, where Americans were “leading from behind” and the French were taking a very active military role. Syria too.

The Germans call this hassliebe [love-hate]. It’s like every anti-ism, you get it coming and going. To use the anti-Semitism analogy, Jews were screwed for being both capitalists and communists; for trying to insinuate themselves into society and for trying to stay apart. So anti-ism sets up a game in which the victim cannot win. America gets it when it uses its awesome power and it gets it when it doesn’t.

There’s an interesting chapter in the book, disputing the current wisdom on China. The reflex is to say China is going to take us to the cleaners, right? Why is that not true?

The simple version goes like this: China is following pretty much the same growth model as the little dragons and tigers. What is the growth model? Over investment, under consumption; oversaving, undervaluing currency, plus collusion between state and business. That model works extremely well at a time of lowly beginnings and lowly economic structure and very extensive exploitation of resources. Every one of those models began to falter within 30 years or so. Double-digit growth to low growth or no growth, like the others. If you look at the Chinese, you see it’s pretty much the same model. This is what impresses Americans and Europeans and gives us nightmares: we’re confusing the natural, soaring flight at the beginning with long-range aviation. What we predicted is now coming true. You can’t invest 50 percent of GDP and then expect that each increment of investment is going to yield more.

This idea of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun: the Japanese were buying Rockefeller Center in the 1980s. We were going to be a vassal state of invigorated Japan. That never happened. You point out this consistent prediction that the United States is on this downward slope.

It’s not consistent. It’s cyclical.

You can find it every 20 years or so.

Every 10 years.

Why does this decline never actually happen?

Declinism is diagnosis—it’s politics masking as diagnosis. It’s Brechtian theater. It’s the stage as classroom. Why is it always happening in America? Why is there no declinism in France or Europe? And of course Russia. This is measurable decline. Why always in America? I gave you my speculative answer. It’s because in America we feel very special. We have a mission. And if you feel that way then you will look at every deviation as betrayal of fate, calling, etc.

You’ve gotten me on a difficult issue here. Why do Americans use that language about themselves, which no one else uses except the prophetic language in Hebrew of the prophets?

What explains the anti-Israel obsession in Europe? Let’s say the Israelis do something a little off—that makes the front page of every Scandinavian newspaper. But if you hang 15 gay people from cranes in Tehran, it’s barely mentioned. Is it an anti-Semitic instinct? Is that closeness with America?

I think one reason we hate Israel is because Israel is a modern state. And hatred always comes in two parts. It’s always against America and Israel. Always. So we hate Israel because it’s still a civil nation state and it uses power and force as a tool of statecraft, which we in our moral enlightenment have condemned. They are the two outriggers of the West. And that pisses off the bien pensant: “Why do they suddenly want a national state when we have worked to overcome…what kind of retrograde people? It’s over and you are going down the path we have overcome: colonialism, apartheid, ruling over other races. This isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic. This is post-modernism. But the virulence answer of this…There’s a great line ascribed to Israeli psychiatrist: the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. There’s a great truth here. You keep reminding us! We want to get rid of the guilt, we want to shift the guilt, we say Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto.

Is there a shift in German attitudes towards guilt, with the opinions of writers like Günter Grass

Grass is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, with that famous little poem [about Iran]. That is worth long disquisitions…I make fun of it but it’s actually worth crying about. For him the Jews are even worse than the Nazis. The Nazis only wanted to kill the Jews; but these Jews—Israel—want to kill the world. This pathology is logical: If you want to shift the burden of guilt and moral inferiority to the Jews, you have to accuse them of even greater crimes. Only that way can you even out the score.

Is it as simple as being a country allied and armed by the United States?

Possibly. But they come in conjointly for the blame because they are what the Europeans think they’ve overcome in favor of avant-garde morality.

Is there also something to the fact that the “liberation movements” in the Middle East, especially Palestinian liberation movements, were at the time in the 1970s secular—George Habash, the PFLP—and allied with the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof-type groups in Europe?

The earlier anti-Israeli groups in the ‘70s, the secularism also made sense. But in that case since the Arab world in the last 40 years has re-Islamicized and the most important anti-Israel groups are religiously based, you would expect that they would come in for some opprobrium the way George Habash and Abu Nidal had not, but that’s not true. Whatever it is that drives hatred of Israel is always stronger than anything else.

You can forgive religious extremists their religious extremism for that particular purpose.

Well, I think there’s a general western phenomenon. We’ve remarked on this hundreds of times about the justified self-criticism of European racism, colonialism, etc…that justified criticism which has driven emancipatory policies has turned to self-hatred. So we now endow somewhat Islamicism, which we would condemn with the greatest contempt if it were a fundamentalist Christianity. That’s authentic. If we did it we’d be retrograde to the max.

I think the first example of that is in 1979 Foucault supporting the Iranian revolution. All the other revolutions failed, let’s try this one!

Well, that’s a joke. If we had any group pursuing that kind of hegemonistic fundamentalism directed against all non-believers, women, etc.-- we would throw homemade bombs at their headquarters.