April 9, 2004

Former Prime Minister Gives Keynote Address

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With occasional bursts of French when unable to find the right phrase in English, former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin yesterday delivered an assessment of the U.S.’s international presence.

“The U.S. is not an empire, even if it is a dominant power,” Jospin told the over capacity crowd of over 500 people in Baker 200. Jospin contended that only an antidemocratic direct dominator of territories would fit the traditional definition of empire.

Jospin’s speech, titled “The United States: Empire or Super Nation-State?,” was the keynote address to “A Critical Anatomy of American Empire,” a three-day conference co-sponsored by the Society for the Humanities and the Center for the Study of Economy and Society.

Jospin argued that only an unlikely weakening of popular democratic sensitivites, a stronger executive branch, and an erosion of civil liberties could lead to empire, and only then if all happened simultaneously.

The checks and balances in American government, along with the media and popular scrutiny, ensure this does not happen, Jospin said.

Jospin’s quip that no traditional empire would elect its leader on a four-year basis drew audience laughs, as did his opening request to “forgive my ‘American,’ which is worse than my English.”

If not an empire, the U.S. is a “mega-nation state” in an age that has seen serious debate and divided opinion over a purported decline in nation-state sovereignty, Jospin noted.

This debate, however, has been nearly absent in the U.S., which “has not needed to give up autonomy to make its presence known,” Jospin said.

But in important ways the U.S., “the Great Might”, is not almighty, Jospin said, citing dependence on foreign holders of the nation’s debt, and the international threat of terrorism.

In an age that has seen the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the world can be grateful that a democratic country, rather than a totalitarian regime, is the world’s foremost power, Jospin said.

“I say that for anti-Americanists of every stripe,” he added.

However, Jospin said he has noted alarming changes in the attitudes of U.S. elites. The Bush administration’s response to Sept. 11 has been to “only count on itself” and to adopt a “planetary Monroe doctrine” allowing for unilateral intervention, Jospin said.

Such developments are a stark contrast to previous American achievements in multilateral politics, Jospin said, citing the U.S.’s role in establishing the United Nations at a time when other major powers were weakened by World War II.

If it is willing to act unilaterally, the U.S. must accept that other nations will assert their sovereignty by scrutinizing American actions, rather than being “with the U.S. or against the U.S.” against terrorism, Jospin said, referring to President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.

Now, “one could say that the U.S. thinks of policies in reaction to threats, not problems,” without awareness that global problems today will lead to tomorrow’s threats, Jospin said.

For Jospin, then, the issue is not about the existence of U.S. might but what it does with its power. As an example, Jospin said he opposes any policy allowing the U.S. to pre-emptively conduct a military strike, as such a concept is “blurry and subjective” and “would set a bad precedent for a state less scrupulous” than the U.S.

Instead, Jospin encouraged the U.S. to be “pre-emptive” in tackling issues such as the structure of international finance, drug trafficking, and AIDS.

Prof. Brett de Bary, director of the Society for the Humanities, asked Jospin if he was too generous in his characterization of the U.S., as one common critique is that civil liberties have been weakened, and that the media is not an active watchdog of government.

Jospin responded that he did not intend his speech to “give lessons to Americans,” but aimed to raise questions that would be best answered by Americans.

“My first job was as a diplomat,” he added.

Another audience member asked Jospin for his take on France’s recent decision to restrict the wearing of traditional Muslim headscarves. Jospin explained that such a decision would not be his approach, as he favored increased focus on resolving the situation through dialogue, but that the decision could only be understood as part of France’s unique secular heritage.

On the reasons for involvement in Iraq, Jospin said he felt obliged to take the explanations offered by the U.S. and disagree with them.

The desire to make a strong statement in the aftermath of Sept. 11 played a part in U.S. deliberations over invading Iraq, as did the deep impact of one of the few major attacks on American soil, Jospin said.

The U.S.’s task remains immense and fraught with problems, Jospin said, and an acceptable exit strategy must “lower the stakes” and set modest goals to reach a transfer of power to the Iraqi people.

Jospin’s lecture had one unexpected ocurrence: just as he began to speak, two students unfurled a large banner on which they had written the margin by which Jospin lost to right-wing anti-immigrant candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of France’s 2002 presidential elections.

“I thought it was a rather misplaced gesture [by the students], since they didn’t inform it by [later] posing an intelligent question,” said Dominick Lacapra, the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies.

The students holding the banner were seated in the balcony section and left during questions, according to Prof. Andrew Chignell, philosophy.

“The people around [the banner] seemed to just kind of ignore it, or dissassociate themselves from it, leaning away [as if to say] ‘I’m not with these people,’ Chignell said.

The conference will continue today at 2:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. in Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell auditorium.

Archived article by Dan Galindo
Sun Senior Writer