Few have made the case for liberal interventionism more consistently than Bernard-Henri Lévy. Despite the disasters of Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, the French public intellectual’s worldview has remained largely unchanged.
But with the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan — and signs of resistance dwindling — is he still convinced the West was right to invade?
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He joined Freddie Sayers in our London studio to discuss his new book, The Will to See. An edited transcript is below.
The worldview you espouse and are famous for, what we might call liberal interventionism, seems more out of fashion than at any point in the past 30 years. Do you feel you now write in a spirit of defiance?
I never was concerned with being out of fashion or not out of fashion. I have my line, my conviction. It never moved since the beginning of my career. And I’m still the same. I believe that democracy deserves to be shared. I believe that there is no place in the world that is unfit for democracy. I believe in human rights. I believe in universality of values. And it is not because of the illiberal trend, or because of Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan being on the move, that I’m going to change my opinion.
But after all the disasters of the past 20 or 30 years, do you really think we should still be trying to export democracy around the world?
I never said that democracy has to be exported. What I say is that, where you have some democrats, if you have some democrats in a place or in another, we have the moral duty and sometimes the political duty to help, to encourage, to embrace, to reinforce, not to export. You have to have first the existence of a strong political force.
So in Afghanistan, for example?
There is a growing movement of women in particular, wishing equality, wishing to unveil their face, refusing the law of Taliban… The number grows from year to year. We had the moral duty of supporting them and when we denied it we betrayed this moral duty, and that it is a huge moral fault and political mistake.
So should we still be there?
In Afghanistan a few weeks ago, how many soldiers there were — two or three thousand? No more. They were not in war operations. They were in their barracks at the end of the day, but their symbolic presence, the fact that they were there, was like a shelter permitting the women to unveil, permitting the little girls to go to school, permitting your colleagues, journalists in Afghanistan, to do their job. My prescription was that America, and the UK and France have troops all over the world — in Korea, in Germany, in Europe. So what was the cost of leaving 2,500 or 3,000 troops on the non combat-mission? To leave them there just to show that we care, that we have a policy, that we are not withdrawing behind the walls of our fortress, that we don’t give space and abandon the field to Turks, Russians and Chinese.
You write about the massacre of Christians of Nigeria. Do you think it’s reasonable for Christians in Western countries to care more about because of a solidarity of faith?
They should care about massacres in general. They should care about people embracing their values, our values. Why do the Christians in the West support so much the Christians of the Middle East, and of Mosul. I pleaded for that a lot! But nothing for the Christians of Nigeria. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because there is a blackout in the press. Maybe because Africa is considered as being remote.
Many people who, like you, are proud defenders of Western liberalism, feel that we would be better defended by moving on from the universalist delusions of the past decades — i.e. that every country will eventually look like our countries, and that we have no business being in faraway lands. What do you say to those people?
It’s a mistake. I believe it from the bottom of my heart. I know this way of thinking; it’s a big mistake. It’s a big mistake because the game is worldwide. And the people whom I confront in Mogadishu, in Nigeria, the Muslim Brotherhood, extremist Islamists — they have their equivalents in London and in Paris. What happens when their equivalents in Paris see that we let them act? That we leave them free to act in Nigeria or Mogadishu? They are emboldened, they are happy. They feel encouraged and every victory which they make in Nigeria or in Syria is an encouragement to fight more in London or in Paris. We cannot strengthen our model of liberal society at home, if we give the feeling that we quit the field and abandon the field in the rest of the world.
Realistically, though, there simply isn’t the political will in Western countries for these kind of ongoing foreign campaigns. If you’re a true democrat, surely what the majority of the citizens of those countries want is the point?
The majority is not the point. Majority is the point for a prime minister, for a president. But for a whistleblower, for an intellectual, the question is to say what one feels to be the truth. And if you are alone, to say it even louder. And you have to go against the majority. If the majority does not want to hear, you have to try your best to help them to see.
So your solution to populism, after all that has happened in the past few years, is still to try to “educate” the people out of their mistakes? It doesn’t seem to work very well.
It depends. In the fifties in France, for example, we had a populist movement. It was very strong, but they were defeated by the return to power of General de Gaulle. Then it was a high way for a long time. Now it’s a low, and the populists did gain some ground. This is the old story. It goes back and forth. We are in a moment where these sort of ideas which I defend are on low tide. I’m not discouraged by that. I don’t believe that it means that I’m wrong. I continue and I do hope that I will see a reversal of the tide.
But surely there must be lessons to learn from the past 30 years. Look at China — part of the reason China was brought in to the global market was the idea that they would liberalise and become more democratic. But it didn’t work.
On China, what I said 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, was that we had a duty to protect and defend the dissidents. For example, I was expelled from China in 1998, or 99, because I went there for in a movie festival and I dared to defend and to speak in favour of dissidents. And I think that we did not do that enough. So: defend the dissidents, not accept like stupid morons or beggars the Belt and Road which they are building now. Not accept their compact with Turkey and Russia in Africa to expel the West from this part of the world. I don’t believe that we have to exclude China, I believe that we have to intelligently confront them, not leave the ground; to have a real, proper diplomacy, not to be like, again, stupid morons swallowing all the propaganda of the Chinese when they say that they are creating prosperity and so on. We democrats should not be on the defence.
So you must be very unhappy with the isolationism of President Biden — seems it wasn’t only President Trump then?
I never said that it was only Donald Trump. I wrote a book before this one a few years ago, saying that the isolationism as a trend in America started with Barack Obama, and started on 29 August 2013, when Barack Obama decided not to respect his own red line in Syria… I even said that it was older than that, even years before. And Biden today embodies that… I am disappointed by the way in which he validated the choice of Trump. Trump dreamt the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden did it. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a joint operation — conceived by Trump; executed by Biden.
But again – the reason that leaders of both Republicans and Democrats have pulled out of Afghanistan is that majorities of voters in both of their parties wanted it. So in a way, isn’t the withdrawal by President Biden from Afghanistan a success story for liberal democracy?
No, because liberal democracy is not only the rule of numbers; liberal democracy is also the rule of law. And even if the numbers disagree with the law, both are still valid — liberal democracy is a mix, an an encounter between number, law, institutions, a sort of civilisation and of practices… It is also a big trend in public opinion, which is an egoist trend, which is a trend, leading an increasing number of people to believe that their interest is a selfish interest reduced to the little home of their narcissism. And this is not a liberal democracy. This is something else, a new pattern of society, which you have, by the way, in some countries of Europe, like Hungary, for example. And which has not to be blessed. An intellectual is not here just to bless all that is happening in what is happening. Things have to be blessed, and things that have to be confronted. Liberal democracy is not amor fati — love of destiny — no!
Are you worried about that we are importing some illiberal trends within our Western Democracies?
Yes we are, we are, of course. The woke culture, the cancel culture, attacks on freedom of speech. I know it comes from the Left, but it does not deserve, in my eyes, more indulgence because it comes from the Left than if it came from the Right. For me, the new political dividing line crosses the Left and the Right. We have to adapt our mind, our behaviour, our way of acting, to these new dividing lines, and cancel culture, attacks to freedom of speech is really a huge problem on which we have to be very careful.
How does the pandemic feature in this? Lockdowns were a policy that came out of China and spread very rapidly around the Western world. Were you troubled by the curtailment of liberty and due process?
Of course, it reduced some liberties and it accelerated a process which was already going on, which consists in tracing all of us, collecting data on us and so on and so on. So I may understand that it was necessary for a while, but number one, it has to be just a while. Number two, citizens should be asking for guarantees that when it is over, these liberty measures will be destroyed. Number three, as for myself, I believe this isa terrible time. This is why I escaped to Syria, Iraq, Mogadishu and the Ukraine during this time because for me, it was, I am impossible to lock down — I cannot be locked. And number four, this has not been a good period for the care of the others, has not been a good period for brotherhood, has not been a good period for internet journalism.
It’s thrown up its own miniature revolution, hasn’t it? We now see on the streets of Berlin, London and Paris regular protests against vaccine passports and steps towards mandatory vaccines. Do you think it’s important not to demonise those people?
I don’t like to demonise anyone. I am a man of words. I try to convince, I try to plead. Ideas are a battle, like an arm wrestling… These anti-vax people they are conspiracy theorists.
A lot of them. They have a stupid conception of health… So they have to be confronted.
They might feel like they’re your people. They are missing and trying to defend the liberal world order that you’re talking about. They want their freedoms. They want due process. They want to make their own decisions.
No, no, no. Because I listen to them. I listen — I am ready of course to hear, I try to hear everything. They are not — they pretend to be in favour of liberal freedom. But when you ask them what they want, a majority of them or big lot of them what they want, what is the ideal regime for them? It is not a liberal one.
In France, Éric Zemmour is doing very well. How worried are you and how do you propose that people of your political persuasion confront his popularity?
You have to try to show that Zemmour is not a new way of being far-Right — he is pumping the votes of Marine le Pen and incorporating them to him, but it’s the same. I would like to say that he is falsely sophisticated and fond of history, I don’t think he is so much. It seems to me useful to say that his conception of France is a tiny, retracted conception of France — little France. Like in UK when you had the debate about Brexit, they wanted the UK great again, the result is that they made England more and more little.
It doesn’t so far feel like Brexit has turned out quite as badly as you feared though, does it? In 2016, you came to London and delivered a play imploring people not to vote for Brexit. We’ve just done a deal with Australia and the US which, although it upset Mr Macron, does not exactly imply a “little England” mentality. Were your fears about Brexit overblown?
I don’t feel that way, but I hope that they are unfounded. I love this country. As I often say, I would not be born without the sacrifice of British young boys on D-Day so I hope I was wrong. But alas, let’s wait to see what happens in in Ulster, in Northern Ireland. Let’s wait. Let’s wait to see what happens in Scotland. I arrived in London on a day when the newspapers were full of the shortage of fuel for the cars, of the shortage of people to work.
What about Boris Johnson. Do you view him as a liberal who just does some things you don’t like, or some kind of dangerous populist?
I think that nobody knows who is Boris Johnson, including himself. He doesn’t know himself if he’s still a liberal, or a really dangerous populist. From outside, it seems to me that it depends on the day. It depends on the hour. It depends on the mood. He’s a strange guy. I’m sure that if I had met him 20 years ago when he was journalist in Brussels, he would have seemed like a jolly and a sympathetic guy. Today, he seems more like Viktor Orbán. A populist — not authoritarian, but more of a populist than his buddy Macron, for example.
BHL, thank you.