Spars & Gripes: Ear for the death rattle of an empire

April 16, 2004

Emmanuel Todd has endured severe flak for his views on the US. Laurie Taylor invited the author of bestseller After the Empire to defend his stance in the first of a series of controversial opinions on America

I was surprised to find that Emmanuel Todd was so amenable. He set no time limits for this interview, affably responded to nearly all the criticisms of his work that I threw at him, and then good-naturedly allowed himself to be shunted backwards and forwards for 20 minutes by a perfectionist photographer.

I had to remind myself that I was not only talking to the author of a study of American imperialism, After the Empire , that had become an international publishing phenomenon, but also to someone who was routinely accused by his critics of an overbearing Gallic arrogance. Even those academics who grudgingly agreed with his argument about the declining influence of US economic, military and ideological power seemed to have difficulty in saying so without simultaneously referring to Todd's presumptuousness in being the author of such an analysis.

Part of the reason for this kind of reaction to Todd must be the sheer scale of his success. Not many working academics get to see their latest work translated into 28 languages and become an outright bestseller in half a dozen countries. Even this might be tolerable, though, if Todd had the type of accredited background in political science that allowed his book to be seen as a natural career development. But the man isn't even a proper political scientist. He is nothing more or less than a demographer, a diligent empirical chronicler of changing birth rates and population decline. How did he manage to worm his way into a position where he could presume to spar on equal terms with such global theorists as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama?

The simple answer is the power of prediction. Back in 1976, Todd wrote a modest book called La Chute Finale (The Final Fall) in which he carefully used traditional demographic material - changes in birth and mortality rates - as the empirical basis for the argument that the Soviet Union was on the brink of disintegration. The success of this prediction - which flew in the face of most other academic analyses of the likely staying power of the Soviet empire - ensured that its author's next foray into prediction - the announcement of the imminent demise of the American empire - would catapult him into the forefront of political debate.

Presumably he knew that After the Empire would have this sort of impact.

"No, it came as a shock, as a complete surprise."

"A pleasant surprise?"

"Oh yes. It's not so much that it's being translated into so many languages - that's pleasing - but what's much more pleasing is that it has been particularly successful in countries such as Germany, where it has sold 200,000 copies. The second world war and its aftermath are now well in the past, and the Germans are re-examining and readjusting their entire relationship with the US. I like to think that my book is playing a part in that cultural revolution. And it's also important to me that the Japanese edition has sold well because Japan is one of the three big powers - together with Europe and Russia - that I see as threatening the domination of the US."

I suggest that it might not be the validity of his analysis that is responsible for the runaway international success of After the Empire , but its consistent anti-Americanism. At the very moment when most liberals in the West have decided to stop loving America, along comes a book that provides some ready-made backing for such a loss of faith, a book that describes the US as flatulent and greedy, as having lost political legitimacy, as capable of picking fights only with military midgets.

"I really don't know why you call it anti-American. I'm not anti-American.

Quite the opposite. I can't stand the people I call structural anti-Americans, the people who have been saying for the past 50 years that everything about America is bad. People such as Noam Chomsky. The book says that America was once good and beneficial to everyone but nowadays is becoming a disorderly factor."

Todd is even more unhappy about the critics who have written off his account of America's growing impotence in world affairs as the gloating of a French nationalist. "Everywhere I am typified as an archaic French neo-Gaullist. But the book is not very French at all. If you look at the references, you will find mostly American authors. I use very few French references.

"My writing is not typically French. You must remember that when I was a graduate I went to Cambridge University and worked under (historian) Peter Laslett on household composition and family types. I was taught the English method. I was taught to pay attention first to facts and only then to theories. I was taught to avoid complex language because it could easily hide meaningless propositions. I read Ayer and Wittgenstein.

"You know, in my family, Foucault and Derrida are considered hopeless nuts.

That didn't make it easy for me in the French context. The British tradition gave me a lot of trouble there. Go and look at my book again. It is full of statistics. That is not typical of a French intellectual. A French intellectual will never say 65 per cent of men think and do this.

They will only talk about man with a capital M."

It's true that there are plenty of figures to be found in After the Empire . A dozen tables chronicle everything from fertility rates in Muslim countries to infant mortality and male life expectancy in Russia, and there are plenty of other statistics to back up his overall claim that the clamour presently being generated by the US is not the triumphant fanfare of a world dictator but the death rattle of an expiring empire.

But isn't Todd's empirical posturing a little overdone? One only has to look at the paragraphs between the figures to find plenty of assertions that are purely speculative, even polemical. "Yes, there is an ambivalence.

But I think that if you study my books you will notice that there is never an attempt at mixing the two. That doesn't mean I hate polemics. I am quite well known in France for being very outspoken."

I tell him that it is his determination to be outspoken about quite so many aspects of contemporary America that occasionally threatens to turn his book into a propaganda exercise. Why, for example, does he choose to excoriate the US because some states have reintroduced the death penalty? Is this necessarily an example of the country's political and cultural demise? Might it not be read (as it has been by some analysts) as an example of America's capacity to respond to the demands of its citizens?

And what about the paragraph in which he attempts to characterise the conflict between theUS and the Arab-Muslim world? (I find the page and read it out to him.) It says: "Since September 11 this cultural conflict has taken on a buffoonish quality that could be characterised as global street theatre. On one side America, the country of castrating women, where the former president had to prove to authorities that he did not have sexual relations with a White House intern; on the other, Bin Laden, a polygamous terrorist with countless half-brothers and half-sisters."

His good humour temporarily evaporates. "Oh, not that sentence. Not that sentence again. The amazing thing for me is that in the English-speaking world that sentence, or rather that half-sentence, about castrating American women has struck people most. Why are people reacting so much? Perhaps I have hit upon something important."

Todd's wide-eyed response to the reaction caused by his words seems mildly disingenuous. He may not be a "structural anti-American" but he does seem at times to derive a sort of cheeky satisfaction from sticking pins in Uncle Sam. There is also a little relish about his predictions of American collapse as though he can hardly wait for his forecast to come true. I wonder how much he enjoys his prophetic role, the references to him in reviews as a latter-day Nostrodamus.

"Well, prediction takes a long time to work out. It doesn't happen overnight. I had to wait 15 years after The Final Fall was published before I finally obtained the status in France of 'certified prophet'. And it's an impossible status. Quite impossible. Thank goodness that my children keep a list of unverified predictions that I didn't publish."

"Such as?"

"Well, at one time I was well known in France as an anti-European. I was very militant. Very polemical. I said such things as 'the euro is impossible'. And now I have to admit that the euro exists, and I myself have turned into a good European. The US is responsible for this. Its behaviour made me look at the future power of Europe, to see that Europe was slowly erasing the political and military power of America."

Todd's account of the erosion of the US's military power is perhaps the most startling aspect of After the Empire . Instead of following many on the left and agonising about America's military dominance of the world, he openly laughs at its military pretensions, at what he calls its "theatrical micro-militarism". He is exasperated by any talk of America as a dangerous hyperpower. "It reminds me so much of what people were saying in the 1970s about the Soviet Union - and look what happened there. It is precisely because America is in decline as a military power that it needs to go in for so much absurd sabre-rattling. Why, for example, did it invade Iraq?

"When people are critical of my book, they often say that I did not understand the American suffering during 9/11. That is absolutely untrue. I was in a state of shock like most people. But that had nothing to do with going into Iraq. 9/11 was taken by the US government as an opportunity to do something that had been decided before. It had nothing to do with terrorism. It was a piece of theatrical military activity conducted against a military midget."

What is frightening about the US, argues Todd, is not its military power but the irresponsibility of its military strategies. "How can we be surprised at the new attitude of suspicion and fear that is taking hold of people who up to now have based their foreign policy on the reassuring axiom that the only remaining superpower was fundamentally a responsible entity?" he asks. This is a completely new phenomenon. "Until two years ago, America retained its legitimacy. Before Bush went on that frightful course and started boasting about America's strength, most people in the world were ready to accept a kind of continuing peaceful US hegemony. No longer."

And does Todd have a solution to this crisis of faith? Oh, yes. "If Europe, Russia and Japan were to realise that America is not a superpower, then we could have a new world order overnight."

The world, in Todd's view, has gone beyond the need for superpowers and world hegemony. It would do even better if it could stop panicking over the illusion of global terrorism and devote itself to developing economic rules and building global institutions.

Does he have a prediction about the place of Britain in this world order, or can this country simply be written off as the unfortunate ally of a rapidly disintegrating power?

"I have a recommendation that I address to the Germans and the French. Do not interfere with what goes on in Britain. If you try to impose solutions on the British, you will only get negative feedback. But I hope what will happen is that the ever greater aggression of the US will push the British further towards Europe.

"Perhaps I sound anti-American there. Perhaps I should have said 'I guess'

rather than 'I hope'. But, after all, it was the Americans that turned me into a good European. So why couldn't that happen for Britain?"

After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American System is published by Columbia University Press, £21.00.

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