By Design and Choice
French political theorist Pierre Manent reflects on Europe and the American founding.

Pierre Manent


Kazam: What about the euro?

Manent: The euro was the only deepening of the integration, the only effort to really produce something in common. And now, of course, the euro is in great danger because we have a common currency but not a common political body. And of course people point to that and say it’s a reason to produce a political body — it should force us. But you cannot produce a political body if you do not want it. You cannot want it as an instrument for something else. We will never found a unified Europe to save the euro. Because a foundation cannot be instrumental. You have to really want it.

This new political body — why can’t we will it? Because we will decide that it will encompass all the countries sharing the euro. But why would you want to found a political body encompassing these countries without, for instance, Great Britain? It has no political or moral meaning! It’s just fortuitous that certain countries share the euro and others don’t. It cannot be a political endeavor.

So we won’t do that. And I’m afraid that if we don’t do that, the euro zone might unravel. And it will be ugly, but for the reasons I just explained, I don’t think that we can transform ourselves into founders without willing it.

Kazam: So the analogy that people draw to the founding of the United States . . . ?

Manent: The difference is huge. If you don’t have the unity at the beginning, you won’t have it at the end — except by one country imposing its will. And what people are calling the New Europe and the new tendency toward some federal Europe is only Germany exercising her ascendancy. That’s it. There is such an inequality between Germany and most other countries that now they are the strongest on the block and they exercise their influence. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it has nothing to do with a common founding.

Kazam: In Le Regard Politique you argue that understanding America is crucial to the study of politics. Do you believe in a form of “American exceptionalism”?

Manent: Yes, certainly. It is difficult not to, because it is the only political experiment that succeeded. There is a nice passage in Joseph de Maistre, the counter-revolutionary, the enemy of the French Revolution, where he says that human beings are not able to build things, because when they try to create something they do not get it. You cannot really produce new and interesting things. It is just given, by the process of history, by God, or whatever. And if there is a case where he was wrong, it is in the case of the United States of America. It’s the only successful political foundation, as the Federalists would say, “by design and choice.”

It is not a question of agreeing with American policy or politics, I think, but if you are not able to treat the United States for the great political-civic accomplishment it is, you miss something huge in the political landscape, and your view of politics in general is biased. And really, I do not want to look like a flatterer of the United States, but it is my experience that people who have good judgment in general about political things all some way or another have a sympathetic understanding of America.

Kazam: In your discussion of the Middle Ages, you ascribe the disorder of the medieval period to an unanswered political and theological question: “Whom must I obey?” What question would you say the West is confronting today?

Manent: For Europeans, I think it is at the same time, “Whom should we obey?” and “To which association do we belong?” It is clear in the United States; Americans know to which body politic they belong and whom they will obey. But in Europe, we really don’t know. We belong to the old nations, within the limits of which we govern ourselves, but we are also part of a growing Europe whose legitimacy is now greater than the nations’ legitimacy. Yet we do not govern ourselves in Europe, but in our own countries.

So the body politic we inhabit has less legitimacy than the purported European polity. And even Europe is not really enough, because the point of Europe as opposed to the nation is that it is more universal, more general. And so it is just a halfway house between the nation and the world. At the end of the day what is really legitimate is not Europe, it’s humanity. And Europe seems the right thing to do because it has this aspect of a halfway house between the nation and humanity. But of course you cannot settle there, because it is spiritually an in-between place.

Kazam: Limbo?

Manent: Yes. The question is, where is the legitimacy? In my opinion, the deepest characteristic of Europeans is this huge perplexity. They don’t know to what they belong, and they don’t know whom to obey.

Of course, they can fake it. They can say, “Now we have to forget the nation and be Europe.” Or they can say, “No, Europe is bad and we have to come back within the limit of the nation.” They can shout and say things. But deep down, I really think that they are not sure. They are not sure. And I would say the most significant characteristic of the present situation is this perplexity.

Kazam: Your friend Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind was published 25 years ago, famously made the case for a “great books” education as a way of broaching these questions. Do you make the same case?

Manent: You need these great texts because they are the deepest efforts to understand human things, but you need to have the right disposition to learn from these texts. And part of it is not just what you learn from these texts, but having the right alertness to what is going on in the world. So I would agree with Machiavelli that you have to read old books, but you also have to have the experience of modern things. And to find the right balance between these two preoccupations.