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An Open Letter To The Next President Of The United States

10/15/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

In just fifty days you will be, in theory, the most powerful man in the world.

I say "in theory" because your first challenge will in fact be your country's decline in power. It's been so long that we have been hearing about this decline -- and now it has finally happened. Asia's rise in strength, the awakening of India and especially of China have indeed created a New Deal, this time for the planet. So, what is your response to that? What is the reaction of a new America to this new world order? The ground that was lost in the factories of Ohio and Michigan will never be recovered. But an ambitious America is still capable of accomplishing three things, which in tomorrow's world will be just as valuable, if not more so. First, make sure that the patents the new capitalists in Asia are working on -- continue to be "made in the USA." Second, make sure that people in Asia and elsewhere continue to think that Yale and Princeton offer the best possible education for the movers and shakers of the world. And third, ensure that American banks continue to offer the most sophisticated and secure financial services to those in possession of the world's accrued profits. As long as America retains full control of these three sectors, it will continue to hold the keys to real power. As long as the world continues to rely on America in the areas of scientific innovation, training the elite and allocating its assets, the important elements will be safe. This from now on will be your task. And your very first priority. Either the United States under your administration sets in place a true research policy, helping its universities retain their lead and reforming in depth its stricken financial system. Or it doesn't do anything, lets the market play itself out, and delays the implementation of the intellectual, moral and technical reforms its banking system needs - and it will be replaced by others. In a word, Mr. Future President, it will be by using the intangible and in the wider sense culture that you must begin.

The second challenge you will be confronting will be in international relations - dealing with Russia's ambitions as they were just revealed during the crisis in Georgia. There again, your predecessor did not fully understand what is at stake. He did not heed the clear warning he received from Vladimir Putin in April of 2005, when, in an address to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet empire had been "the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century." The greatest, really? Greater than the two World Wars? Than Auschwitz? Than Hiroshima? Than the genocides of Cambodia, of Rwanda, of Darfur? Yes, that's right. He actually said that. And it will be up to you, once you are elected, to evaluate the consequences. Because a man who can say this will not stop there. A man who thinks, in his heart and soul, that the emancipation of the former Russian colonies is a cataclysm greater than that of Auschwitz cannot, if he is logical, NOT do all that is required to repair the damages of that cataclysm. For example, in Georgia. But also in Moldavia. In the Ukraine. Perhaps one day in the Baltic countries. And this without mentioning Europe's dependence on Kazakhstan or Azerbaidjan for the security of its energy supply - having observed the flaccidness of our reaction to the coup in Tbilisi, the two countries will choose their camp themselves and will go off on their own, before being forced to do so under the protection of the post-Soviet mafiosos. A new Cold War, in other words. The new face of a partner we must learn to treat also as an adversary. We are going to need new codes, new signals and a new language of pressures and sanctions. For example, the outgoing President apparently thought that making vague military gestures off the coast of Sotchi would scare off the oligarchs of the Kremlin. The new President will have to understand that in the new order of things, the only language these people understand is the language of commercial intimidation, of economic blackmail, or pressure using the mechanisms of the market.

Going beyond the situation in Russia, the battle to promote democratic values and actions in the world will be another key issue during your term. It isn't that your predecessor didn't also fight this battle. He just didn't do it very well. He seized upon the fine theme of the exceptionalism of a nation which had received a mandate encouraging the people to get rid of its tyrants, as it once had done - but only to offer, notably in Iraq, a caricatural and inept version of that theme. Your task will be to take up this theme again, to set it straight, to return to it its sense, its honor - your responsibility will be, in correcting Bush's errors, to NOT be tempted to take the other, symmetrical path, that of isolationism, which has too often been the dominant inclination of American politics. How, then? What is the difference between the "neocon" approach to exceptionalism and yours? Ultimately, it is rather simple. The neocon thinks that democracy can be decreed; you will explain that it must be constructed. The neocon thought it was enough to say, "let there be -- democratic -- light" for that light to shine; you will answer that democracy is a matter of time, will and patience. Deep down, the neocon never broke with the messianic prejudice which the pioneers of the movement had themselves inherited from their far Left pasts (the rather lazy belief that History would produce on its own, without effort or the intervention of men, initially a classless society, now a democracy); you will retain the objective while also addressing the question of the means to achieve that objective, which are political, frankly and clearly political (your future Secretary of State will be dealing with a certain Bernard Kouchner in France, who happens to be one of the world's best experts in democratic nation building - in fact I recommend that you contact him as soon as possible ...).

Let's look at the question from the other end. What was, at bottom, the source of the neocons' illusion? Politics. Under their reign the very concern for politics has fallen into disrepute. The fact, to be precise, that a man who doesn't believe in something at home cannot believe in it abroad either. Or to be even more precise, the fact that by repeating that if on its own United States territory the State has nothing to say about social inequities, great poverty or public health problems, one may also logically think that it has nothing to say about building armies, an administration or schools in Iraq. Let us suppose for an instant that you listen to my recommendation, that you take seriously the causal chain of events I am describing. You will choose the same path, but in reverse. You will draw the same conclusions, but in the opposite direction. Instead of thinking, "because I do not want a health policy in the inner cities of Buffalo or Los Angeles, I am taking an expeditionary force to Baghdad without having any idea of what I will be doing there the next day," you will say, "because I no longer want to send troops anywhere without having a clear image of the nation we intend to build there, I am beginning to understand that my role is also, in Buffalo, to protect the poor, or in New Orleans, to repair the levees without waiting for the next hurricane." In so doing you will break with a diminution of "government" which began well before the Bush years. You will slide, imperceptibly but inexorably, from a sort of adjusted Wilsonism toward a revisited Rooseveltism. Be you Democrat or Republican, you will be a political President, reconnecting -- another of my recommendations -- with those Founding Fathers who without renouncing the sacrosanct principle of individual freedom nonetheless posited that the role of those who govern is also to help, protect, and rescue those they rule.

Finally you will have to define a position on the Muslim world which has, since September 11, become the locus of all the quandaries. I will overlook the often liberticide nature of the "war on terror," Guantanamo, torture and certain clauses of the Patriot Act which you should abolish as soon as you take office. I will also overlook the colossal strategic error -- also to be corrected as soon as you step on the world stage -- of choosing to ally with a Pakistan which pretended to be the best student in the anti-terrorist class, while at the same time providing the murderers with their most solid sanctuaries. When it comes down to it there are two possible attitudes, and only two. There is the negative, warrior attitude more or less inspired by the bad prophets of the clash of civilizations between the West in its entirety and a world of Islam also perceived as a single block: impasse and disaster. Then there is another attitude which begins with the principle that the only true clash, the only serious confrontation that counts, is the one dividing Islam with itself, opposing, in Islam, the partisans of fanaticism and the apostles of Islamic enlightenment: no one has really tried it. Why not you? No one doubts that we will have to fight the first group, and do it without excuses or attenuating circumstances. But you will also need to speak to the second group, to tell them and show them that they are not as alone as they think they are. We must help them, finance them, salute them and give them the courage to prevail, to fight. That is what we did in the 70s and 80s with the dissidents of Sovietism. Why not do the same thing with these women, these free thinkers, these persecuted intellectuals, who are to totalitarian Islam what those dissidents were to Red fascism? Why not create for these new heroes of democracy the same kinds of support networks which once formed around the friends of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov?

Anti-Americanism, Mr. Future President, has become a new planetary religion. And unfortunately it will take more than four or even eight years to get rid of this kind of religion. But if you did try, if you agree, on these sensitive matters, to speak with the language of truth and courage, you would right away give your country a face that would already no longer be quite the same. That too is exceptionalism. And that too is what the world expects from that "shining city upon the hill."

Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara