Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

What European philosophy can teach about US foreign policy

  • An erudite reader applies French existentialism to analysing the state of decline of the American empire while I counter with my own highly inadequate version of Hegelianism

The other day, I wrote about the United States being the real existential threat – as in nuclear annihilation – to China, not the other way around, as some American politicians like to claim. I used the word “existential” in its usual or ordinary sense.

An erudite reader, however, decided to apply Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy to analysing US foreign policy. I thought wow, that’s brilliant! What Jungian synchronicity at work, as I am – seriously, I am not making this up – making my way slowly through Being and Nothingness. I am just finishing part two on being-for-itself, and moving on to part three, which focuses on being-for-others. So I am 300 pages in, out of the classic 800-page Hazel Barnes translation. And so far, I have no idea what Sartre is going on and on about!

I know all that Parisian Left Bank stuff is long out of intellectual fashion, but I am just going slowly through the books that have been languishing on my shelves, sometimes unopened for decades, such as Sartre’s famous text.

I wonder how many people made it past the first 50 pages. Seriously, I find Being and Nothingness more difficult to read than Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Maybe readers with similar interests can share their own experience.

So why do I bother? I bought the book when I was 17 while still in a Canadian high school. When I took out my new copy while travelling in the Toronto subway, a lady with a heavy French accent chatted with me. She was obviously some kind of academic.

The splendid futility of reading philosophy

“It’s good you have an interest in philosophy,” she said something to that effect, if memory serves. “But you won’t understand it [the book].”

She was right. Now at 57, with a lifetime of experience, I still don’t understand much of it. She then said she met Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris. “Really arrogant people, think they were the smartest. Not pleasant at all.” Go figure.

But I digress. Here’s what my respected reader wrote: “Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is embodied by the behaviour of US politicians.

“1. ‘We are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives.’ The purpose and meaning of many Americans are to be No 1 and stay there forever. They are totally oblivious to history that the latter is pie in the sky. This has given rise to anxiety, the antecedent to abandonment and despair that Sartre also discussed.

“2. ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ When USA is No 1, she is FREE to do whatever she wants. Sooner or later – if not already – she will be responsible for her actions. To wit, weaponisation of the US$ in the form of reckless sanctions is leading to the rapid shrinking of its acceptance. Furthermore, the bombing of the Nord [Stream pipelines] has created ominous distrust of USA among European allies – even those who still proclaim with forked tongues ‘allegiance’ to Uncle Sam.”

US reluctance to investigate Nord Stream attacks only makes it look guilty

The reader then looks into more recent European and Middle Eastern actions to counter US hegemony.

“Look no further than [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz’s visit to China, accompanied by the biggest corporate giants in Germany,” he wrote. “Also, the Middle East has openly weakened their ties with USA. France certainly is on the list after the Australian nuclear submarine deal was yanked from her throat. In summary, a country is nothing else but what her politicians make her.”

Very interesting, but I think he gives too much credit to American politicians. I rather think the US empire is more like the master in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. In the Phenomenology, that dialectic lies at the origin of human self-consciousness.

Sadomasochists can rejoice. The young Hegel was a romantic who thought love was the foundation of self-consciousness. But later and older, he thought, “Forget about all that romantic crap! It’s not love, it’s total domination”.

Must we burn Hegel and Marx?

Two consciousnesses confront each other and demand satisfaction of their desires. They fight to the death, or almost. To save his life, the slave relinquishes his own desire to work to satisfy his master’s.

For much of US history, it was all about enslaving blacks, wiping out the North American natives, subverting other countries and their governments to force them to satisfy US corporate and geopolitical interests and invading them when all else failed.

But what is worse, according to Hegel, is that the true master doesn’t only demand the slave work for him – he demands the slave to desire what he desires, to want what he wants. As the great Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojeve wrote, “The slave must desire the desire of the master.”

It’s not enough to make someone “cry uncle”, as Ronald Reagan once boasted, he must also say, “Thank you, uncle! May I have another one?”

Whatever Washington wants, you must want the same: free-market capitalism, neoliberalism, US-style democracy, the Washington Consensus, US-made weapons, US-made drugs …

Or else, they will seriously screw with your society, economy and government.