Now that the Leipzig Book Fair 2012 (Leipziger Buchmesse) is over, I would like to share some thoughts about my impressions. There was so much to see that any attempt at catching everything of interest was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, I managed to attend some of the readings supported by the US Consulate Leipzig, as mentioned in my earlier post.
On Thursday, March 15, I went to see Tobias Endler of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) presenting his book After 9/11: Leading Political Thinkers about the World, the U.S. and Themselves.
The book is based on a collection of interviews that Endler conducted with a variety American public intellectuals across the political spectrum. These public figures talked at length about how they imagine the role of the US as the remaining superpower after the Cold War.
Endler mentioned that the trauma of 9/11 is still present and informs national discourse in the US. He pointed to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries which had currently reached several Southern states in the US. Within the campaign rhetoric of the current crop of candidates, both the tropes of a potential Iranian nuclear threat and the fear of terrorism featured prominently.
Endler also talked about a specifically American “revolving door of public life,” a phenomenon wherein university professors often transfer to governmental posts, then to think tanks, and finally back to university or into journalism.
This mechanism, which is often difficult to understand from a German perspective, leads to a lively public debate in the US.
The discourses of public intellectuals in the US focus on such topics as the role of the US as a superpower, or the ability to survive crises.
Endler mentioned that in the public discourse, 9/11 entailed a sense of loss of the “free” US security provided by its geographic location. 9/11 was registered as the first attack on US territory since two hundred years, except for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Since 9/11, the US government has been willing to defend what it defines as American values with military force. This rationale has been put forward by the Bush administration, but also has been acknowledged by President Obama.
Endler mentioned that a look back at the past three years of the Obama administration reveals a shift towards “realism” in its foreign policy approach.
From a German perspective, he noted, US public debate often looks like a traveling circus, and seems rather strange. From the American perspective, on the other hand, this willingness to controversial discussion is seen as embodiment of democracy.
This also includes public opinion about the president, as documented by polls. Endler pointed out that recent polls show diverging evaluations of Obama as person and Obama as politician. While Obama as a person still gets relatively high approval ratings, Obama the politician is seen comparatively worse by the American public. The president also still has an image problem as he is seen as “elitist” by large parts of the population.
Endler also mentioned that in comparison, the political spectrum of the US is generally more to the right of Germany.
A few examples from the interviews with US public intellectuals underscored this point. For instance, he mentioned Michael Novak of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whom he characterized as an archconservative Catholic who forms a bridge between the Christian Right and neoconservatives. Novak thought of Obama as an extreme leftist.
Endler described how many conservative public intellectuals in the US also see Obama as “great nibbler” who hesitates to tackle problems of foreign policy at the root.
On the other end of the left-right spectrum, Endler gave the example of MIT linguist and icon of the US Left, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky told Endler that there was no substantial debate going on in the US. In his opinion, the educated classes are indoctrinated. Chomsky noted broad support for the US invasion of Iraq, and the absence of a “principled objective” to invading other countries. According to Chomsky, there exists a double standard for other countries’ invasions of foreign countries. In Chomsky’s view, the nature of the discourse on the invasion of Iraq was such that the only question asked was “Does it cost US too much?”
Endler pointed out that foreign policy generally plays a small role in US elections and that war fatigue has risen among the US public. One case in point, Endler argued, was President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, which did not discuss foreign policy matters.
In Endler’s opinion, the dialogue between the US and the EU has been set aback lately.
He concluded that there is by and large a consensus across the political spectrum in American public debate about the status of the US as a superpower and the benefit of exporting democracy.
I found the talk very interesting, but it was unfortunately a bit short, as the whole event including introduction and questions at the end had to fit into a thirty minute time slot. I certainly would have liked to hear more about certain aspects of current US foreign policy, especially the aforementioned ‘realist’ turn of the Obama administration.
As the audience of a reading at the Leipzig Book Fair is much broader than merely American studies people, it is certainly sensible to not dwell on details only of interest to (aspiring) specialists. I am of course biased here and would have gladly taken in some more information. Then again, I am probably a little spoiled by attending readings at my university, which usually have the luxury of a ninety minute time slot.
Overall, the talk got me interested and I will put the book on my to-read list.