The Third World: From Kalashnikovs to God and Computers
An interview with Regis Debray
Regis Debray, the French philosopher, became well-known for his close association with Fidel Castro and his 1967 account of Cuban revolutionary strategy, REVOLUTION IN THE REVOLUTION. Later, he followed Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a leader of the Cuban revolution, to Bolivia. There, Debray was imprisoned by Bolivian authorities. He was released in 1970.
In 1981, Debray became a highly visible counselor on foreign affairs to French President Francois Mitterand. His most recent books include EMPIRES AGAINST EUROPE and CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL REASON.
We spoke with Debray on the dying appeal of Soviet-style communism in the Third World the nature of the US-Soviet conflict and the position of Europe in NATO.
NPQ - Once, national liberation movements looked to the Soviet Union for guidance and assistance. Now, the appeal of Soviet-style communism seems to be dying. What happened in the last twenty years to change this?
RD - The Third World is bidding its farewell to arms. It is seeking God and computers rather than Kalashnikov rifles.
I say God because traditional cultures are resurfacing - they are better suited than ideologies to fill the void created by technological and economic upheaval. Look at Islam, the most powerful historical force at this moment, which is supplanting communism in Africa as well as the East.
When I say computers I really mean the need for capital and technological know-how.
Religious faith and the transfer of technology: these are the Third World priorities which put the Soviet Union out of the competition.
I am not indulging in collective psychology; I'm making historical observations. The period of "decolonization" and "wars of national liberation" has nearly everywhere drawn to a close. During this period, there has existed a complementary relationship in the political market between Soviet I supply " of political-military goods such as Security Council votes and armaments and the "demand" by struggling and newly-emerging nations for security. Today, the "demand" of the Third World is above all economic and financial in nature. The Soviet Union can no longer supply the goods. Look at Algeria, Mozambique and the People's Republic of China.
Of course, there are exceptions. The case of the Philippines stands out. It is an American neo-colony, just as Cuba once was and the ground is fertile for a classic Third World revolution. All the ingredients are present: Catholic mentality, national humiliation, corruption, Marxist front-line opposition, the uprooting of peasant life and so on. But one tree shouldn't obscure the forest. It is true that 19th Century colonialism has not yet entirely disappeared; Namibia, Palestine and the residue of feudal states in Central America remain. However, I doubt that these exceptions indicate the course of the future.
Communism has been both the code name and the political tool of contemporary national movements - the Russia of Stalin, China and Mao, Cuba and Castro, Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. Communism has prevailed only where there is a broad base of national support. Its strength fails when one nationalism confronts another. For instance, when Imperial China encounters tiny Vietnam in its path, to hell with communism and proletarian solidarity! Look at Hungary and Romania and their mutual hatred. Look at Central America where the nationalistic interests of Salvadoran guerillas do not correspond at all to the interests of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. To see the Salvadoran guerillas as puppets manipulated by the Sandinistas betrays a true ignorance of Central American history!
NPQ - What you are saying implies that the threat of international communism - against which the US post-war strategy of containment was mounted - is no longer the central challenge to global stability and the interests of peace?
RD - A society under stress always needs a devil, an external threat to ensure its cohesion. The "Evil Empire" for the United States, or "Satan" for Iran come to mind. The collective unconscious is archaic and religious, and thus paranoid and Manichean. That said, it is clear that the West must soon find another devil because the communist devil is the legacy of the 19th Century.
Today, Islam is a much stronger destabilizing - and also mobilizing - force, from Dakar to East Timor. Islam has its volunteers for death - the decisive test for an emerging force. Not much can be done against an individual who not only accepts dying for the cause but furthermore considers that death a triumph. Being agnostic myself, and tolerant, I am reluctant to appear to be replacing the "Red" devil with what might be called the "green" one since green is the color of most Islamic flags.
Also, "threat" must be interpreted in a plural sense. There are "threats" which vary in time and place. The current international economic disorders, the Third World debt and economic recession, for example, may be as dangerous to world peace today as the stockpiling of strategic missiles.
In 19th Century Europe, nearly all political theorists assumed that the central question was "republic or monarchy?" The real debate took place behind their backs, pitting the bourgeoisie against the industrial workers. In the 20th Century, most theorists have argued over "communism or democracy?" Once again, the real debate escapes us. I wonder if it isn't "religion or technology?" or perhaps "tradition or modernity?" It seems that the further we progress technologically, the further we regress politically. The threat is when, in a confrontation between two neighboring tribes, one or both of them have nuclear weapons. Think of the Middle East.
NPQ - Under the Reagan Administration, the debate is still cast as "communism vs. democracy" because of the perception that the Soviet Union and Marxist regimes are inevitably aggressive and expansionist. What is your view?
RD - From all indications, Soviet behavior fits this description by President Mitterand: "The Soviet Union seeks to obtain in peace what it could gain only through war, which it doesn't want because it knows all too well the costs of war."
Whatever their intentions might be, let us assume for the moment that Soviet intentions are global conquest. What then matters is capability. The Soviet Union's resources to support a policy of expansionism are diminishing.
We are witnessing an historic transformation of the traditional modes of power. Power today is becoming based less on physical and material parameters (territory, military forces) and more on immaterial factors linked to the capability of storing, managing, distributing and creating information - in other words, knowledge, culture and information systems.
The Soviet Union remains a superpower in the traditional sense, but she is only strong in obsolete forces such as tank divisions and conventional military deployment.
NPQ - What is your impression of the internal nature of the Soviet Union as it exists today?
RD - Russia elevated to the level of a communist power remains Russia. The "soviet" aspect accounts for 10% or 20% of the society and this is diminishing. The "Russian" aspect is growing. They are, today, a great people with a long history and a system experiencing difficulty. Taken together, they are an industrialized developing country armed with a superpower military force. Their parity with the United States is only military.
It is true that the Soviet Union, only half as wealthy as the United States, has twice as many notches in her belt because of her superior capacity for sacrifice. That capacity is behind her ability to concentrate so much of her national effort on defense. But this concentration on defense is, at the same time, a formidable handicap.
NPQ - In your view, what have been the Soviet losses and gains in the past twenty years? What have been those of the US?
RD - The Soviet Union has had notable gains in military capability, both conventional and nuclear, but considerable losses in her political capability. The gains are quantifiable and can be seen by satellite or the naked eye; the losses are neither visible nor quantifiable, but are much more important.
Unfortunately, Americans are much more keen on the quantitative than the qualitative and they focus more on Soviet military hardware than on their limited political prestige. That is responsible for your overestimation of Soviet power, as if power in history is the same as force of arms! What myopia and shortsightedness! There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.
Qualitative power is everywhere and always operates without mass destruction or high political costs. The second type of power, quantitative, certainly isn't negligible, but its use is quite limited in times of peace. And, even in Afghanistan, Soviet firepower is being broken by the strength of Muslim faith.
On the Soviet side, the growing gulf between the classic form of power and their political-ideological influence merely strengthens the role military means must play in the maintenance of the Soviet Union's established positions. Look at the Warsaw Pact and the example of Poland.
Soviet expansion along its borders unmasks a strategy of naked force. It also crushes the dream of world expansion. A prophet unarmed is powerless in the short term, but an army without a guiding faith is never all powerful.
On the US side, there is a military resurgence and global expansion, even as there have been limited territorial losses - such as the defeat in Vietnam. The indirect power of the United States, exercised through its allies and clients, continues to grow. With the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the United States is exploiting its advanced position in civilian technology in order to rupture the military parity gained through great sacrifice by the Soviet Union. Strategically, SDI seems to me both illusory and counterproductive, but the technological and scientific benefits from military-space research will permit the United States to take a leap forward in state-of-the-art technologies, and thus increase its margin of superiority over the Soviet Union.
Among the gains of the recent period, let us not forget the refutation of the "irreversability of socialist victory" dogma. This dogma has held true only where there exists territorial contiguity with the Soviet Union. All Soviet "gains" in the Third World are clearly reversible as we have seen in such cases as Egypt or Mozambique.
Even at the Soviet periphery in Europe, there is a wasting away of the Soviet system and a slow re-emergence of civil societies with their collective memory, national culture and countervailing institutions such as the Church, trade unions and universities. Look at Poland.
NPQ - You have said that the Soviet Union has "expended its goodwill quota in the Third World." Does it mean that the US good will quota is increasing, or does it mean that both superpowers have lost influence?
RD - Although there has been a simultaneous loss of influence experienced by both superpowers, the United States seems to have retained its superior means of influence: the food weapon, financial pressures which can be exerted through the international banking system, the cultural penetration of television, indirect influence over other national media (as in Latin America), and the manipulation of commercial markets. The United States has so many levers which are beyond the Soviet Union's reach, levers which we see in operation every day in what we continue to call, out of analytical laziness no doubt, the Third World.
NPQ - The demise of detente has been blamed on US-Soviet conflict in the Third World such as in Angola, Ethiopia or the Middle East. What do you see as the future of superpower competition in the Third World?
RD - Coexistence is a matter of world-view. This planet is not a chessboard because the people of the world aren't pawns. Rather than two players, there are one hundred, all playing at the same time, each with his own plan. The superpowers, in any given year, must confront the unforeseen and the imponderable. In this jungle, the only widely admitted rule of the game is threat of force or fear of reprisal in the superpower's own sphere of influence, where intervention can be carried out with impunity. Grenada paid for the American failure in Lebanon. Nicaragua is paying for Afghanistan.
The great error of detente was the belief, in the West, that the course of world events could be regulated through accords with the East. The Eastern bloc has no desire for any such accord. Even if it did, it would be incapable of stopping a handful of young Sandinistas from mobilizing the Nicaraguan people and toppling a hopelessly corrupt dictatorship, as they did in 1977. Can Moscow stop Lenin or Che from being read in Central America? Can Washington promise to Moscow that Afghanistanis will not read the Koran?
NPQ - A former West German general in charge of that country's defense planning in NATO, General Christian Krause, argues that NATO was established under the "Korean mentality," transferring what happened in that conflict to Europe. He argues that "what was conceived as a classical mutual assistance pact became transformed into a full-fledged alliance under American hegemony." He further argues that persisting in this way when the original reason for the pact has changed - the political spectre of Soviet aligned communism spreading across Europe - causes NATO to lose its credibility. Unlike the immediate postwar period, a Soviet style system has no appeal to the West European publics of today.
Do you agree with General Krause's critique?
RD - Completely. General Krause was well placed to see that the daily reality of NATO today has little to do with the very sober and very prudent North Atlantic Treaty of 1949. In my book, EMPIRES AGAINST EUROPE, I described the slow evolution of the classic military alliance of 1949, defined by the Washington treaty, into the current confederation-style system. This system of integration operates with such subtlety that France, which had withdrawn from NATO in 1966, finds itself indirectly incorporated since 1974.
The paradox is that the institutions assuring the political protection of Western Europe were put in place at the same time that the guarantees of military protection were on the wane and just when American supremacy over NATO no longer corresponds to the technological, economic and even nuclear monopoly the US enjoyed in 1948.
From 1949 to 1985, the percentage of the American GNP committed to NATO has diminished, while the percentage of European GNP has increased. This also explains the American desire to integrate Japan, strategically still under tutelage, into the confederation in order to regain its past dominance over the European members. France, of course, opposes this.
NPQ - NATO critics from former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau to the neo-conservative intellectual Irving Kristol have argued that the nuclear defense of Europe is not credible because the US will not risk nuclear destruction by the Soviets to save Europe.
What is your view?
RD - The nuclear deterrent has limited credibility, but it cannot be entirely eliminated. I am an advocate of France remaining in NATO because the nuclear threat alone however hypothetical it might be - of an American military response to Soviet aggression in Western Europe adds to the uncertainty in the mind of the aggressor. Anything which increases that uncertainty strengthens the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.
That said, if France did not have its own independent nuclear defense strategy and arsenal capable of qualitatively matching the Soviet arsenal, I would have every reason to fear for the security of my country.
We are told that the Pershing and Cruise missiles will have the miraculous virtue of being "compatible" and "integrated" with our own defense systems. Their deployment was no doubt a political and diplomatic necessity. But I fail to see why an American president, who from all indications is not, and never has been, willing to risk the survival of his own country in order to defend Europe from bases in the United States, will henceforth be willing to do so from bases in Europe. It is irrational in both settings. This is in no way a criticism of the United States. I am not at all sure that a French president would put Paris at risk in order to defend Hamburg. Why would an American risk New York for Paris?
Nuclear weapons are born of, and breed narrow self-interest. Whether that is a pleasant thought or not, it is a reality.
NPQ - Is NATO, then, obsolete?
RD - Geographically, yes. The Soviet threat, if it still exists, no longer has the North Atlantic as a focus. Indeed, since 1949, with the exception of Berlin - to which the standing group of Western occupying forces responded adequately - all international crises have occurred outside the official treaty zone. The Tropic of Cancer - the southern limit of the Treaty - is north of Central America, north of Cuba and north of the Horn of Africa!
So, what should be done? Expand the NATO zone? An alliance encompassing several regions is the definition of
If NATO becomes a subsystem of Western security, linked
to a Pacific subsystem, with the Inter-American subsystem to the
That would make for a splendid world empire, but empires die quickly - more and more quickly with the acceleration of history. Only nations endure. They survive and outlive the empires which subjugate them. This is even true for the original core of the empires. Turkey, Japan, Austria and France come to mind.
NPQ - Well, is the Soviet threat the main question in Europe today?
RD - Not at all. The inexorable decline of communist parties in Western Europe has finally rendered the dream of the sovietization of Europe utopian. Conquest of Western Europe by force of arms? - that is a joke. Nuclear retaliation nullifies the conventional military superiority of the Soviet Union, which would be obliged to destroy the very prey it seeks to capture. In 1945, the Soviet Union did not invade Eastern Europe; it liberated nations from Nazism in the course of a world war. I do not see a fascist threat in Western Europe, and there are certainly no mad dictators ready to attack the Soviet Union as Hitler did in 1941. No.
Today in Europe the West wind is far stronger than the East wind. The real problem is how to extricate ourselves from Yalta, that is, remove the Iron Curtain and reunite into out family and European culture our 110 million cousins cut off from their natural, historical mainstream.
The stronger the role Europe plays in the West, the weaker the role of the East in the "other" Europe. The more unity between Europe and the rest of the West, the more divergence between it and Eastern Europe. If the choice for Europe is Washington or Moscow, then we must bid farewell to "the other Europe," as Czeslaw Milosz calls it, because Moscow will never accept having Washington at its borders. The only real issue, then, is European independence.
NPQ - If that is the case, then what form would you suggest a European defense pact should take?
RD - You are correct in speaking of a "defense" pact. The European Community is the world's primary commercial power, whose scientific and technological potential surpasses that of Japan and the United States. It is not a political power because it has neither a common foreign policy nor a common military strategy. There are mechanisms by which foreign ministers of the various EEC members consult with each other, but this is limited in scope. Cooperation in the area of conventional arms, a very necessary activity, remains inadequate.
It is unfortunate that any conception of a European defense seems inevitably to include nuclear weapons, which are not easily shared. A Franco-German nuclear force is both a political and technical puzzle which defies solution. And the French program of nuclear deterrence cannot be "tended to any great degree without losing its credibility.
There has been, nevertheless, progress toward this end. Former West German chancellor Schmidt made some very courageous proposals on this subject to the Bundestag in 1984.
In any case, a European defense would not have to take the form of a solemn pact. It is a matter of creating a series of concentric circles in such a way that it would be impossible for an adversary to strike at the non-nuclear external circle without provoking a nuclear response from an internal circle.
NPQ - What are the preconditions for dissolving the Cold War blocs in Europe?
RD - A policy of presence, contacts and exchanges and not one of saber-rattling and verbal attacks. Detente conjures up many illusions, but it did correspond to a particularly fruitful period. If "change through detente" is long and limited, "change through confrontation" is clearly an unmitigated failure. To indulge in it is to play the same game as communist regimes - that is, to adopt a position of economic, political and even military confrontation. Confrontation is what they prefer, since they are better equipped than we are for it - politically, intellectually and morally. Communism wins wars but loses the peace.
NPQ - Finally, what is the idea of the West that you are promoting?
RD - I refuse to recognize the idea or the reality of American leadership of the West. A country which accepts the protection of another country quickly becomes a client state, and a client state can never be a reliable ally because it has no real responsibility.
A country of equal status may be a nuisance at times, but it much more reliable than a vassal. It is the European countries with traditionally the strongest Atlanticist orientation, like Germany and Holland, which have been the hardest hit by the neutralist and pacifist movements. France has not been greatly impacted by those movements because since DeGaulle it has taken responsibility for its own defense.
The road to Finlandization passes through "Panamazation." Independence is costly and unwieldy in the short run, but the mentality of dependence is deadly.
The increasingly global orientation of NATO does not serve the interests of democracy in the world. In weakening the spirit of resistance and national identity of Western nations, the policy of American hegemony plays into the hands of its Soviet adversary. Liberty means responsibility. If the "free world" becomes the "American world," it should no longer be called "free"; it certainly won't remain free for very long if that is the case.