||Transcript of Q&A with professor Karel van Wolferen
Amsterdam, November 2nd 2003
The subject is vast and I have been following it for more than 2 years now. Every morning I spend several hours on the Internet seeing what editorials in the US are saying and what commentaries from both writers critical of the Bush administration but also from writers who support the Bush administration, the neo cons, the new right figures are saying. I read their columns just to get an idea of how their world is put together and to what extent they understand things themselves and how they look a things. So, it's a kind of an eerie world to exist in every morning for a few hours.
I also sometimes have a sense that maybe I myself am losing touch with reality. This is what quite a few commentaries in Holland have said: "This man has lost it". Exaggeration is the general assessment. My book is an exaggeration. I'm used to this. Also my earlier book on Japan was characterized as such, in the beginning at least. Of course, if I had read my own book a couple of years ago, I would also have thought: 'This is an incredible exaggeration, this cannot be'. And I think many people have this feeling also, I just talked to some-one just before who said: 'I can't believe it, just one more thing after another, you can't think they can go that far, it can go that far, and it can just continue, it's unbelievable'. This is what has been a key element in it all, because the American public since the terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon, maybe a month or two after that, have been exposed to such a barrage of contentions and lies, that people have become punch drunk, shell shocked. If you are in that condition you can't digest what comes at you, you can't really make sense of it and you accept a lot, because it's the easiest way to deal with it. The result is denial, that famous psychological state. You simply refuse without being conscious of that refusal to take what you see for real. I think this is an important aspect of the whole story because it has allowed the George W. Bush administration to do what it has been doing, and that has of course also had a tremendous impact on the world. That is a part I'd like to talk some more about a bit later, because it is an aspect that has been rather neglected inside the United States. In American commentary you hardly ever, just occasionally, hear about it.
But let me start at the end, which is where we are now at the moment. Because this is what usually comes up in questions like "What do you think is going to happen?', 'Will the democrats have a chance', 'Will we have another 4 years of Bush government', 'Is Rumsfeld going to survive?', and so on and so on. That is usually what questions boil down to. Let me start there and give you an idea of what my latest impressions are.
My very latest impression is that although the democrats still do not present a very confident, inspiring picture of having their act together and working systematically towards a change in government, in the elections next year, something may be happening. I read something that Wesley Clark came up with a couple of days ago. Suddenly Wesley Clark has started talking about the pre September 11 development. You know that many people have been thinking about this and there has been a lot of speculation, and of course on the internet, many conspiracies appear on sites, but in the main stream press you hardly ever hear about it, even though there have been ample reasons to ask questions like why is the bush administration so extraordinarily reluctant to cooperate with a commission that indeed was set up to investigate, why this reluctance to cooperate, to figure out what went wrong before then. Any editor worth his salt, and that I've ever known in my years as a journalist, editor and commentator, would very naturally put questions marks to that kind of conduct and would say: 'Let's keep this at the back of our minds and let's see if we can find out anything about it'. This has not yet noticeably been done by any major American publication. But Wesley Clark has suddenly been doing it. Now that's interesting, because Clark is a candidate, he's very easily ridiculed, the moment he makes a mistake in this kind of thing, he could easily be wiped out politically, but he is doing it and that means he has some intelligence. He knows that something is going to break at some point. Otherwise it's much too risky for him to come up with this. None of the others have done so, and of course in the back of their minds they must have been asking themselves the same question. Clark, who was a prominent general and who must have very formidable intelligence at his fingertips, comes from the very same institutions that both know things and are extraordinarily upset about how this administration has gone about things. The top of the military is very disgusted with the way that Rumsfeld has treated their colleagues and as you probably know about Eric Sinseki, the army general, the way in which he retired, how Rumsfeld has treated it. Top generals have not wanted to fill his position and Rumsfeld has been able to pick people from lower down in the military hierarchy who see things his way, which also means that there is now an army with people that have been promoted that would otherwise not have been promoted to the positions they are now occupying. Besides that, we now have a CIA that is very clearly, very, very angry at this administration because they have been singled out as a scapegoat and they refuse to accept this role. It's also clear enough how this has been developing because the information that was leaked to Michael Novak, the columnist, was leaked almost without any doubt by Karl Rove, the political strategist behind Bush, his political 'Svengali' shall we say. This has gone through Pinkus, who is with the Washington Post, which was until recently and even now is almost a mouthpiece of the White House, the Washington Post even more so than the New York Times. During the inquiry about who leaked the information about the wife of Ambassador Wilson being a CIA agent, which is of course a very serious breach of security and a highly immoral action, there was a moment that people thought: 'This is it. This is really going to get Rove'. Well apparently it isn't. The breakthrough hasn't arrived with this one. Who knows maybe something is going to happen to Clark, who knows? If he has such good intelligence and he knows that something will come out in the next few months than he will be riding high as a democratic candidate. Again, this is the latest that I can come up with from what I've been following to tell you what the chances are for a change of president in 2005.
I think nobody, no American, no European, nobody can afford to sit back with arms folded and say: 'Let's see what happens in the elections of 2004'. I think that is not a responsible attitude for anyone who has access to the media, for anyone who has brains and can convey to people what has happened and for anyone that is concerned about the fate of the world, which means that I find the conduct of most of my countrymen, and certainly most of the journalists writing in Dutch newspapers and participating in these commentary programs on TV, irresponsible. They have not considered what has happened to the world sufficiently to explain this to Dutch citizens. I think the situation is a little bit better in Germany and in France, but it isn't ideal, nowhere in Europe it is ideal.
Now what has happened? And now I come to what I said earlier I was going to talk about, about the wider implications for the world. What has happened is that American hegemony is no longer possible. What I've just said may sound strange, and may be counterintuitive because quite a lot of people are talking about the increased American hegemony, the attempt by America to establish hegemony, but there we run into a matter of definition and we have to explain a few things.
The United States did have a hegemonic position in the world. That position was a result of the superpower rivalry after World War II and the way in which the United States organized a political western world, including also a little bit of Asia, Japan was part of this, in the NATO Alliances and with separate alliances in East-Asia, a set of alliances that aimed at more than just containing the Soviet Union, which in the 1950's and 60's was definitely considered a potential threat. It was an expansive empire with designs on the rest of the world. It occupied east European countries in such a way that the leaders of the east European countries were quislings, they were not representative of the peoples in those countries, so they were indirectly occupied countries in that respect. We had definitely a justified fear for what Moscow could do in the future. There are quite a few people who make light of this nowadays but if you go back to the late 1940's, 1950's and 1960's this was considered a matter of course by most people, by most commentators, historians and other people who concerned themselves with these things and who took world affairs seriously so we mustn't treat this lightly. The United States was in the eyes of Europeans and Americans and probably a majority of Japanese and many Asians a protective force, a force for order. And it was, again, not just for containment of Russia, it was also for something else, a world order that combined a capitalist economic structure that considered a relative freedom of enterprise as an important and at the same time a relatively humanitarian approach to peoples with less means. So, we had a mixture of socialism, although it could never be could that in the United States, in Europe of course it was openly called socialism or social democracy and capitalism and on the whole this was considered decent. There are many critics on the left who said that because the United States was capitalist it couldn't possibly do any good. However, even those very critical people, took it for granted that this protection existed and was relatively stable, peaceful and comfortable. I am racing through the subject and realize I should stop at all these subjects and explain much more but we simply don't have time for that.
From a point of view of international relations during this period a relatively stable, peaceful world order had gradually come into being, and the main architect of this was the United States, again with Truman and the whole structure of NATO of course. It was based on the belief that in order to preserve political freedom and the right political order there had to be a balance in society, there had to be a concern for the downtrodden, there had to be in the end something that politically we could believe in. So, a world order consolidated as the threat from the Soviet Union became less and less a threat in the eyes of most people looking at it, which was of course a result of détente. Gradually, and especially after the Soviet Union disappeared, the threat that was the original reason for the existence of NATO simply disappeared. At that point there was a world order that almost everyone in the world felt comfortable with. The Chinese did. When Gorbachev disbanded the Soviet Union and by doing so essentially did away with communism as a political ideology supporting a government, Gorbachev knew that as he did this a relatively hospitable, comfortable world order was awaiting him. I'd go as far as saying that even the North Koreans welcomed it. Everybody I know in East Asia wants to hold on to this relatively stable, peaceful world, which was based on American hegemony. The US had been its main architect and even while in the past 10 years American governments had been rather scathing about the United Nations, which was a very important tool within that system, and even though especially in the last 6, 7, 8 years all those things that were being done in the name of globalisation but in fact changed the power relations between huge trans-national corporations and local governments, that also caused a lot of disquiet and protest, those were the protests you saw in Seattle and Washington and wherever the IMF and the World Bank held meetings. Even though all these things happened, still that world order was something considered pleasant enough to hang onto and no country could conceive of an alternative way of organizing things. American hegemony was part of it in the sense that in the end people looked at Washington for answers and solutions, i.e. in the case of the Indian/Pakistani and the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts. And whenever the United States did not sort things out, like in Rwanda, the whole world would be saying: 'Why doesn't Washington do anything?'
Beside order keeping, American hegemony it also meant that very much of how the world was interpreted was through American eyeballs, American editorial filters. The news that is considered news in the Netherlands for example, outside local scandals and problems, everything that has to do with the wider picture, even Euro, including Euro, very much of that is seen through American editorial filters. To begin with it's usually American news institutions that select from all the events in the world, which events are picked up and are worthy to be called news. Obviously, a large earth quake doesn't need any picking, it's an obvious choice, but certainly with regard to relations and transactions between countries, what is considered to be news, is essentially chosen most of the time by American news agencies and. Every time the president of the United States opens his mouth, even though he has absolutely nothing to say that means anything, the TV cameras, the whole world is on him, we all watch it every night. Sometimes, seeing this I feel angry. I'm not angry with him, but I'm angry because of the TV-makers, the programmers that still put him on. Why on earth? Well, it has become the way in which the world works. And if the president of the United States lies or if the Secretary of State lies, which he was doing at the UN Security Council session, this lying is broadcast to every single viewer in the world.
So the United States has had a hegemonic position that no country in history has ever held before. And it was used of course to American advantage, obviously so, but this American advantage was by and large not considered as something objectionable, because, and this is what the trust in the United States was based on, most people who concerned themselves with world affairs, who were thinking about the future of the world, took it for granted that the United States could be trusted to be reasonable. And that meant, that American national interests are intertwined with the preservation of that very world order of which it was the main beneficiary. That is the trust that the United States received from all and sundry everywhere thinking: 'You will never go crazy on us'. Because of that we had a world order. This world order has been destroyed, because no one who stops to think for more than a few seconds about the American national interest, who can fathom how on earth what America has been doing recently, how can that be in their interest? There is no way. In what way is an invasion of Iraq and an attempt to democratise it with armed force, in what way is this in the American national interest? Of course there are people who start to talk about oil and a scheme that went wrong. I don't believe this. The oil factor, although not unimportant mind you, we could talk all afternoon about this, because it is certainly part of it, but it is not been the main reason why this has happened.
George W. Bush:
The main reason why this has happened is because there is a bunch of people in Washington who live in a fantasy world and who got the opportunity to do so because of a very weird confluence of circumstances. They would not have had the opportunity to realize their fantasies if Gore had been president of if father Bush had had a second term and had anointed his successor, not his son, but another republican president. We are witnessing something that was not an inevitable moment in the course of history. What happened? Well, when I take a step back and look at it from a broader perspective, you see that you're dealing here with a tragedy that has the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. You have things that go wrong because of the mental deficiency of a king who shouldn't be king, who doesn't have the capacity to be king, who is a child basically, much more of a child than the vast majority of students that I meet in my profession. He's about the last person who should be in that position. The fact that he is in this position in itself is part of another tragedy: 'How on earth could an electoral system come up with this?' It's really something quite incredible.
But okay, he's there, and as now is becoming increasingly clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that without the Supreme Court he wouldn't be there, which is a tragedy because there you have an institution within the United States that substitutes for God in a way, which is above everything, above politics, which is along with the Constitution itself something that gives a transcendental dimension to American politics. Again there, we have what I think is a tragedy. What happened on the ground? You have a man who should never have been the most powerful man in the world, who isn't necessarily stupid. I don't think it's his intelligence that's the problem. He may be streetwise and have a certain political intelligence sensing when to do a certain thing and when to do something else. He may also be a very amiable person. This is what quite a few people who met him and dealt with him have said, but all of those things are not important. What is important is this man cannot cope with complexity. This is because he's not curious. He doesn't want to know, it's too much for him. Well, if you deal with a normal household you have to deal with complexity, if you deal with an organisation you deal with complexity, but if you deal with a whole country and even beyond that country with the world, my God, you deal with complexity that is beyond belief. He cannot do this. He's not curious. Curiosity would upset him greatly, because the world would become completely unfathomable, a completely unintelligible entity, he can't deal with it. The people around him have of course understood this and the present him with a world that is so clear, the moral clarity of this world is so totally obvious, that he is comfortable. And as he speaks on TV he radiates this kind of morality. He still has to convince himself, because he knows that he has to convince you, and he knows that you are incredulous, but he conveys this sense that we don't have to worry because he knows what's right and he is doing what is right. I don't think you can have a more dangerous person in such a position. People who mean well and believe that they are doing the work of God, which he may or may not believe, but it comes down to that, those people are very dangerous. If they have another four years in power, who knows what's going to happen, because it's quite likely that Rumsfeld will go if there is another term, but I know quite a few Americans who want to leave their country, who are looking for a place. Some even half-jokingly perhaps, but some seriously say: 'Is the Netherlands a good place to migrate to?' Certainly I know of non-Americans you are thinking very much of leaving the country if Bush is re-elected. It's all terribly sad because all of this is not because of a change in the character in the American public. The American public is hoodwinked in a way that we have never seen before unless we consider the Weimar republic, the only recent comparison I have found, where the whole German public was systematically led away from reality and where the public sphere could not tolerate effective criticism of an upcoming power. It is in many ways very different and I am certainly not comparing the Bush administration with the Nazis that came up in the Weimar republic but that part of it is similar, i.e. the way in which a nation can be hoodwinked on such a scale. To discuss how such a thing is possible, how the American public can be hoodwinked in such a way, we get into several themes like the American media, the press, journalism, basic methods of journalism. We could talk a whole day about this too.
But I think, and I need to leave us some time for discussion that what we have had in this world, a relatively peaceful and stable world order, is too precious to just allow it to vanish. And I think that most countries that have understood that they're part of this world order feel the same way. There is no reason to believe that we should start re-arming and start worrying about a series of neighbours becoming a future threat. This means that the whole world and certainly the Europeans, and I say this in the Netherlands hoping that the Netherlands will throw in its weight with Germany, France and Belgium to help form a European voice, not an anti-American voice, but a voice simply saying to the rest of the world: ''We don't believe in pre-emptive war. We do believe in what we have believed so far and the way of international law. We know that international law is no normal law, because we don't have the institutions to implement it. Nevertheless, we do have a strong belief in the advocacy of it and in the way it prevents countries from becoming belligerent. We want to preserve this and we want to go a step further and take this opportunity to create better functioning institutions.'' We have the ingredients for this with the United Nations, better institutions so we have a better forum where all the countries in the world can at the minimum exchange ideas and grievances and so on with one another. So this is something I think all of us, whether we are citizens, politicians or university professors need to keep in the back of our minds and I think it is an idea whose qualities and goodness should become overwhelmingly obvious.
Questions & answers
Aud: I have a question with regard to the Dutch government and the likelihood of it ever joining France, Germany and Belgium. What do think of the likelihood of that ever happening and the 2nd part of the question is as an American what can we do to try to influence that?
KvW: At the moment the Dutch government is treading water as it were and has decided that it's better to continue to believe that the good things for the Netherlands will come from the old protector on the other side of the Atlantic. The Dutch government and the people in the foreign ministry who I've talked to not so long ago cannot accept that the alliance is no longer an alliance, but that they've been offered a system of vassalage. And in order to convince them I point to Tony Blair who is very obviously treated not as an ally, but as a vassal and in fact Tony Blair by now knows this. He's now started talking seriously to the French and the Germans about some European military initiative, which raised a great deal of anger in Washington. The Dutch government has not been able yet to free itself from the Atlanticist illusion and realize that the people in the government are all relatively young. They have almost no experience and that also applies to the parliament. And the older members of the parties that form the government and certainly the retired people behind the scenes are much farther ahead in their thinking, at least that's the impression I get. When I talk to senior people they are almost unanimously disgusted with they way this government is handling things. They put it down to inexperience, intellectual laziness and an inability to conceive of a world that is fundamentally different and in which these senior people, whom I've talked to, have lived.
I think there is reason to commiserate with these Atlanticists, because during their entire lives, the ultimate political decency in their world has been embodied by the Atlantic Alliance. The Atlantic Alliance fought against encroaching communism but it was more than that. It stood for that which was politically decent and thereby gave people an intellectual and spiritual handrail. If you tell these people that these United States that you've always believed in and have always defended is no longer the same, or rather the government in that country is no longer working along the same lines that they used to, but it has broken with its own tradition, these people can't accept this. And so the foreign minister and the prime minister allowed themselves to be seduced by Washington. They got breakfast for it. That in itself it was rather telling, that they thought that was good enough.
Will this change? Can this change? I hope yes, but it takes a bit more. They're also in denial, but another move, something that is so shocking might jar them away and at that point they of course will realize that they are already part of Europe. That they have already agreed to hand over 50% of their sovereignty to Brussels, if one can speak in such schematic terms about economic decision making. They're already part of it and when they say: 'We can't do things together with Chirac', this is total nonsense because they've decided already long ago to deal with people like Chirac and Schröder and everybody else.
What Americans can do to help this along, this process, it just to ridicule the Dutch whenever you meet them and to tell them that you can't believe how they can be so utterly intellectually lazy and so blind. Ridiculing is the only way to deal with this. Ridiculing the Bush government doesn't get you very far, It doesn't get you anywhere, because you can't talk to them. You can still talk to the Dutch government and ridiculing the Dutch government in front of the Dutch public, ridiculing the complacency will in some sense spread and it will reach the Dutch government. I tell you, things easily reach the Dutch government. Now and again I run into somebody whom I don't even know and then after a few sentences I realize that he talks to so and so and that person advices the foreign minister. You run into these people all the time because it's a small country.
But let me make a distinction. There are governments, ruling elites that are clad in steel casing and there is nothing that will reach them. This bunch in Washington can't be reached. You can't talk reason to them. Of course other powers could threaten it, intimidate it perhaps Russia could or China, it would be interesting to see. So far, only the North Koreans have managed to scare them, but you can't talk reason to them and therefore you shouldn't try. That's why, when I read Maureen Dowd, I ask myself: 'Why do you keep writing this stuff? It's utterly meaningless. Nobody learns anything from it. You're doing this for your own pleasure and not to be effective.' In the US it's different. In the United States as an American citizen what you do is to help educate the American nation, which has been very badly misled. That's difficult to do, because again the people that have believed something for the past two years, will find it very difficult to change their minds. But in the end the American public is just as decent as any other public and perhaps even more so. There is no small percentage in America that is approachable and can be made to listen to reason, but not the government. You don't try, okay?
Aud.: You said that during the Cold War the US was seen as being the stable force and the American public was always to be trusted not to go crazy.
KvW: Not the public, the government. The public has no say in foreign policy or hardly any say.
Aud.: You say the American public is a decent lot and that they would think the right way. So, if the whole world is looking at the actions the American government has taken, how can they be so totally brainless, so against their own interests? How can the majority of the American public not see it that way?
KvW: It's a perfectly good question to think about. To answer it you must try and put yourself in the minds of the average American that watches TV and reads a newspaper sometimes. The picture that I painted of a hegemonic role for the United States in the world is not a picture with which most Americans are familiar. When Americans talk about American hegemony they think it's a bad thing. They often don't differentiate it from American imperialism. And these are two different things. Hegemony just means great dominating influence that in the final analysis is usually decisive. Imperialism is different. And imperialism is something that is being peddled by these neo-cons. They think the United States should be an imperial power and that it should have imperial ambitions. Of course, it can't realize this because it cannot be an imperial power, partly because the American public would never accept that kind of role. But the way in which I see the average American public, also from first hand knowledge talking with Americans, is that the world is very much far away, it rarely intrudes. When you travel in the US, which I used to do on holidays, and watching TV in motels, it was only when the pope died that foreign news intruded or an earthquake or another big event that obviously is of some importance, but there is hardly any opportunity for the average American to figure out the three-dimensionality of the world.
So, Arabs came and attacked us, declared war on us. 'War had been declared, the first war of the 21st century'. Those are the words of the president. A nation must be behind the president when war is declared on the nation. So there was a very obvious and very readymade psychological mode to slip into. And it's not only that. Your neighbours would really look at you if you said things that weren't as patriotic as you could be. And of course you put out the flag on your car just to show that you're part of it. You also want to convince yourself. So we start with the fiction of a war. There is no such thing of course, because a war can only take place between two states for the very simple reason that unless there is a war between states there is never the possibility of a surrender or treaty of peace and so on. There would never be an end. You can't have a war against terrorism in the same way that you can't have a war against criminals, because you'd have to eliminate all criminals up the last one, which is never possible. So it's a fictitious war. But it's easily accepted because we've already had a war against cancer, against drugs and against God knows what. Americans have fought metaphoric wars against so many things, that this time nobody thought twice, nobody really stood up and said: 'You can't do this'. There may've been a couple of people who said it, but I when I did a column in February 2002 asking if anybody else had seen the resemblance with Orwell's notorious '1984' where you had a fictitious war against a never changing enemy in order to justify domestic political suppression. Nobody else had written it. So that's how it starts. You then get doubts. Of course, Americans like all human beings begin to doubt. In order to eliminate those doubts, to make sure that these doubts do not change into a politically dangerous national mood, the American government has to continue scaring the people. And so you get orange and yellow alerts. Lie upon lie upon lie upon lie. And it becomes something that the entire media world is part of. In December 2001, only a few months after the attacks, and just after Afghanistan, I found that only the San Francisco Chronicle was steadily running articles ridiculing the idea. And sometimes I saw something in the Boston Globe. In the New York Times nothing except one or perhaps two columns by Frank Rich, even Paul Krugman at that time wasn't writing about this. The Washington Post was just simply an extension of the PR-division of the White House and lets not even talk about The Wall Street Journal. So if you are an American and you live there and you no public sphere, because that public sphere has been totally eliminated, how do you get your information? You simply don't have the means to. And at the same time if you hear things that are contrary to what you have been thinking and what your neighbours are talking about, you start suspecting the motives of the people who tell you that, also because it's very uncomfortable to concede to yourself that you've been wrong.
There is an interesting comparison here. Somebody brought up Japan. I'm used in Japan to talk to people who when you talk about the substantial reality that exists behind the formal, official fictitious reality, are very willing to concede this. They don't contest it, because they know very well that such a things exists. The official reality that we all live in is fake. The Japanese seem to be more receptive to accepting that this is the case. Americans are not used to this, because when they do accept this, then they have a problem. What to do about it? Americans feel that they should do something if things go wrong. The Japanese don't have that inclination.
It's an interesting question and it's also the reason why the most Dutch people in the foreign ministry and writing commentaries do not believe that what I tell them can possibly be right. Because how could a public be so hoodwinked? Nobody believes it.
Aud.: When we talk about what to do, I think we have to distinguish between talking to the government and talking to the people I'm concerned with, which are the voters that put this government into power. And I think especially in the next year with the election coming, it's not that European University professors are going to reach the American Public and convince them to vote. I think it's the Michael Moores and the Maureen Dowds who are going to have an effect and who are able to speak to the American people.
KvW: I hope you're right. I certainly wouldn't censor any of these people. It's certainly true that the 4 million copies that Michael Moore sold of his book mean that many Americans who otherwise would never have heard of such things now know of it even though it is done in a Michael Moorish way. I think that his first book, which was written before the attacks, and was adjusted a little bit, unfortunately drew attacks that were to some extent justified and that marginalized him although in the end if millions read him who cares about him being marginalized. Dowd I think is a different story. I don't want to spend much time in discrediting her. The problem is we're dealing with a situation where flippancy is not appropriate and she has made flippancy her mode of operation whether is it Clinton or Bush or whatever, it's the same level. I have skipped most of her columns recently, so she may have undergone a major change.
Aud:. On the back of the latest Francois Revel book, there's a quote from Jonathan Swift that says: 'It's useless to try to reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into'.
KvW: Revel became famous with a book 'ni Marx ni Jesus' in which he talked about the ideologies of the 20th century, that neither Marxism nor Christianity had brought about the kind of world we'd wanted, but it was American capitalism. He has always been a defender of the United States in the French setting where the French have had this anti-American attitude. But this book by Revel now is about the least appropriate to write. Anti-Americanism is not a problem in any way. I should say that anti-Europeanism that is created in the United States and very much with the help of the American administration is far more problematic. Anti-Americanism? There is certainly exasperation with the United States! And where does exasperation comes from? It comes from a sense that things should be very different and if you believe this then your expectations have been frustrated. So in the end you actually value that which is the object of your ire. Anti-Americanism ought to be scrapped from our political vocabularies. First of all, you can't prove someone to be anti-American, that somebody is more likely to be against the way in which the United States is being governed at the moment and secondly it is something that stops conversations. It's like anti-Semitism. If you accuse someone of being anti-Semitic, the whole conversation falls flat.
Aud.: Do you believe there is a likelihood that the press is going to take a more aggressive view to this new reality given the fact that the press is all owned by the largest corporations in the world? Will they be able to disassociate their interests from those of this administration sufficiently to create an atmosphere were more discussion would occur?
KvW: Probably the borders of what is allowable in the American media are expanding now. Especially if someone like Wesley Clark starts to talk about things, then they will be forced to look at one thing or another. It's partly a problem of journalists and editors who are worried about their job. That has been the concern of many of them, certainly a year ago when I was in Washington and when I talked to them. They had to be careful. It's less problematic now and if more do it, then more will want to do it. Then you run into the next hurdle, because these very same journalists have been part of the misinformation. Can they turn around and say: 'We have misinformed you'? That would be hard. It's comparable to a professor of economics who after a few years suddenly sees the light and realizes that what he's been teaching for several generations was bullshit. He can't turn around. With journalists it's a little bit different and I have seen journalists doing a 'I was wrong' kind of column, which earns them respect. Finally, how far can you go in conceding reality if that reality is so horrifying that you can't really digest it. It's hard for Americans to face the reality that their own country is responsible for the deaths of how many Iraqis. We don't have accurate numbers, but according to a number I read this morning probably a 100 thousand civilians died as a result of this. And these are only the deaths. We have prospects for Iraq running into an incredible, chaotic situation and ending up in the hands of perhaps Islamic fanatics. Can the American public face the reality of this and that this was really because they'd been hoodwinked and accepted that this was done in their name? Hard, very hard. Can you imagine that people studying political science (where the starting premise is that everything which is done in the political world is ultimately done by people choosing rationally from various alternatives), can bring sense to what has happened? Of course not, they're incapable of doing that. You're dealing with a compounded tragedy because of the way in which things have developed in different directions.
Aud.: My question pertains to the idea by professor Noam Chomsky who wrote on the American media and the effects on the American people. If so many intellectual people know about what the media does, why do so many people still follow the mainstream media?
KvW.: You have no choice because the only alternative to following the mainstream media is not reading the mainstream media unless you find alternative sources of information. I thought Chomsky was onto something when he started talking about this. But I think that he marginalized himself as he exaggerated the points he made. He had a tendency to exaggerate and also rather than figuring out that such a large body of journalists and editors and people working in this field, could be so wrong often on such a massive scale, he was blaming them for being morally deficient. He postulated a huge conspiracy in the back of it all, and that's interesting, because there wasn't a great conspiracy behind it all. So he could easily be dismissed and that is what marginalized him, although he was a good speaker and university campuses loved him, so he became a celebrity on the speaker's circuit and his books sold very well in this marginal area. But there are ways of analysing why such a large body of journalists, editors, commentators and so on can be so wrong systematically about certain events. I've tried to do this also within this book. I think it has to do with the way in which journalism has evolved in the last 20 to 30 years. Of course there was always a problem with reporting for an audience with interests at stake that is not very ready to receive message that what is backing them is questionable. There is another thing here. A lot of what Chomksy was writing about is simply the way in which a democracy was dealing with reality. If an American journalist goes to a country where there is a revolution or whatever, he or she is asked to report on this on a neutral manner and so they apply formulas to do so, which are studied in journalism school. It wasn't always thus, I tell you. The formulas are based on two sides of the story that you have to tell. This is formula that works in a courtroom where you have an accused and a public prosecutor and an attorney defending the accused. It's clear that you can have two stories under those circumstances. In many small town conflicts, you can also use this formula, but in the big wide world, on a national level or in an international situation that formula is ludicrous. Nevertheless, it's used. You don't get informed in any way. I have had many conversations with colleagues covering East Asia. I used to cover much of East Asia for 16 years and many of the events taking place between 1970 and 1990, and I saw this trend developing and I once had a colleague who told met that he got a call from his editor asking him to do a cover story on a certain crisis, to which he replied: 'There is no such crisis.' The editor then insisted because other news agencies were covering the purported crisis. The journalist again stated there was no such crisis and that the others had it wrong. In that case the editor insisted on doing a cover story with both sides of the story, one stating that there was a crisis and one stating that there wasn't one. This is the kind of reporting you end up with. So you're dealing here with another problem, a much deeper problem, which is how do you write good media stories? The idea that the correspondent, the journalist has to become very well informed, has to try to enter into the situation and has to try to understand this tacitly and then using his judgement, being aware of his possible bias, but uses his judgement as to what is germane in the story, what is essential, that is not being taught to these people. And so what they do is just collect quotes from people who are for or against and very few of them write a story that I'm interested in reading.
I'm very sorry to say that this is the state of American journalism. Britain still has some very good journalism in some of the papers, but also in the Netherlands it's disappearing. France is a different story. There you still have old school journalism where the journalist is actually allowed to say something.
Aud.: We all know journalism is subjective.
KvW: You shouldn't say that journalism is subjective. That's a wrong attitude. We have to accept that we can't be 100% correct ever. We can also have different views of a situation. Right? Everybody in the world is entitled to an opinion. True. Every opinion is of equal worth. Total utter nonsense! You have educated opinions and you have something that is not an opinion but it simply an educated perspective on things after having watched something for a very long time and after having done your homework and studied it very deeply. The people who do this and who are curious will always test what they think. They will try to find people that also think deeply about that subject and they will discuss it and that will sharpen their minds. And they have to try at all times to be aware of any possible personal bias. When you do that, you can be objective. You mustn't say it's always subjective. In one particular way of course if it is true, and in epistemology, in philosophy we will accept this. But for practical purposes, an experienced reporter can be objective. You have to accept the possibility of being objective and you have to accept that another person who wants to sell you an ideology is purposely not objective.
If you have conflicting information, it is very important to try to understand why it is conflicting information and why another person disagrees with a particular interpretation. You have to investigate why. If you are an experienced correspondent and you are given time to really get close to a story, you can do that. And this is something that these journalists are not trained to do. The way in which the news on the 'War on Terrorism' and on the Bush administration is reported when the president or the national security advisor says something, the fact that he or she has said something is already news for some obscure. Any time he opens his mouth it's news. That in itself is of course editorial prejudice. But is commonly accepted by every American that that is news. And even at the end of whatever he has said, they must have somebody to disagree and they call somebody to say something against it. That's not journalism.
Aud.: You said something on the transatlantic relations. Could you speculate on what it will take for the Dutch government to wake up from its transatlantic dream and is it conceivable that they already have and they are hanging on until the next election in the US?
KvW.: That second supposition is not so strange as it sounds. I get the feeling when I talk to the BZ people here, that it's all: 'Let's see'. And I tell them they can't afford to do this because we can't know the outcome. And January 2005 is still along way off, many things can happen. But it is true, there is this sense and this belief in the capacity for self repair in the United States. That's what they all say and the implication is that this capacity for self-repair by the year 2005 will have come into full force. 'It's a democracy and they will throw Bush out.' That is what many think in the ministry of foreign affairs. But I also sense a great deal of confusion. They really don't know what to make of it. And among the Dutch ambassadors abroad, I think there is a different mood. They are far more critical than the government. They also talk to their colleagues as a continuous conversation among diplomats about this and because they have a more distant perspective. These people are far more worried.
Aud.: I take it these ambassadors report back to the government and tell them their views?
KvW.: Of course they an report back on how the activities of the Bush administration affect their part of the world, but they have to be careful not to seem to be treading on other people's territory.
Aud:. In the perception of the Dutch public the transatlantic relationship has brought wealth to this country. Most people perceive it as comfortable and good. If they reject that relationship, what is their alternative? Europe?
KvW.: This betrays that the way you look at it is almost the way the Dutch people look at it too. First of all, it's not 'they' who are turning their backs on it. It's not the Dutch or the French or the Germans who turned their backs on the Atlantic relationship. It's the Bush administration. The thing is that the moment you have a relationship between countries that is called an alliance you first of all need to have a mutuality of purpose. I don't think there is a mutuality of purpose. The NATO alliance has an important article, article 4, which says that for everything that is done, there has to be continuous mutual consultation. There hasn't been any.
The moment you start speaking of alternatives you must assume that that for which you are seeking an alternative, still exists. Otherwise, you can't be talking about an alternative. If we talk about a substitute, there will be some institution tying the US and Europe together is some way. It will be different from what we have had. The French, the Germans and the Belgians already know that and I think an increasing number of Dutch people know it too. But at the moment it's comfortable not to talk too much about it. Perhaps they think they will still be able to get something out of this. Don't forget that on the side of Washington there is a great deal of horse-trading going on, especially with the less developed countries. 'If you stick with us on this, if you vote on this with us in the UN, you will get economic aid'. And the other way around, more importantly: 'If you don't vote for us, then forget it'.
Aud.: There was a recent report on 35 countries agreeing with the US to un-sign to the International Criminal Court.
KvW: This will obviously have a very negative effect in the long run, because as this goes on, the reputation of the US sinks ever further and since their hegemonic role is based on the acceptance of the earlier trust I mentioned and also on prestige. And this is all being squandered.
Aud.: Is Bush becoming a liability to those how helped him into power?
KvW: Many republicans are very uncomfortable. Of course, the rightwing republicans have taken over the party. The question is whether there are non-rightwing republicans who are horrified and wonder if they can do anything. We will know these comings years what's happening within the Republican Party. So far, there have been indications that there is a strong constituency within the Republican Party and, more recently, Wall Street seems to have swung behind Bush. They seemed very sceptical first time around and now they're giving him money.
Aud.: They have to, because many companies have bought of court cases by giving money to Bush. So, if Bush gets kicked out than all these court cases could be reactivated and that could be very bad for Wall Street.
KvW.: This could be.
Aud.: You said you're hopeful about the way the Dutch are positioning themselves. Then why is minister for Defence trying to get permission for Dutch commandos to go on secret mission without permission from government and why does he want the Dutch government to buy Tomahawk rockets?
KvW.: In the NATO countries it has been accepted that Washington calls the shots and decides what is necessary. The national ministers of Defence have as far as I know not been called to account any time. Maybe for small budgetary decisions but on the whole what the ministers say is not understood by parliament. So what you see evolving over the years is that Defence ministries within NATO countries have been allowed to go their own way, as it is part of a collective security effort. All these things should now be re-examined and the very notion of security has now changed. This should of course have happened right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Aud.: Is the Bush administration likely to engineer a crisis prior to the election?
KvW.: It's not only likely; it's almost a certainty. If things go badly for Bush and that will depend on whether the democrats get their act together. Don't forget that normally only a few people go to the polls. That's what makes it unpredictable. I think Karl Rove is likely to get very concerned when the Democrats do have a formidable candidate and if they do go after the many unanswered questions. At that point, we'll probably have an October surprise, like what happened during the last days of the Carter administration. But what could that be. I've been thinking that the cheapest crisis is a North-Korean crisis, because all you have to do is to call it a crisis. They don't have to send troops or do anything. They just have to say there's a crisis. And that will probably have an effect on a number of Americans who really don't know the backgrounds to this North-Korean story. We already have magazines telling us that the North-Korean government is lunatic and suicidal, so the public will be prepared for it.
Aud.: But it will counter to the interest of maintaining North-Koreas military presence to contain China.
KvW.: The point is that China is not interested in a world that is upset or belligerent. The Chinese government doesn't want that. They want to continue with American hegemony, and they can't anymore because American hegemony is gone. So it's the Chinese you want to interest in a new deal, together with the Indians and the Europeans, the Brazilians and others to see if we can have a world order, and if the US will join this eventually, because they will also see in the end that it is in their interest to do so. One thing you have to realise is that another terrorist attack would be godsend for the Bush administration. But if it comes to soon, it could have an adverse effect for them. Then there will be questions about the effectiveness of this government. But if it comes just before the elections it will be a godsend.
Aud.: Would it be the Al-Qaeda strategy to precipitate the continuation of this administration by creating more instability?
KvW.: Of course, there is strangely enough a symbiotic relationship between the Bush administration and the terrorist, because the Bush administration needs more terrorist action just before the election and the terrorists would love another term. The longer the conflict lasts the more breeding ground there'll be for terrorists organisations.
Aud.: You call the Bush administration a momentary tragedy but you also call it the product of a long evolution in American politics. Do you see it as an aberration?
KvW.: I do. The Bush administration did not fall out of blue sky, but the fact that it could exist at all is a result of other developments. It wasn't inevitable, but it is understandable if you trace the conditions that made it possible. And yet is a break with tradition. The conduct of this administration in international affairs is a break with American tradition and was not a logical continuity.
Aud.: Given your large experience with Japanese matters, could you give us an idea of how to interpret the large Japanese financial contribution to rebuilding Iraq?
KvW.: It's true that the current Japanese government has been very forthcoming and it wants to make some money. Japan is a vassal state and has been so for a long time. It is a de facto protector of the US, but, interestingly, domestic arrangements are totally outside American control. The efforts of the US to change Japan's economic ways have been formidable and the effects have been nil or at least not in the direction the US would want. At the moment they don't want to change anything, because Japan funds American budget deficit, so they would never think of messing with it. But with respect to geopolitical matters, Japan has been a very faithful follower of the US.
Aud.: How can an ordinary person ridicule Dutch Media and the Dutch people in a meaningful way?
KvW.: If you as Americans meet Dutch people who are willing to discuss these matters, and if you ridicule them, it will have an effect on them. In the end there is still something like popular opinion, popular mood. It's hard to get it moving, but you can in the long run have an effect.
Aud.: One of the reasons the Dutch have been kind to the US is that they've invested a lot of money in the US.
Aud.: For that very reason they should now join France and Germany, and this goes for the Japanese as well. In the second half of the 90's, the so-called goldilocks economy was based on borrowed money, which came from Europe but primarily from Asia. I don't know if you are aware of this but the American government needed immediate money for the invasion of Iraq and for this they issues treasury paper. These treasuries were bought by the central banks of China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and one other Asian country. It's a precarious situation in the US and only because of that very unusual and historically unique role of the dollar and we don't know in which ways this will develop. So, if I were in Dutch business or in Dutch government, I would think twice about what the United States is doing. In the long run it's not going to help their investment.
Aud.: In oil is denominated in euros, as Putin wants to do, would that bring about a seismic change?
KvW.: We don't know, because if you talk about dollar/euro/yen equations, things haven't been tried yet. The East-Asian countries are very good exporters and they denominate their trade. But they have a problem, because they can't change all these dollars into their own local currencies, because then these currencies would go through the roof. So they keep what they've earned in dollars, which is a big problem for Japan specifically. Japan has the largest mountains of money in the world. Nobody knows how much and one of the problems is that huge amounts are circulating in the American economy. They've been the most successful exporters in the last century. But since Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold in 1972 and after the floating exchange rates since then, Japan has had a problem. The yen is a scarce currency. However, we don't know what the euro can do in the future. The euro is not like the dollar in the sense that it is connected to an economy like the dollar. But it is conceivable that the euro will become a substitute for the dollar and in that case it is quite possible that the Chinese will switch from dollars to euros if the United States continues to behave like it is behaving. Then everything will change. But we don't know what it will be exactly because there are too many imponderables involved.