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French Best-Seller: U.S. Is a ‘Nihilist Empire’

Questioning the pro-American Western orthodoxy is selling books in the Hexagon.

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French politics seem to be bubbling with farmers revolts and cabinet shakeups. Marine Le Pen’s populist National Rally party polls well. Sporadic riots emanating from the suburbs are a new norm. Yet low-violence turmoil is a kind of perennial in France, and the safer bet nearly always is that nothing dramatic will change on the domestic political front. 

Intellectual currents may be more important. France is the first major European country (after Hungary, at least) to begin to acknowledge that the Ukraine war has turned into a major catastrophe for the West. President Macron still sings from the hymnal of Ukraine solidarity and the major voices of the center left and right still support unconditional aid to Ukraine. But cracks in the consensus are widening. Last year, the most talked-about novel in France was Le Mage du Kremlin, written by an Italian from the point of view of a Putin advisor. Ukraine hawks hated it, Russophiles loved it, and it became a best-seller which nearly won the nation’s most prestigious literary prize. 


Now a Frenchman, the veteran and well-established social scientist Emmanuel Todd has, in an ambitious lamentation of American global leadership, taken the novel’s “let’s not demonize Putin” sentiment to another level. At this writing, his La Défaite de L’Occident (The Defeat of the West) has been at or near the top of French best-seller lists for four weeks. Todd has had a large French readership since his first book, written in 1976 when he was a graduate student studying European peasant communities, predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Michael Lind, in his preface to the English version of After the Empire, a coruscating critique of America’s imperial world role written as Washington was plunging into the Iraq War, places Todd in the tradition of the great Raymond Aron, as an enlightened liberal and empirically grounded skeptic. This is not quite precise: Todd is both more polemical and, if not dogmatically so, more left-wing than Aron. Yet he shares with him a healthy respect for social science data, deploying them here to undermine the West’s most widely circulated and least challenged political narratives. 

La Défaite opens with a recitation of the surprises to emerge from the Ukraine war. The hawkishness of Great Britain, the failure of France and Germany to stand up for their own diplomatic and economic interests, the effectiveness and will to fight of the Ukrainian military are singled out. But several others are particularly important, and serve as major themes of Todd’s book.  

First, the Russian economy has successfully withstood the fierce American and Western financial sanctions. Widely expected to bring Russia to its knees, the sanctions proved something of a paper tiger. 

Secondly, by last summer, it had become clear that the United States and the West lacked capacity to supply Ukraine with sufficient artillery shells. The West, led by Washington as the self-proclaimed “arsenal of democracy,” fortified apparently with 30 times the total income of Russia, was falling short of Moscow and its rag-tag allies. This raised the question of how much of the political economy of the neoliberal world was, as Todd suggests, “phony.”

Third, and perhaps most significantly, was the revelation of the West’s ideological self-isolation as the Ukraine proxy war has ground on. From the outset large democratic countries such as Turkey and India failed to embrace Washington’s sanctions regime. As the war has progressed, so has increasingly discrete global support for Russia, including quiet measures to help Russia circumvent the sanctions, on the part not only of so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, but from putative American allies as well. Most of the world remains either indifferent or opposed to Washington’s long time insistence that Ukraine be turned into an American NATO base. 


In delving into these surprises, Todd finds a breathtaking dogmatism across the spectrum of Western elites, a kind of ideological solipsism preventing them from seeing the world as it actually is. 

A key example is the assessment of Russia’s economic power. In 2016, John McCain famously remarked that Russia was “little more than a gas station masquerading as a country.” Ignorant as the comment was, probably half the members of the U.S. Senate have at some point said something similar: Variations of that opinion, repeated endlessly in America’s major media platforms were thoroughly embedded in the American psyche by the time the first Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014. In retort, Todd puts out some simple statistics. 

From 2000 to 2017, from roughly the beginning of Putin’s reign, the Russian rate of death from alcoholism dropped from 25 per 100,000 citizens to 8; from suicide, 39 to 13; from murder, 28 to 6. As for infant mortality, long the gold standard signifier of the level of a country’s development, under Putin it fell from 19 per 1000 live births to 4.4. Todd quotes UNICEF to note the American rate is currently 5.5 per 1000. 

He goes to cite several sectors where Russia has made stunning progress in the last 20 years (agriculture, internet access) before speculating about how it is that Russia, dwarfed by the United States in per capita income statistics, is somehow able to keep pace during wartime and produce as many armaments as the United States. An interesting clue is that 23 percent of Russians in higher education study engineering, versus 7 percent in the U.S. The result is that Russia, with a far smaller population, produces more engineers than the U.S., which helps it keep pace with Goliath. 

If the resurgence of the Russian economy under Putin has helped Russia survive Western sanctions, so too is the fact that much of the world is not in the least invested in the notion that Ukraine and Washington represent freedom and progress and Moscow tyranny. One major argument Todd makes is that the Washington-led West simply has no clue as to how much of the world rejects the value system of contemporary globalist neoliberalism. He argues that the economic model enables mass consumption in the West through the outsourcing of factory work to the Third World is no longer welcomed by elites of the global south as it was before the 2008 economic crisis. (It is not beloved by working class populations in the West either). 

Courting obvious controversy, he points to the LGBTQ revolution, which signaled a definitive end to Christianity as the dominant moral force in the West: Between 2005 and 2015, virtually every nation under American influence legalized gay marriage, and most went further with the normalization and acceleration of transgenderism. Todd seems not particularly conservative on this issue and in interviews has made clear his preference for “equal rights” for all. But, as an analyst, he is unsparing. He argues that most of the world is strictly patriarchal in family structure, as opposed to the more “bilateral” or more equally influenced by mothers and fathers structures common to the West. 

This may have made the West more receptive to political liberalism, but it has also given rise to a gender radicalism which partially explains the “indulgence” granted Russia by the peoples and governments of Iran (traditionally highly distrustful of Russia), Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Some degree of feminism may have advanced globally, but not in Western form. The question of morals, Todd argues, has, probably for the first time, emerged as a critical factor in international relations. 

With arrogant self-assuredness that it incarnates international morality, the West “has not understood that it has become suspect to the larger part of the world which is patrilineal, homophobic, and in fact opposed to the Western moral revolution.” To accuse Russia of being scandalously anti-LGBTQ, he argues, is to play Putin’s game. Russia knows that its homophobic and anti-trans policies, far from alienating the rest of the planet, “confer on it a considerable soft power.” The revolutionary soft power of Russian communism, which once appealed to large segments of the European working class “has given way to the conservative soft power of the Putin era.” 

If Todd is personally liberal on these issues, he draws a line at transgenderism. How, he asks, are societies whose core structures are based on the difference between male and female parents, where the difference between men and women is conceptually indispensable, going to accept an ideology where a man can become a woman and vice versa? To claim that much of the world will reject this notion underestimates its import; the great reaction in the rest of the world is that the West has “gone crazy.” He concluded that the ideology claims “a man can become a woman, and a woman a man. It is an affirmation of falsehood” and a signifier of Western nihilism, the term he adopts to describe the new American ethos. How, he wonders further, does adherence to a cult of falsehood render the United States credible as a military ally and diplomatic partner? 

Many on social media have seen the memes mocking various Biden administration defense officials, men, prancing about in dresses and make-up. It is something else to see consequences of our new ideology drawn out in a best-selling book by a leading, trained in anthropology, French author.

Todd traces the moral collapse of the United States to the demise of the WASP establishment that formed it and led it for most of its history. Protestantism shaped America; Todd follows Max Weber in ascribing to it the dynamism of capitalism. For whatever reason, it is gone as a dominant belief system. The new American ruling class, newly ethnically diverse, feels no particular attachment to the American nation or people. This is an argument redolent of the late Christopher Lasch, who near the end of his life concluded that the American upper class had essentially seceded from the American nation. At one point, Todd puzzles over the ethnicity of various key American decision makers in the Ukraine debacle—Victoria Nuland, Anthony Blinken—and seems to throw up his hands in bewilderment. 

Of partial Hungarian Jewish background himself, he notes that many Jews retain a distinct fondness, through family memory, of Hungarian culture; about Ukraine, none do. America, he concludes, is no longer a nation-state, but a nihilist empire, in constant revolt against its own past, with a ruling elite openly hostile to the country’s traditions. For France and the rest of the West to follow it invites disaster. Many conservative Americans will recognize truths in the diagnosis, while believing that the nihilism and the regime of lies (Putin’s own term to describe the American empire) can be defeated and their country turned around and revived. Todd does not. 

France is more moved by books than the United States or Great Britain, though Todd’s challenging work does not mean France will suddenly follow Viktor Orban’s lead and seek the reintegration of Russia into the European state system or abandon its alliance with the U.S. But French politicians read, and one can already see softer versions of Todd’s views appearing elsewhere in the French establishment. If a sharply rightward turn in French politics seems not likely a revival of some sort of NATO- and America-skeptical neo-Gaullism is easily imaginable. It should not be unwelcome.