A few years back, after a prolonged immersion in American Protestant fundamentalism (I was writing a book), I moved from the U.S. to Western Europe, ready to bask in an open, secular, liberal culture. Instead I discovered that European social democracy, too, was a kind of fundamentalism, rigid and doctrinaire, yielding what Swedish writer Johan Norberg calls "one-idea states"—nations where an echo chamber of insular elites calls the shots, where monochrome media daily reiterate statist mantras and shut out contrarian views, and where teachers and professors systematically misrepresent the U.S. (millions of Europeans believe that free public schools, unemployment insurance, and pensions are unknown in America). The more I saw of the European elites' chronic distrust of the public, and the public's habitual deference to those elites, the fonder I grew of the nasty, ridiculous rough-and-tumble of American democracy, in which every voice is heard—even if, as a result, the U.S. gets capital punishment and Europe gets gay marriage.
How did Western Europe come to be ruled by monolithic ideologues? Short answer: the "'68ers," which is what Europeans call those who came of age in the radical movements of the 1960s, revering Mao and reviling the U.S. as Nazi Germany's successor. Remarkably, after the protests were over, an extraordinary number of '68ers—those who'd stood on the barricades denouncing the system—ascended into positions of political and cultural power, shaping a New Europe (and an EU) in which the anti-Americanism of the barricades became official dogma. Paul Berman's absorbing, elegantly written Power and the Idealists recounts the political journeys of three of the most influential of these '68ers. Joschka Fischer, once head of the militant group Revolutionärer Kampf (Revolutionary Struggle), became German foreign minister in 1998. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May '68 Paris demos, now sits in the European Parliament. And Dr. Bernard Kouchner, boy Communist, went on to found Doctors Without Borders in 1971 and to serve as an EU and UN official. The ultimate point of Berman's 100-page opening chapter is that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo compelled these three to move "from radical leftism to liberal antitotalitarianism"—that is, to reject their longtime view of the U.S. as the world's supreme menace and support NATO action against Milosevic. Many '68ers, Berman suggests, made the same move.
Berman's first chapter is based on "The Passion of Joschka Fisher," an August 2001 New Republic essay. Days later came 9/11, in whose aftermath the notion of the European left as a newfound bastion of "liberal antitotalitarianism" would be increasingly hard to buy. For even if a significant number of '68ers did switch sides over Kosovo, the wars in Afghanistan and (especially) Iraq switched most of them back. Of Berman's trio, only Kouchner supported the invasion of Iraq; Cohn-Bendit, Fischer, and nearly everybody else on the European left opposed it, in most cases fiercely. Berman claims that this posture was "tactical"—in principle, he insists, the left continued to stand for "liberal antitotalitarianism." My own observations strongly suggest that most '68ers never really embraced "liberal antitotalitarianism" in the first place; yes, European governments felt obliged to go along with the Kosovo and Afghan invasions, but the academic, journalistic, and bureaucratic elites protested both operations vociferously (only to drop their opposition down the memory hole when those efforts succeeded).
Berman's goal is clear: At a time when many leftists' animosity toward George W. Bush has blinded them to the iniquities of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam, et al., not to mention the best interests of people who've suffered under tyranny, he wants to hold up Fischer, Cohn-Bendit, and Kouchner as models of reflective and principled interventionist leftism. Fine. One problem here, alas, is that all three of these men have, in their time, done things that raise serious questions about their principles and powers of reflection. Fischer, for example, brutally beat up a cop at a 1973 Frankfurt street protest; Cohn-Bendit hid a fugitive whose group had helped coordinate the 1972 Olympics murders. While reporting candidly enough on these and other episodes, Berman prefers to see them (with excessive generosity) as eminently forgivable missteps made in their youth by men who have since developed a mature wisdom deserving of emulation. Whatever. Bottom line: he's out to convince readers that if they stop cheering George Galloway and linking arms with Islamofascists at antiwar rallies and instead join his trio in (as he sees it) supporting "liberal antitotalitarianism"—i.e., siding with freedom against oppression—they'll still be able to call themselves leftists. It's ironic: Berman's New Republic article recounted the supposed awakening of the European left; to read the book that's grown out of it is to be intensely aware of just how many leftists are still sound asleep.