I mourn the death of essayist William Pfaff at the age of 86. Pfaff seemed to me deeper and wiser than other international correspondents; he certainly wrote better. He didn't conspicuously globe-trot—from Paris he cast his eye on America in the world, and his tone was often annoyed and rueful. We were not, in his eyes, humanity's savior or crown jewel (for all our lovable mistakes); our silliness often marginalized us. I discovered him in the New Yorker in the late 1970s, and my admiration never wavered.
In 1989 I visited him at his home in Paris and wrote about the visit in the Reader. From that article:
Pfaff said, "When you see all of these issues being dealt with in the United States at the slogan level—you know, you despair." He recalled a conference set up to introduce leaders of Ronald Reagan's new administration to "the European crowd—the intellectuals, journalists, politicians, what have you.
"And I was there. And after the first day or two, everyone on the European side—they were rolling their eyes. It was not a disagreement on what to do. It was that these people from the United States didn't know what the problems were! They were living in a conceptual universe so sloganized and so remote from real possibility—you know, from the density and complexity of the real issues. I mean, they were giving people lectures about, 'Don't you understand? The Russians are bad!'"
Was this stupidity? we asked him. Was it intellectual immaturity?
"I don't think it's either. I think it is ignorance, a certain canonization of ignorance in American society. I think it's a breakdown of schools. The people are not really seriously taught. It's certainly a consequence of the trivialization of issues by television, and the press, which has deteriorated very seriously. But it sort of disqualifies us from grown-up discussion."
We asked Pfaff about America's retreat to the margins of world affairs.
"When you go into Eastern Europe they don't ask 'What does America think?'" he said. "They ask 'What do the Germans think?' The United States is now—irrelevant. The United States is big and can make a difference if it throws its weight around, so everybody is a little wary of what the United States might do. But as for solving their problems or getting on with the important things, they've got to humor the United States and get on with it themselves."
But of course this was said over a quarter century ago. I don't think anyone would accuse our country of having eradicated triviality since then. But we've asserted ourselves in the world more than once, organizing coalitions to fight wars, dealing with economic collapse more successfully than Europe has, and electing a black president who excited the people in the street in a lot of countries besides our own. What did Pfaff make of Barack Obama?
He wrote in March, "The most devastating reproach historians are likely to make to Barack Obama's record in the White House is his devastating failure in foreign policy." The president's Republican friends in Congress would reflexively agree. But Pfaff's diagnosis was his own. He went on "—a failure that stems from his willingness to leave the warrior ideologues of the State and Defense Departments in place after he became president." He elaborated:
"[Obama] left dealings with Europe, and with the United States' most important and dangerous interlocutor, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, under the controlling influence of a neoconservative cabal in the State Department, committed to reckless policies of American and NATO expansion in Northern Europe."
I don't recall any mainstream American pundits either asserting or denying the existence of a neoconservative cabal. To see such a thing it's probably necessary to look from afar. Pfaff went on to cut Obama some slack: "However, if Obama is to be blamed for these errors, it is also true that his policies have reflected a consensus in the U.S. governing class and popular opinion alike that America must always be 'first.' This has been the guiding presupposition of the nation and its elite, the majority of its foreign policy intellectuals and its mainstream newspapers and other makers of opinion."
As for the loyal opposition, Pfaff called the Republicans "myth-addicted" and sounded disgusted with them. "Consider the credulity and ignorance Republicans displayed at the Congressional address of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Netanyahu delivered a twisted discourse on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, congressional Republicans cheered as if he, rather than Barack Obama, were President of the United States."
American pundits dissed the Republicans for being partisan and obstructionist. But through Pfaff's eyes they looked worse: these legislators were unserious people blind to their lack of either dignity or honor.