“Internationalism is getting bad press today,” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy writes in his new book, his second on the covid-19 pandemic. His call for the United States to lead a new era of nonmilitary Western intervention in the world’s most forgotten places runs counter to the zeitgeist, a dynamic the iconoclast seems to relish. But before you dismiss it, consider Levy’s argument — and bear witness to the testimonies he traveled the world to collect.
In “The Will to See: Dispatches From a World of Misery and Hope,” BHL (as he is commonly known) illustrates the despair and neglect he encountered throughout 2020 while reporting out a series of international dispatches for Paris Match. The 73-year-old provocateur brought along a small film crew to interview some of the world’s most ignored people: women raped and murdered by Boko Haram; Kurdish troops still fighting and dying in Syria; Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbass; refugees living in squalor on the Greek island of Lesbos; the orphaned children of Islamic State soldiers.
The stories are gruesome, each one exacerbated by the pandemic. The accompanying film, being screened in the United States this month, is a damning indictment of a selfish and callous Western world that turned inward in 2020.
“While we were ordered to stay at home, those who had no home to stay in were thrown into nothingness in the minds of the West,” Levy told me in an interview.
This stance by the West not only exacerbated the suffering of those in poorer countries, but also left the field open for bad actors, especially authoritarian dictators, to advance their interests.
“We lived for two years in a parallel universe where the war in Syria did not exist, Chinese imperialism did not progress, Putin’s proxies were no longer in Eastern Ukraine,” Levy told me. “But they [the authoritarians] were in the real world.”
This abdication of responsibility during the pandemic is a symptom of the deep fatigue and political apathy surrounding the project of internationalism, Levy argues. In his view, the Western world has broken faith with its duty to spread democracy, freedom and dignity based on the principles of Western enlightenment, for the betterment of humanity. This is not to be confused with unrestrained capitalism or military intervention.
“I'm not only in favor of humanitarian intervention, I'm in favor of proper politics,” he said. For Levy, this means “we act in the world, and we don’t leave the ground to rival and adversary powers” — powers such as Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood and China.
In one prescient segment of the film, Levy meets with the Massoud family in Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley and warns that if the U.S. forces withdraw, the Taliban will take over and millions of Afghan girls will be put back into cages. According to Levy, the NATO-led Afghanistan mission was not a failure but a success because it had liberated millions. Only due to a lack of will did the United States abandon it, resulting in catastrophe.
Levy has special contempt for those on the left, his side of the political spectrum, for prioritizing their own domestic politics over the fate of the world’s most vulnerable people. In the 1970s and ’80s, he said, the left made common cause with the world’s dissidents and was actively involved in their struggles.
“Today, a part of the left is deaf and blind,” he said. “It is a self-inflicted blindness, a self-inflicted deafness.” On topics like the plight of the Uyghurs and others in China, gay people in Iran or Russia, or Kurds targeted by Erdogan in Turkey, he says of this group on the left: “They just don’t care.”
The record of Levy’s internationalist activism is considered controversial. His critics most often cite the NATO intervention in Libya, which he advocated for, as an example of his failed ambitions. When Levy returned to Libya in 2020, he was greeted not with a parade, but with an ambush he and his crew only narrowly escaped, as he documents in the book and film.
But Levy still insists the ones who were right about Libya were himself, John McCain and Ambassador Chris Stevens, who wanted to do more — not President Obama, who called Libya his “worst mistake.” We will never know what would have happened if the West had not abandoned Libya after Moammar Gaddafi fell. But we can act now to prevent new horrors emerging from the world’s most neglected places.
The American public’s fatigue with internationalism is due to a lack of courageous political leadership, Levy argues. Only the United States has the power and therefore the responsibility to lead on these issues — and it still has the ability to succeed.
“American power still exists,” Levy told me. “You can do more than you think. I am one of those who have seen it on the ground.”
American-led internationalism, despite its flaws and missteps, remains the last, best hope for humanity. It shouldn’t take a French philosopher to remind Americans of our vital interest in championing the struggle for universal rights and freedom beyond our borders.