Just a few years ago, fatigue from “Anglo-Saxon lecturing” was a hallmark of authoritarian regimes like Vladimir Putin’s in Russia or Xi Jinping’s in China. Now it’s surfacing in mainstream European media -- a sign that, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the English-speaking world is losing intellectual legitimacy.
On Thursday, El Pais, Spain’s newspaper of record, published an article in English by its Editorial Director Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, entitled “Anglocondescension.” Dripping with sarcasm, the column tells off English-speaking pundits for their criticism of Madrid’s harsh, unyielding treatment of the Catalan secession bid: “They are crying in their editorials and opinion columns about the huge disappointment they feel because we have not been able to buckle in the face of the national-populist blackmail of Carles Puigdemont and company, and because we want to defend our Constitution as they defend theirs (ferociously, in many cases, and if necessary invading other countries to do so).”
El Pais recently fired top British columnist John Carlin after he criticized King Felipe and the Spanish government for refusing to solve the Catalan problem through compromise. It was described in the Columbia Journalism Review as a sign of the paper’s excessive closeness to the Spanish government. Perhaps, but while El Pais can afford to publish the odd pro-Catalan piece, it doesn’t feel obliged to take policy advice from “Anglo-Saxon” intellectuals. It’s not a matter of how the columns are written but rather of resentment in the outsized role the US and its closest ally, the UK, have played in shaping policy and the global intellectual discourse in the liberal world order era.
Torreblanca doesn’t feel he has to take any of it anymore -- “the condescending tone with which they orate on our ‘young’ democracy, its supposed problems assimilating Francoism and, once again, the racist insistence in (sic) the temperamental character of the Spanish,” he writes. And all this, he adds, has shamelessly flowed from the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that have committed collective suicide in the last year in the view of the whole world as part of a boorish, populist reality show, starring the most rancid elements of the right wing, the most mediocre politicians and the most dishonest media outlets, all working together to bring a corrupt clown such as Trump to power, and prompting a folly on the scale of Brexit, something that not even they can find a way out of.
It’s not just the Spanish. In Germany earlier this month, a group of pro-US academics started off a debate by arguing in a manifesto -- published in Die Zeit in Germany and the New York Times in the US -- that, Trump or no Trump, Germany needed to stick to Atlanticism as its main foreign policy vector. The response, published in Die Zeit by prominent commentators Joerg Lau and Bernd Ulrich, counters that it’s time to adapt to a world that is not led by the US. The Atlanticists, Lau and Ulruch wrote, have lost touch with reality.
Those who think we can just wait for the US to return to its old role after Trump are deceiving themselves. Indeed, the transatlantic crisis didn’t begin with Trump and will not end with Trump. Why don’t the Atlanticists want to see this?
The problem, according to them, is deeper than the views held by the current US administration. It’s one of obsolete intellectual jingoism as much as anything else. In the view of Lau and Ulrich, Germany, with its current focus on compromise and cooperation rather than domination, may be well-positioned to help shape the emerging new world order. That’s not a geopolitical claim but a philosophical one.
Interestingly, both El Pais and Die Zeit felt it was necessary to translate these pieces into English. The English-speaking world’s critics want to be heard by the expert community they criticize. They are trying to establish new rules of engagement, under which the US and the UK can no longer speak from the position of moral superiority that was born of their World War II victory. As the events of the 1940s fade into the historical distance, English-speaking societies’ more recent intellectual and moral failures gain relative importance.
In a world where Germany no longer feels compelled to follow US or especially British advice on security and trade policy, and where Spain asserts its right to resist separatism as resolutely as the US would have done, the tension is no longer just between liberal and illiberal societies. It’s also between different models of democracy, statehood and social protection. Thanks to Brexit and Trump, the debate may be getting more acrimonious, but perhaps also more exciting because more alternatives are on the table.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.