I usually love the Olympics, but I have found these games difficult to watch. Whether it was the cynical use of a Uighur torchbearer by the Chinese, or that Russia seemed to be biding its time until after the final ceremonies before invading Ukraine, there was something rotten about these games, or at least the geopolitics of these games. No number of skier aerials can compensate for watching an authoritarian regime thumb its nose at the once robust liberal world order. Every night, I take in a few minutes of highlights but soon find myself reaching for the remote. So one night I recently found myself watching The Will to See, a new documentary by Bernard-Henri Lévy. It was remarkable to see a film so out of step with the times.
Over the course of four decades Lévy has made a name for himself traversing the globe in an effort to turn the world’s attention to forgotten conflicts, humanitarian crises, and—his critics would say—himself. Nearly halfway into his documentary, which is a tour of conflicts that have fallen from the headlines, Lévy and his crew visit a Somali medical dispensary near al-Shabaab held territory. As he readies for this visit, which is arranged through a group of private security contractors, Lévy receives some rudimentary training on how to self-administer a tourniquet in case of ambush. When Lévy arrives at the dispensary, he doesn’t wear this tourniquet on his gear—as a soldier might—because he has no gear. Instead, he wears it on his arm in the way one might wear a mourning band. As he mixes among the Somalis, a woman confronts him. She says, “I don’t have money but please take me with you.” To which Lévy replies, “My team is here for you, to inform.”
But he is not a doctor, nor are the members of his team. What might he inform this woman about? And, as if to prove he is not a doctor, in the very next scene we see him in front of a crowd of children who are all laughing while Levy is joking around and now wearing his tourniquet on his head, like a jester’s hat. Watching this scene, it would be easy to question the purpose of Lévy’s visit. He serves no function at this clinic, except perhaps to brighten the day of a few children.
The documentary, which recently premiered in New York City, as well as the recent release of a book of Lévy’s journalism, The Will To See, couldn’t be more at odds with today’s isolationist climate, the same climate that Russia leverages as it maneuvers against Ukraine and that China takes advantage of so it can imprison Uighurs and threaten Taiwan. As Lévy travels between Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Rojava (the self-declared autonomous Kurdish state), to name but a few, documenting wars and human suffering, which continue despite COVID-19 and our own desire to retreat within our borders, he asks, “Is this the time to run around the world when our civic duty is to stay at home?” He then answers his own question, lamenting both “Europe’s retreat behind barricades” and its attendant “Stay at home fanatics.” Which isn’t to say that Lévy is indifferent to the threat of COVID-19 but rather that he sees humanity’s indifference to suffering as a far greater threat.
Is he right to think so?
A poignant section of Levy’s film, which occurs toward its end, documents a recent trip to Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. Here, Lévy interviews Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Lion of the Panjshir and leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives on September 9, 2001. The younger Massoud, or as Lévy calls him “the young lion,” recounts both his father’s death when he was a boy but also their shared, inter-generational vision of an Afghanistan unburdened by the Taliban’s yoke. This was shortly before last summer’s implosion of the Afghan Republic.
It’s difficult not to watch this final section as a cautionary example of where such idealistic thinking might lead a person, or a nation. But this of course begs the question of what should nations and people replace their idealism with? The result of Lévy’s idealism has been mixed. He’s advocated for worthy interventions in places such as the Balkans and Darfur, while also supporting ill-fated efforts in Libya and now Afghanistan (though, interestingly, he viewed the invasion of Iraq as excessive). In America, the consensus opinion on internationalism has coalesced: most would say its benefits rarely outweigh its costs. Twenty years of war and the attendant loss of blood and treasure have resulted in the emergence of a powerful strain of isolationism, and a scaled-back foreign policy has become one of the only issues over which Republicans and Democrats can agree—even if they don’t always agree on the best way to implement it.
Recently, I spoke to Fred Kempe, a former journalist and the President of The Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy institute. Fred and I are friends and as we prognosticated about the year ahead, we soon found ourselves enumerating the myriad foreign policy issues likely to confront our country in 2022, from the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, to the crisis in Kazakhstan, to the specter of famine in Afghanistan. In his job, Fred meets regularly with foreign officials and diplomats, and as we made our list of troubles he mentioned how, in recent years, instead of asking what the United States would do when confronted with such crises, diplomats had changed their wording. “Now,” Fred explained, “they ask me what I think the United States will stomach.”
That tension, between an internationalist foreign policy (one that we do) and an isolationist foreign policy (one that we stomach) has always existed in American life. In George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, when he warned against “foreign entanglements,” this was after nearly a decade of war, in which the French had served as our ally, and at a moment when many felt we had a moral obligation to play a role in their revolution (a U.S. intervention that never came to be). The swing between isolationism and internationalism continued into the 19th century, with internationalist conflicts such as the Spanish-American War, but in the 20th century America was again on an isolationist footing on the eve of the Second World War. Then, confident after that victory, we evolved into an internationalist nation with President Kennedy announcing at his inaugural, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Such sentiment led to Vietnam and decades would pass before we saw those wounds heal and the resurgent internationalism that peaked with the Iraq invasion.
Today, the U.S.—indeed, the western liberal world—is again in an isolationist trough while authoritarian regimes are on the march. Where does that leave champions of internationalism? Where does that leave Bernhard-Henri Lévy? It is easy to look at the warzones Lévy visits in his documentary and to concede that, yes, everything he shows us is terrible, but then to ask: What would you have us do? Intervene again in Somalia? Intervene again in Libya? We tried that. It didn’t work.
Sadly, this isn’t an argument without merit. Internationalism and military interventionism too often attend one another. When speaking to the prime minister of Bangladesh, whose war of liberation from Pakistan was Lévy’s first to witness, he threads the needle between internationalism and interventionism by quoting André Malraux: “The people he admires most on earth are those who make war without loving it.” But is a distaste for war really what prevents a society from fighting wars?
It would be nice to think so, but our adversaries certainly get a say. Our isolationism, if taken too far, emboldens them. Turn on the Olympics. A nation has to be pretty bold to trot out a Uighur torchbearer for all the world to see while committing genocide against the very same people, or to threaten the invasion of a sovereign nation on a timeline that coincides with racking up as many gold medals as possible.
No matter where American society sits along the upswing and downswing of internationalism and isolationism, it is essential to keep our eyes open to the world. Which is why I admire Lévy. Leaving New York City for Nigeria, he says, “I do what I always have,” and so he does, admirably, making children laugh as he wears a tourniquet on his head, asking us to look at the suffering outside of our borders even when it’s unfashionable, even when some will call him a fool for not embracing the isolationism of this moment.
Which brings me back to that one scene in his film, when Lévy tells the Somali woman, “My team is here for you, to inform.” Watching this exchange for a second time, I realized I had missed its meaning entirely. When Lévy tells the woman he’s there “to inform” she is not the subject. There’s nothing he can tell her. It is we who are the subject. He is informing us, so that, perhaps, the pendulum might swing again, and we might find a way to help her.