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Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and the Five Kings: America's Abdication and the Fate of the World (New York: Henry Holt, 2019), 261pp.Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and the Five Kings: America's Abdication and the Fate of the World (New York: Henry Holt, 2019), 261pp.

Philosopher, journalist, political activist, filmmaker, and author of over thirty books, he's France's most prominent public intellectual, known there as simply BHL. Bernard-Henri Lévy (b. 1948) is fabulously rich, telegenic, and close friends with the most powerful. He owns restaurants, a soccer team, a line of vodka, and (it had to be) a perfume called With Love from Bernard-Henri.  He's an intellectual provocateur of prodigious learning. His third wife was a famous French actress and singer. His current liaison is the fashionista Daphne Guinness.  Exactly how we should take Lévy is a question that has dogged his controversial career for decades. 

Lévy is one of the few scholars today who still writes about big history, boldly written, with his belief in a single and universal story for all people everywhere — led by the closely connected Europe and America. That is, until more recent days, when we have seen the United States abdicate its imperial responsibility to protect and promote liberal democratic norms around the globe. America's reluctance to fulfill its political authority has been exacerbated by the "real" empire now, says Lévy, the four horseman of GAFA (along with their Asian counterparts BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent (which has an office near my house), and Xiaomi), with their remarkable power of commerce and control (i.e. surveillance). These techno-giants, which combine tyrannical power and sweet seduction, are "gnawing away at the links that bind people" with their mantras of tell all, say all, see all, show all.

With the United States retreating in this battle for democracy and law, five new powers with ancient pedigrees have stepped into the vacuum. Lévy calls them five kings — Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia or radical Sunni Islam ("those nostalgic for the caliphate"). He doesn't think they can succeed in their ambitions, but they can still do great harm, and so we must "nevertheless remain unflaggingly aware that the war between their idea of the world and our own is merciless and uncompromising." This is the "noblest vocation" of America, which in a touching phrase Lévy calls "the second home of every free person on the planet," its "civilizing project," to fight totalitarianism in all its guises in favor of democratic freedoms for all humanity.

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