Below is a speech by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski delivered Friday, October 14, 2011 in Normandy, France upon receipt of the de Tocqueville Prize prize bestowed upon him by M. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of du Jury du Prix Tocqueville. Previous prize winners include Raymond Aron (1979); David Riesman (1980); Sir Karl Popper (1984); Octavo Paz (1989); Francois Furet (1991); and Daniel Bell (1999).
I feel truly honored to be here in Normandy to receive the prize named after the pioneering thinker from this beautiful region of France. Alexis de Tocqueville understood earlier and interpreted better than anyone the uniqueness of the American experiment – in its social, political and cultural dimensions. In 1831, his voyage to America was to a captivating but remote world – an undertaking more risky and less predictable than today’s explorations of outer-space – and his judgments are to this day remarkably prescient and incisive. To understand America, one still has to read and absorb de Tocqueville.
I am also deeply gratified by the presence here of President Giscard d’Estaing, who nominated me for the de Tocqueville Prize. President Giscard is a remarkable leader with a long-range vision for Europe no less ambitious in its scope than de Tocqueville’s evocative predictions for America. Europe today badly needs a compelling concept for tomorrow if it is to avoid a dangerous repetition of its recent past. Mr. President, I admire you especially for daring to provide it.
Finally, as an American of Polish origin, I have a special fondness for France – and especially for its enduring romance with historical grandeur, for its transcending political ideas, and for its alluring appreciation of the manifold dimensions of the truly good life.
I was struck on rereading recently de Tocqueville’s work how well he understood – 175 years ago – the essence and the distinctiveness of America’s
emerging power, both as a novel social experiment and as a sovereign state. And also, alas, how well he anticipated the potential vulnerabilities of that historically unique country, which was taking shape as de Tocqueville journeyed throughout America’s vast and open spaces and pondered about its future.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, recently drew attention to the fact that Alexis de Tocqueville correctly perceived the major source of the peculiar genius of American society: its respect for what the French observer called “self-interest properly understood.” Stiglitz noted that everyone is motivated by self-interest in its narrow sense, but that de Tocqueville’s emphasis on self-interest “properly understood” was his recognition that early Americans uniquely also cared for everyone else’s self-interest. In other words, they instinctively understood that respect for the common welfare is in fact the precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.
The foregoing observation is especially relevant to our understanding of the challenge facing contemporary America. Though a democracy, it is becoming a country of socially ominous extremes between the few super rich and the increasingly many who are deprived. In America today the top 1% of the richest families own around 35% of the entire nation’s wealth, while the bottom 90% own around 25%. It should be a source of perhaps even greater concern that the majority of all currently serving Congressmen and Senators, and similarly most of the top officials in the executive branch, fall in the category of the very rich, the so-called top 1%.