I call it moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way – they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. So I was interested to see that my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point – but in Weberian terms – about Germany’s response to the euro crisis in an op-ed in the FT recently. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch – that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.
If German foreign policy tends to be narcisisstic, it seems to me that we all tend to approach certain foreign policy issues – above all the Middle East – in a narcissistic way. The Middle East tends to be what the Germans call a Projektionsfläche, or projection screen, onto which we project our own collective memories. Thus, I would argue, Germans tend to look at the Israeli-Palestinian issue through the prism of the Nazi past (e.g. comparisons between Israelis and Nazis); Britons, on the other hand, tend to look at it through the prism of our own colonial history (e.g. comparisons between Israel and apartheid in South Africa, which it seems to me are particularly prevalent in Britain). Unsurprisingly, Germans’ attitudes to the Middle East can be particularly narcissistic. For example, according to an attitude survey published last week, 57 per cent of Germans think “Israel is conducting a war of extermination [Vernichtungskrieg] against the Palestinians” – surely a classic example of what Dan Diner has called “exonerating projection”.