Thursday, February 13, 2003

America’s Righteous Might – Some Strategic Advice to our French and German Friends

I realize this is a bit long, but it'll keep you busy for a few days and I won't have to post anything for a whole week. Enjoy!

If recent opinion polls are to be believed, a large majority of Germans supports its government’s anti-war stance. Similarly, a significant majority of the French population wants its government to use its veto against a further UN Security Council resolution calling for the use of force in Iraq. With all due respect to the German and French populace, I can think of few things more foolish or more contrary to the interests of these two countries. Here’s why.

Let’s start with France and the United States. Over the past eighteen months, four parallel events, two in the US and two in France, heralded important changes in both countries. As everyone knows the first American event was September 11, 2001. The result of those attacks was America’s mobilization to fight international terror part of which has been a war in Afghanistan and what appears to be an impending war in Iraq. But there was an additional effect, or perhaps better, a reawakening. The attacks in New York and Washington contributed to a flourishing of American patriotism. Sometimes it was a bit sentimental, but it was real nonetheless. In October 2001, I visited the eastern coast of the US for a three week trip that included stops in Boston, New York, Washington and North Carolina. As it was only a month after the attacks, it wasn’t surprising to see a great deal of patriotism still in the air.

However, it is worth describing this patriotism in order to get a better sense of the American character. I flew into JFK airport directly from Geneva. The first thing I did was pick up my rental car for my drive to Boston. The first things I saw when I turned onto the highway taking me from Long Island up through the Bronx were flags, flags of all sizes, on vehicles. They hung from the antennae, they were draped across the rear windows of trucks, they were pasted to bumpers and attached to semi-trailers. When I reached Boston and drove through Cambridge, a city so liberal local elections usually consist of a selection between a socialist and a communist candidate, I saw more flags, on houses and electrical posts and in store fronts. In one of the most liberal cities in America, patriotism was running strong. I witnessed the same thing throughout my journey back down to New York, then in Washington and finally in North Carolina. In fact, while in North Carolina I ended up attending a Methodist church bake sale with a friend who serves as the local minister. There I came across a woman wearing a large pendant in the shape of the twin towers. This is worth mentioning because to many elderly southern Methodists, New York City is at the heart of what corrupts America’s moral fiber. No matter, because this was still America and she had been attacked, on her own soil, by foreign elements.

Now to France. I’ve spoken of this event before, but it is one that deserves a great deal of attention. On April 21, 2002, the far-right presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, received the second largest number of votes in the first round of France’s presidential elections and advanced to the subsequent round a few weeks later. This was an incredible shock for the French, and in this regard it paralleled 9/11 in the US. On the surface, my comparison may seem suspect since no one died as a result of the election and, in the end, Jacques Chirac won a resounding victory over Le Pen in the second turn. However, there are some important similarities. Like 9/11, Le Pen’s first round success was interpreted as an attack on the very Republic of France and all it stood for. Jacques Chirac took advantage of this rhetoric, assigning himself the role of defender of the Republic. The French rallied to the cause and the Republic was saved. But was France saved?

My point is that Jacques Chirac cast himself as the defender of Republican values, but Republican values have never found an exact fit with the French nation. Indeed, these values are now often diverging from the French nation itself and seeking something of a new home, a home that could be the new Europe. In other words, the French nation is splitting from the universal values it was supposed to incarnate, a split that began more or less with the end of its empire and the colonial wars following World War II. This is the great difference between events of September 11 and those of April 21. The attack on Republican values came from inside France, from people claiming to defend the French nation, whereas the US was attacked by a foreign intruder.

The implication is that the United States retains its national integrity in the face of foreign attack, while France is losing, even actively terminating, its national existence in favor of the European Union. French patriotism is committing suicide, while American patriotism is flowering. And this brings me to the third event, still in France. This French event occurred on the occasion of the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the accord between France and Germany pledging cooperation and peace between the two great continental powers. The festivities, however, were not fundamentally a celebration of amicable relations between two independent nations. Rather, it was just the opposite. The actual course of events saw Jacques Chirac side with Gerhard Schroeder both in staunch opposition to American-led military action against Iraq, as well as in unity regarding the need for France and Germany to act as the “motor of the new Europe.”

It’s important here to note the background of this declaration. In terms of opposition to intervention in Iraq, the ball started rolling in the summer of 2002 when, during his re-election campaign, Gerhard Schroeder unequivocally declared that under his leadership Germany would not take part in any “American adventures.” Schroeder, desperate to distract voters from his poor handling of the economy, turned to an extreme pacifism combined with anti-Americanism in order to win a second term. Not surprisingly, the Americans were not impressed.

At the same time, France took a more moderate position. Jacques Chirac maintained that any action against Iraq should first be approved by the United Nations Security Council, and urged the US to follow the “multilateral” route. Working with Colin Powell, France was able to convince the Bush administration to seek a UN resolution in support of resuming weapons inspections. By cooperating with France, it was assumed that France would not block a later attempt to obtain a further resolution calling for force against Iraq if it was found that Iraq was note complying with the requirements of the inspection regime. France wisely avoided Germany’s foolish mistake.

Such wisdom was short-lived. During the celebrations for the anniversary of the Franco-German accord, Chirac suddenly veered toward Schroeder’s position - so much so that the differences between the two countries became almost imperceptible. Chirac declared that war was always the worst solution and a failure of diplomacy. The new Franco-German position, however, was not simply a one-time event. Rather, it was part of a concerted effort by France and Germany to place themselves at the head of the European Union, a European Union that would include a dual presidency more or less under the control of the new Franco-German axis.

And what is this European Union? Originally, the European Union was created as an economic association, but it had some specific goals. The first was to act as a buffer against the Soviet Union, and the second was to avoid another disastrous European war by ensuring that the most common source of such wars – France and Germany – would be bound in common interest. But now the Soviet Union is history and no one believes that France and Germany have any intention of engaging in a war. So what then is the European Union for in this day and age? The simple answer is: to counter the United States.

But this in itself shouldn’t be entirely surprising to the United States. During the Cold War, the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union came to dominate European politics along with events in much of the Third World. If any sort of military conflict broke out in Africa, Asia or Latin America it almost inevitably became a Cold War battle. In Europe, the Cold War divided the continent in half, but it also tended to reduce the Western democracies to vassals in comparison to the Americans. Certainly the US did not treat its allies in the manner of the Soviet Union and its satellites. At the same time, the intractable nature of the Cold War and its immediate presence for Europeans tended to produce a level of resentment and feeling of occupation by American forces. This, combined with the dismantling of British, Belgian, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonial empires, tended to undermine the self-respect of the European nations. As such, they came to believe that the nation was a historical relic and that the future lay with the European Union. As the old political units of Europe were declining, the apolitical goal of pan-European peace and human rights was gaining steam. When the Soviet Union fell, Europe dreamed of a new world that was essentially the globalization of the apolitical values incarnated by the European Union. The problem was that the United States, probably the most successful nation in human history, continued to act like a nation. Not only this, but it was the imperial nation, one that de facto took responsibility for the peace of the world.

So, on the one hand we have a nation with predominant military power, but more importantly, a nation that retains its political force and its patriotism and its willingness to act as a sovereign nation. And, it should be noted, that in general, this particular sovereign nation has been substantially less militaristic than many of its historical cousins on the continent. On the other hand, we have a group of militarily weaker nations forfeiting their national sovereignty in the name of European values, dedicated to a relatively pacifist foreign policy that places almost exclusive emphasis on economic development over military might. That these two would come into conflict was inevitable.

This is exactly what is occurring today and Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder want to lead the charge. By announcing his solidarity with Schroeder during the Franco-German summit, Chirac was both declaring independence from the US and placing France and Germany at the head of the EU. According to the script, European leaders, acting on the public’s opposition to war, should have lined up behind the Franco-German axis to counter the US. Britain would be isolated and the US would be thwarted. It should have been an international victory for Chirac and Schroeder. Even now, Chirac seems to believe that he can use France’s veto at the UN to block the US and Britain. That Russia and China are now backing France only serves to excite Chirac’s sense for the dramatic.

But events haven’t gone exactly to plan. The first problem was that Europe did not back the French and the Germans. In fact, quite the opposite has happened. First five EU countries and three soon-to-be EU countries came out publicly in support of the US. Then the ten Vilnius countries of Eastern Europe, including Muslim Albania, declared their backing for the United States. Suddenly, France and Germany were isolated and surrounded.

And here it seems the French and Germans could use a history lesson. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Hapsburg dynasty threatened to dominate Europe. Under Charles V, the Hapsburg domains included Austria, German provinces, southern Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, along with a growing overseas Spanish empire. Had the Hapsburgs succeeded they would have been the first dynasty to unite Europe since Charlemagne. They failed because the French, using the wily tactics of the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu and raison d’etat, entered into a series of alliances with the Protestant German princes and even the Muslim Ottoman Turks to counter the mighty Hapsburgs. Richelieu was responsible for implementing a new policy based not on principle but on the immediate needs of the nation. This included rotating alliances in order to stave off Hapsburg expansion. It also served as a means to extend French borders. The problem was that once the French started using the technique to stop the Hapsburgs, the rest of Europe soon caught on and moved in turn to block the French in their attempts to dominate the continent. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a series of alliances would form in order to ensure a level of balance on the continent such that no nation, especially France, could gain the upper hand. This system tended to work until the French Revolution when the daring Napoleon decided to break out of the box and tackle all Europe. Ultimately however, a united European alliance did stop Napoleon. The peace settlements drawn up at the subsequent Congress of Vienna were designed to keep France in check, the German states divided and protect the conservative monarchies from revolutionary fervor. Ultimately the system broke down with the Crimean War and began to give way to pure power politics, a politics both more dangerous and less flexible than raison d’etat. To a large degree, miscalculations on the part of France’s Emperor, Napoleon III, allowed Prussia to unify Germany under Bismarck. Germany then surpassed France as the most powerful military machine on the continent. But even Germany was not powerful enough to hold off all Europe should it try to unite against him, and so Bismarck followed a policy of extensive overlapping treaties with his neighbors in order to ensure that Germany itself would not be attacked by an alliance attempting to surround it. Unfortunately, Bismarck’s successors in Berlin were neither as subtle nor daring as he. They failed to maintain Bismarck’s balancing act and ended up producing a rigid alliance system of two fairly equally balanced groups. As the system became less flexible, war became virtually inevitable.

The points here should be rather obvious for the French and Germans. First, the example of the Hapsburgs, and then the French themselves, show that whenever a nation or group of nations attempts to dominate Europe, the rest of Europe will band together and counter that group, often with Britain as the lynchpin. This is precisely what happened when first eight, then an additional ten nations threw their support behind the US (the Netherlands is also supporting the US though it did not sign the letter with the first group of eight). Unfortunately for France and Germany, Chirac and Schroeder don’t seem to have much knowledge of their continent’s history. In a most ridiculous show of arrogance and ignorance Chirac and Schroeder sung the praises of their nations as the leaders of Europe. It should have been evident to even the most casual observer of European politics that much of the rest of Europe would take offense at the pretension of the self-appointed potentates. While it certainly is the case that France and Germany are the most important and powerful continental nations in the EU, they are only two among a number soon to reach 25. And, as if on queue, when the Franco-German axis declared itself against the US and as the real power behind the new humanitarian Europe, the rest of Europe formed an alliance against it, with the United States taking up Britain’s old position as spoiler.

And this brings us to the second lesson France and Germany should have drawn. If only Europe were involved, it is most likely that France and Germany could easily dominate the continent. As a unified force, they can more or less overpower Britain in alliance with Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. If we were in a traditional balance of power system as prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Franco-German alliance could have won the day. But we are no longer in a simple balance of power environment. The United States now has sufficient economic and military force to overrule any European alliance, even one united with Russia and China. Taking a position in stark opposition to this particular power, especially when that power has the backing of 18 other European nations, is diplomatic suicide for nations as small as France and Germany.

As far as France is concerned, it should have held to its original moderate position which included pushing for UN resolutions. The logical road for France in international affairs is to maintain an independent foreign policy but one that does not immediately conflict with the US. This would allow the French room to operate in their own areas of influence, such as Africa (though judging by the Ivory Coast, they don’t seem too good at this either). However, since the end of World War II, France has pursued a policy that often antagonizes the US for no clear reason other than to antagonize the US. To some extent, this was workable when the US was facing off against a relatively equal military foe in the form of the communist bloc. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, such a policy becomes totally unreasonable.

Today, France’s international influence comes through two channels. The first is its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. If the French veto a second resolution against Iraq, the Americans will act without the United Nations, rendering the organization a dead duck. The fact is that without the participation of the US, the United Nations is irrelevant. The American administration has made clear that it sees the current situation as a test for the UN. If the UN fails the test, the Americans will increasingly turn away from the international body, substantially reducing its, and France’s importance in the world.

France’s second source of strength is Europe. Had France and Germany acted with more restraint and not paraded their own superiority before the rest of the EU, they would not have incited so many European countries to turn so openly to the US while simultaneously raising the ire of the rest of Europe against the would-be European motor. By taking the route it has, France has ignored history and geopolitics in order to head down a path of no return.

And then comes Germany. History should have taught Germany something as well. Specifically, Germany should have learned from Bismarck’s inept successors that whatever the German nation does, it should avoid surrounding itself with a hostile alliance of nations. Additionally, it should have learned that Germany, which is even weaker than France on the international stage, must remain an even closer ally to the US than France. Similarly, Germany’s unique source of international importance lies with Eastern Europe. Within the EU, Germany could form a natural alliance with its immediate eastern neighbors. However, that requires that Germany not treat Eastern Europe as a bevy of irrelevant little states under its mighty Prussian wing.

With all this in mind, whatever the merits of attacking Iraq, Germany and France have dangerously miscalculated if history or geopolitics is any guide. By seeking to obstruct the intentions of the US and its declared allies, they will undermine all the international organs that ensure them a presence on the world stage.

And this finally brings me to the fourth event. That is none other than the American reaction to Franco-German resistance. Over the past few days I’ve spoken with many of my American friends. Some are supporters of George Bush and some loathe him. However, I have yet to encounter an American who has a good word to say about France especially, and to some extent Germany as well. This isn’t to say all Americans feel this way, but if we look at many of the daily newspapers in the US, if we listen to the anger coming from its legislators, if we check out the internet, we find a groundswell of anger directed toward France and Germany. In many cases, the rhetoric is overheated and makes unjustifiable accusations against these two nations. And yet it demonstrates what I noted above. Regardless of their opinions about George Bush, and sometimes regardless of their opinions about a war in Iraq, Americans are demonstrating a level of patriotic disdain for their French and German opponents that shows just how determined America can be. This is the force of America’s righteous might. To many in Europe, the United States comes across as a moralizing and impulsive nation with a cowboy for a leader who knows nothing of the subtleties of foreign policy. However, I suspect that even the French and Germans were not expecting the heated response they’re now seeing from both the American public and from their once preferred dove, Colin Powell.

Reading many of the daily newspapers here in France, I’m beginning to see that France has itself been caught off-guard by the wave of anti-French sentiment coming from the US. Similarly, German papers are questioning Schroeder’s approach, even those backing his anti-war position. I think a large part of the problem has to do with the difference between the US and Europe that I mentioned above. American patriotism runs deep and when aggravated it’s equally determined. This is what Franklin Roosevelt called America’s righteous might. It is a nation that conceives of itself as a moral agent in the world. This may offend Europe, but this is merely part of its patriotic determination. And in many respects, that righteous might has served America well.

Europe, by contrast, eschews patriotism. It’s discarding its nations in an effort to construct a new Europe. The problem is that in spending its time obsessed with its project, Europe has become an insular and complacent place. It accuses the United States of seeing the world only through American lenses, and yet Europe, with France and Germany in the lead, tends to see nothing but the bland and flat land which is its humanitarian ideology. As such, Europeans are often completely unable to understand patriotism and the willingness to die for one’s country. Certainly this has a great deal to do with recent history, but isn’t there something incredibly self-absorbed about a continent that uses its own immediate history as the sole and unique guide for the rest of the world. Europeans today are decent people, but decency has no relation to virtue, nobility or honor. Europe tends to see its own failings as determinate for all other countries. Its own difficulties with religion cause it to mock America’s mixture of religion and politics. Prone to seeing a powerful nation as a threat and an oppressor, Europe refuses to believe that a powerful nation may also, in general, act with a moral intent. Convinced by its own philosophic tradition that the bourgeois world is without any redeeming values, Europe attacks the US for its consumerism, never noticing that Europe is driven by little else than materialism: hefty pensions, six-week annual vacations and 35 hour work weeks satisfy the taste of many a French and German citizen. These are decent nihilists.

Now, to be fair, I am being a bit hard on France and Germany, but I want to illustrate the point that Europe’s circumstances aren’t definitive for the rest of the world. I don’t believe that Europe necessarily needs to support the US in its actions in Iraq, and I am sympathetic to Europeans who raise serious doubts, but it seems that a continent, residing in the intoxicated bosom of perpetual peace should avoid hurling invectives at a people of nobler stock and fortitude.

Such would also be the case for those Europeans who deem themselves experts in the area of understanding the motivations of Arabs and Muslims. Once again, many in the European elite judge themselves well-placed to interpret how Iraqis, not to mention Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians, etc. will react to an invasion of Iraq. But I find this self-appointed role somewhat surprising. Europeans tend to the belief that their colonial experience, an experience most Europeans now deride, renders them better situated than Americans to assess the Middle East. Once again, I am not convinced. My experience with many Europeans suggests an increasingly detached continent. The French seem to assume that because they have a penchant for taking politics into the streets (or at least they did at one point), Arabs will do the same. Is this a superior awareness of the particular Arab psyche or is this seeing the world through European eyes?

My point here is not to belittle Europeans, nor in particular the Germans and the French. Rather, I wish to alert these nations to the possibility that they and their leaders are comporting themselves in a manner lacking in long-term historical awareness, compounded by an insular vision constructed around the European project, and heading for imminent disaster, or at least irrelevance. I repeat that I do not believe any European nation is obligated to fight with the US, but there is little to be gained from challenging it directly. It may appear I have skirted the moral question involved, along with a whole host of other strategic and public relations issues. In fact, I have not. The moral question itself is deeply tied to the very fact that France and Germany are engaged in a dangerous betrayal of their national interest. Unlike many hard-headed political thinkers in Europe, or perhaps in spite of them, I do not believe that a powerful nation, even a powerful nation pursuing its interests, is simply bad. Rather, I think there can be a great deal of good in such a spectacle. Indeed, a great deal of good, an immense deal of good in fact, has come from the European nations and their impressive civilizations. However, by pursuing their current course, France and Germany are denying this history.

To this end, I can mention one further experience I had here in Paris shortly after arriving in the autumn of 2002. It was November 11, and I decided to go take in the events in order to see how France honors its military dead. I made my way to the Champs Elysees, just down from the Arc de Triomphe. As I watched, members of the French armed forces paraded by accompanied by marching bands. Ahead of the procession was Jacques Chirac waving from the window of his limousine as he sped by. The interesting point was that, mixed in with the French men and women in the parade, were members of the armed forces from Portugal and from the United States. They were there to remind the onlookers of the close friendship between these countries and the role Americans played in two World Wars, and perhaps even the role played by France in winning America’s independence. The most striking thing, however, was not the parading soldiers and marines, but the crowd around me. To my left were Americans, to my right were Poles. The French public was not out in numbers. The only French person I spoke with that day was an elderly man selling small tricolor ribbons. Upon seeing me, he asked me where I was from. I told him Canada. He said “Merci,” shook my hand and gave me a ribbon free of charge.


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