Wednesday, February 12, 2003

And After This Is All Over: the United States and France

Judging by the commentary coming from both sides of the Atlantic, it's beginning to appear as though war could break out at any moment - between France and the US. Iraq no longer seems to be much of an issue apart from that small matter of fighting a war and mopping up afterwards. This shouldn't really surprise us since the main fault line in the world today has very little to do with Muslim culture and much more to do with the contrasting views on national sovereignty held by France and many Europeans on one side, and by America on the other. Despite our tendency to reduce these views to simple slogans - all the better for chastizing the fellow in the other camp - the divergence we now see between the two great revolutionary nations is fairly complex and concerns differing historical, philosophic and political assumptions. On the other hand, both France and the US are modern, western democracies. As such, the divergence we are now witnessing, one not without precedent, demonstrates divisions within the very notion of modern democracy itself.

When the likely war in Iraq is over, and when the heated rhetoric calms down, the West should start taking a look at how these divisions are affecting international relations. This means questioning everything from the UN and NATO to the European Union and relations between Europe and the United States. To a large extent, international organizations like the UN and EU are historical dinosaurs. However, even dinosaurs would prefer to keep on living. The status quo as regards these organizations is not acceptable. I can attest to this as one who has worked for the UN and with the EU. Making changes will be difficult, especially in Europe because the continent has wedded itself to these organizations with a rather inflexible determination. Events since September 11, 2001 have resulted in the US taking the lead in questioning many of the norms of international relations. But 911 was only the catalyst that sped up a process already underway. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has relied on old patterns no longer acceptable in a different international environment. To some, this may sound like a proposal for doing away with international law. That, however, assumes that organizations such as the UN or EU currently uphold international law - a highly debatable point when we look at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the UN Security Council, the entire European Commission, etc.

Granted, there are many in the US and in Europe who are quite happy with the prevailing arrangement. But that arrangement is producing anomalies that current events are now bringing into the open. In the ongoing rift between France-Germany and the US, I tend to support the US simply because, as the most powerful nation in the world, it is pushing these issues to the fore. Europe, or at least the French and Germans, would prefer not to notice. This isn't to say that France and Germany are simply holding to the status quo themselves. They too are engaged in an effort to increase their own influence in the world, in large measure by putting all Europe under their dual thumbs.

It often is the case that the United States bears the brunt of criticism for daring to insist on changes. It is true that the US can appear brash, that it does sometimes act with little regard for its allies. On the other hand, this behavior forces old Europe, once it's gotten over its superior mocking, to begin to reflect on its own position. Today, the United States, sometimes recklessly but often responsibly, is the one nation that takes the lead, dragging old Europe along behind. There are those in France who are raising questions regarding how France has behaved in the current trans-Atlantic tiff. This isn't to say they are simply taking the side of the US, something France isn't necessarily required to do in any case. But they are attempting to moderate the French penchant for obfuscation while also providing some constructive criticism to the US. If one wants to find these people, you can often read them in the French daily, le Figaro. Today's edition includes a piece from French professor Philippe Raynaud who has a balanced appreciation for both the American and French positions, but takes both to task - France for pursuing a less than responsible foreign and defense posture, and America for, to use a phrase from pop-psychology, enabling this weakness even after the end of the Cold War.

The current break between France and the US demonstrates that many of the old ways are no longer appropriate, they are even dangerous. It is to America's credit that its actions are forcing a reconsideration. When all the yelling and name-calling is finished (and don't get me wrong, I enjoy it as much as the next guy), it wouldn't hurt to think about changing some of these old and generally malfunctioning bodies - or just getting rid of them altogether. It would be unfortunate if countries like France and Germany refuse, but if so they may find that events just leave them behind.

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