Wednesday, May 07, 2003

To Punish Or Not To Punish: What To Do About France?

There has been talk recently of whether the United States should punish France for its recent behavior over the war in Iraq. At one point, the idea of punishment was even mentioned by Colin Powell during an interview with Charlie Rose. Personally, I’m opposed to punishing France or any other European nation over Iraq, though this requires some qualifications.

The reasons for my position are fairly simple, the first being that the US already won the victory and continues to prove its European critics wrong at every turn. But I’ll say more about this in a moment. My second reason for opposing any form of punishment is that Europe seems to have taken care of that pretty much on its own. Over the last few weeks a number of factors have come to light that show how much trouble Europe is really in these days, though Europe’s pie-in-the-sky politicians will always refuse to admit the problems.

Where to begin? Let’s start with implementation of the Kyoto Protocols. A recent study has found that most EU nations have failed to meet the required levels for reducing green house gas emissions. This was predicted by critics who saw Europe’s much vaunted criticisms of the Americans as little more than self-righteous banter. Europe’s leaders made a great deal out of America’s refusal to accept Kyoto, but it was pretty much known all along that Europe would never meet the target reduction rates.

Then there comes a recent report on the implementation of internal EU trade standards. This too found that most of Europe’s larger nations, especially France, Italy and Germany have failed to meet EU internal trade standards.

And next we have the failures of France and Germany to get control of their budget deficits and stay in line with the 3% of GDP limit required by EU rules. Truth be told, Germany has introduced measures to get its budget back within the limits, but France has blatantly refused. The result of all this is that the continent’s two biggest economies are threatened with fines for noncompliance. It’s as though Texas and California were forced to abide by budgetary rules set by Vermont and Alaska.

On top of this is the fact that the economies of both France and Germany are tanking. Germany has been flat for some time now and France is headed down as well. And incidentally, one can always assume that whatever the predictions for growth, the reality will be worse as the European Central Bank and the EU habitually overestimate Europe’s economic growth rate.

Now, add to this is the point that many of Europe’s governments are currently attempting to reform their overburdened pension systems. Unfortunately, this has led to substantial strikes and protests in Austria, Germany and France. I suspect however, that these countries will push ahead with much needed reforms, to their credit. Still, it’s a real question as to how far they can go. Europe’s public sector has become used to over-centralized statist bureaucracy.

This brings me to defense and back to my point about America’s victory. As we’ve recently seen, the leaders of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg met to discuss forming a European defense network. The problem was that the leaders of Spain, Italy and Britain were having none of it, they opposed the summit as a cover for weakening the trans-Atlantic alliance. Still, one has to admit that recent events have shown how unwieldy the EU has become. Soon it will have 25 members with substantially divergent economic interests not to mention being all over the map in terms of defense and foreign policy views.

In this regard, one can’t really fault Chirac for wanting to build an inner core based on France and Germany, which was more or less the idea of the EU when it was first formed. But here too there are problems because Schroeder is hardly a popular leader in Germany right now, and the opposition Christian Democrats are just as opposed to the recent defense summit as were the leaders of Italy, Spain and Britain. Top this off with the fact that the military budgets of these nations are rather pathetic and that Germans have, it seems, turned into militant pacifists, and the prospects for any sort of Franco-German (plus two) defense alliance don’t look all that impressive.

But all this should lead us to a simple question, one asked by a retired French general recently: What is the point? In a rather direct but clear manner, the general wanted to know exactly what strategic purpose could be served by such an alliance and where would the resources come from. It was refreshing to see someone asking real political questions rather than stumbling along blindly as is the wont of Europe’s political class. But this question needs to be expanded to the entire European project, because no one in Europe seems to have a clue as to what Europe is for. What’s worse is that no one wants to face facts about whether such a project even makes sense anymore.

Perhaps I exaggerate though, since there have been indications as to what this Europe is going to become, many coming directly from the French President himself. Apparently, Europe is to be the Europe of human rights, the Europe of solidarity and peace, and in being these things it will be a counter-balance in the world to the bellicose and unilateralist United States. But once again we need to ask if any of this squares with the reality on the ground.

One French public intellectual who has consistently raised these questions is Alain Finkielkraut. I’ve mentioned his name before because I consider him to be one of the clearest and most insightful public intellectuals in Europe today. Evidence of his probity came again this weekend on a French radio program where Finkielkraut was hosting former Socialist Foreign Minister, Hubert Védrine, along with French international relations expert, Pierre Hassner. During the program, Védrine gave the usual leftist hyperpuissance line so common among what remains of France’s embattled socialists. Hassner was much more thoughtful and provided a moderate and intelligent assessment of current affairs, along with valid reasons for opposing the war in Iraq. But it was Finkielkraut who shined. As is his way, he went to the heart of the matter. He spoke of the empty rhetoric of multipolarity, he raised the specter of Eruopean relativism and he rightly mocked Europe’s own obsession with human rights in form though not in substance. In other words, Finkielkraut put his finger on Europe’s ideological blinders, blinders that prevent the continent from taking stock of its real options and its real responsibilities. Unfortunately, not only does Europe refuse to face reality on its own shores, but it has taken to using the United States as its foil. Today it is a common trope among Europeans to claim that the US is a fascist dictatorship, never mind the fact that fascism is a particular political movement that is both historically and socially linked to Europe, and for those reasons is virtually impossible in the United States.

Yet Europe pursues its cherished illusions, and at the heart of these illusions are precisely matters of war and peace, matters about which Europe has decided to stick its collective head in the sand. European predictions about what would happen in Afghanistan during an invasion were spectacularly wrong. They were similarly monumentally wrong about Iraq and they will be wrong about any future military action because Europe no longer thinks politically and this failure carries over into areas ranging from international law to the environment, from economics to social policies. Now, this isn’t to suggest that Europe needs to follow an American model on these issues, especially since it has been by pretending to form a United States of Europe that the continent has, in part, gotten itself into its current spiritual mess.

And what about America’s response? Well frankly it is difficult to see how America should respond. Initially I would say that perhaps American coddling and a bit of American self-interest has left Europe rather de-politicized. But I can hardly suggest that America allow Europe to attempt to stand on its own two feet, especially in terms of defense and foreign policy, if this means Europe wants to be the humanitarian counter to an imaginary bellicose America. I’m all in favor of multipolarity if the poles are responsible political actors, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the emerging Europe, and it appears that Europe is failing to act responsibly precisely because it has departed political reasons. In this regard, for the student of political philosophy, Europe presents that unique point in which humans have thrown off political constraint and are now attempting to realize a pure idea, but as with most ideas, the further it pushes its cause, the more reality escapes it.

Still, I would suggest that America not punish France or Europe for that matter since the Europeans seem to have that activity well in hand themselves. What is needed though is a reassessment of the diplomatic relationship between the US, and most notably, France. The US must take account of this Europe that dwells, shall we say, in mist as it rethinks its approach to the European project both for its own good and that of Europe. But I wouldn’t cast Europe, or even France on the scrap heap yet – reality may bring Europe, and even France, to her senses, but only if Europe bothers to ask the questions posed by an aging French general and say simply: What is the point, and specifically, What is the political point?

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