Thursday, February 26, 2004

Kerry on the Seine

Picking up where I left off last time on the Kerry-cum-JFK portrait in the European media, I noted that if the European journalists currently enraptured by Kerry would actually consider JFK’s record, especially on international affairs, they might be shocked to learn JFK is closer to George W. in this area than the current senator from Massachusetts. There is a great deal of fantasy and wishful thinking involved in the contemporary European love affair with Camelot.

But I’d like to take a look at this from a more practical perspective. One can seriously ask the question whether or not a Kerry victory in November would be beneficial for US-European relations? It almost goes without saying that the answer would be yes. George W. Bush is not particularly popular in Europe and the vast majority of Europeans would prefer that John Kerry take over the White House. Now the reasons for this are numerous, and not all are directly related to the war in Iraq.

Many Europeans disliked Bush simply because he appeared to them as foolish and dim-witted. In large part, this is a stereotypical view in Europe, one that assumes that a guy who owns a ranch in Texas simply isn’t sophisticated enough to be American president. Of course, it also means that an Arkansas governor and a California actor are also too stupid to be president. We must remember that European opinion of Clinton and Reagan was not high either, at least initially. But doesn’t this say more about current European statesmanship than American? Whenever I pointed out to Europeans that Americans from a range of backgrounds can become president, their reaction was usually disdain. On the one hand, Europeans tend to deny that the “average Joe” can become president in the US, because everything is controlled by corporations and the rich. On the other hand, when we see an actor, or a Texas rancher or a Georgia peanut farmer or school teacher turned Congressman win the presidency, the Europeans react with an indignant and haughty disgust. The assumption is that such people lack the requisite education and experience to be president. In other words, Europeans simultaneously reproach the US for being too elitist and not elitist enough.

But what do Europeans prefer? Well, in France, the majority of politicians, including Jacques Chirac, are graduates of the ENA – the national school for bureaucrats. The equivalent in the US would be the Kennedy School at Harvard University (though Kennedy was, of course, not a bureaucrat). In any case, Europeans (especially the French) tend to take the view that the only people qualified to hold political office are those trained in the schools of bureaucratic officialdom. This goes a long way to explaining the antipathy many in the European political elite have for Silvio Berlusconi who is both rich and uneducated in the ways of bureaucratic red tape. Unfortunately, when we look at the results of this bureaucratic education, we see a France currently run by a gaggle of goons most notable for their corruption in their dedication to make Jacques Chirac the King of France.

This preference for bureaucratically approved leaders brings us to the other, rather more serious issue, of multilateralism vs. unilateralism. Increasingly, the European penchant for bureaucratic control is morphing into a penchant for judicial governance. It certainly has been the case that bureaucratic officials, whether in Britain, France or Germany, have had a large role to play in governing Europe over the last century. By comparison, bureaucrats in the US are often less powerful and enter public life less readily. But even in Europe, this bureaucratic class did have a certain level of restraint in its actions dictated by rules of comportment considered proper to a professional civil servant. Today, those bureaucratic niceties are giving way to a more judicial bureaucracy that is both aggressive and unrestrained. Europe is fast becoming obsessed with judicial activism on both a European and international scale. Perhaps the best example of this is was the hideously inept tenure of former Irish president, Mary Robinson, at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. A former constitutional lawyer, Robinson turned the Commission into a legalistic and activist center to attack what should have been political, not judicial, decisions taken by nations around the world, with Israel being the prime target. Among the European elite, this sort of judicial activism today goes by the name of multilateralism, despite the fact that there is nothing “multi” about it.

And this is where we get back to John Kerry. The perception in Europe is that Kerry will be more favorable to this “multilateral” approach. And indeed, this is probably true. But I’m not sure how far to take this assumption. In one regard, it’s not altogether clear that your average European is particularly impressed by judicial activism, or even understands it much. This may have something to do with the origins of judicial activism, which are primarily American, not European. Judicial usurpation of political powers is something Americans, with their constitutional government and separation of powers, have grown used to and have grown used to challenging. For Europeans, this is a recent development, which means that many are unaware of the dangers involved. And it has to be said that during the build-up to the recent Iraq war, most Europeans initially had doubts about the war because of more practical reasons. Most didn’t see Saddam as an immediate threat. It was the governments of a few select nations (Germany and France) and the NGOs who then added their protest about unilateralism to this initial practical concern. The multilateral mantra of the opponents to war became an end in itself, one that drove Europeans and Americans apart. In many regards, the ill will that grew up around the war was the product of cynical German and French leaders turning reasonable doubts into ideological fervor.

The result is that we now must listen to a host of European politicians calling for more “multilateralism” which of course means more control by international tribunals and unelected organizations. What is needed now, it would seem, is a reasonable and respected voice to counter this development. Unfortunately, none seem available. Whatever one’s opinion of George W. Bush, it is clear that he is not respected among Europeans. John Kerry, on the other hand, could gain the respect of Europeans, but with his track record, he probably would capitulate on the “multilateral” agenda just as many Democrats today seem to have little trouble with furthering the activism of American courts. There is no reason to believe that Kerry is the statesman the western world needs. However, it is probably also true that any US president, unless he is totally willing to sell out his country, would soon discover the limits to dealing with the NGOs and European judicial mindedness.

The break that has occurred between Western Europe, most specifically France and Germany, and the US is highly regrettable. On the other hand, from an American perspective, it may be a divorce that cannot be avoided. By reacting the way they did to American intentions to invade Iraq, Schroeder and Chirac precipitated a division in the West that they hoped to use to increase their own political leverage, and to do so, they strengthened the hand of international judicial activism to the detriment of political freedom. Undoing the damage they’ve done would be desirable, and improving US-European relations is an admirable goal. But given the current European climate and the fact that Kerry would most likely appease than climate rather than make any concerted effort to reform it, it seems that for those who prefer the memory of JFK, the clear choice for president, at least in the international affairs game, remains George W. Bush.

There is however, the question of whether or not France and Germany really hold sufficient power to make appeasing them that important – the “Old Europe vs. New Europe” debate. This is an issue I will take up next time when I look at the recent summit of the big three European nations in Berlin.

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