Thursday, December 16, 2004

Who Is Really Lacking in Lucidité When It Comes to Dealing with Uncle Sam?

In their late eighteenth-century revolution (they have had several since), the French missed a trick when they chose to pursue the visionary theories of Rousseau, instead of following the more liberal advice of Montesquieu, the slightly older and infinitely saner political philosopher. Montesquieu was far less influential in his own country than in America, whose own revolution was guided in part by his books.
writes John Zvesper in Liberty in London
Montesquieu admired the English polity of his day (the first half of the eighteenth century). He saw in it a modern republic hidden beneath the trappings of monarchy. England displayed not only such useful constitutional devices as the separation of powers, but also the liberal democratic moral strategy of supplanting the more martial virtues and activities of ancient republics with tolerance, humanity and commerce.

… For more than a hundred years, and more intensively since the Second World War, one thing that has often inhibited or distorted French thinking about the interests of France is French obsessions with (not to say deep knowledge about) the United States: usually anti-American, sometimes pro-American, obsessions either way. These obsessions currently affect not just the Franco-American disputes about terrorism and war, but also the relations between America and Europe more generally, as well as relations among France and other European states.

… In Paris, Chirac had noted that Blair had failed to get, in return for Britain’s contribution to the Coalition in Iraq, any American commitment to push Israel towards making some concession to the Palestinian Authority. This was a variation of the standard French theme that Britain is weak and undignified in its relationship with the United States. As Charles de Gaulle used to put it, Britain is America’s "able junior partner."

This French view (which quite a few British critics of Blair share) has an insulting clarity, but it is based on the error (very common — my sons sometimes point it out) of assuming that juniority, whether of age or of strength, is incompatible with prudence, maturity, or dignity. Perhaps this error is built into French, a very conservative language that betrays suspicion of youths. …

Blair, for his part in this not altogether cordial exchange with Chirac, made his annual address at Mansion House into a very diplomatic but nonetheless comprehensive critique of Chirac’s view (which many British but more French citizens share) that Europe must build a more distant, less British-style relationship with the United States. Blair’s speech has been very badly reported by a press that is evidently still out to get G. W. Bush. Headlines have commonly agreed with the Associated Press spin: "Blair Urges U.S. to ’Reach Out’ to Allies." No one who has listened to or read the speech could recognize it under that rubric. Blair’s primary audience was not Americans, but the British and other Europeans, and his message was that Europeans should reach out, to each other but mainly to the United States. His address — one of the best political speeches of 2004 — is a concise, spirited and reasoned case for "a strong bond" between Europe and America.

… there is a more serious defect in the French picture of relations between Britain and the United States: it entirely omits the rational and political basis of these relations. This is the crucial point that Blair made in his address.

Chirac insists that the European-American relationship, being less sentimental than the British-American "family" relationship, requires each side "to be aware of the respect that it owes to the other." Blair accepts that such political relations among states are, as Chirac rightly demands, relations in some sense among equals — not as among equal common citizens, but as among equally sovereign states — in other (Thomas Jefferson’s) words, among "powers of the earth" with "separate and equal station[s]." Thus, Blair asserts that "neither Europe nor the US should be arrogant about the other" (subtext: France, too, is sometimes arrogant). But he sees that the British-American relation is already essentially a relation of equals, and that every other sovereign country (including France) has (or could have) such a relation with the United States.

… In agreement with Chirac’s view, Blair emphasized that the relevant basis for these relations is "hard-headed interest" rather than sentiment. But he argued that such practical considerations will lead Europeans to be "enthusiastic for the transatlantic alliance." Not some atavistic "familial" solidarity, nor some dark compulsion to be "America’s poodle," but "the good old British characteristics of common sense" show that Europeans should ally themselves closely with the world’s "one superpower," given that, in spite of many important differences, "their way of life and ours is lit by the same light of freedom, the same love of democracy, the same fellowship of reason." This argument can be rationally disputed, by France or anyone else, but only if it is treated as an argument, not as a sentiment or an unavoidable and indisputable "familial" duty.

Paradoxically, then, it is the French, not the British — nor any other European country — who bring too much sentimental baggage into their relations with America. … It is the French who let their sentiments of envy or resentment of the United States interfere with a clear-headed calculation of their interests. …

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