October 28, 2003

Perfidious Gaul

In a New York Times op-ed last month, Thomas Friedman said openly that France is not our friend:

It's time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.

If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war), and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq), and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq's transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.

This is not a new idea, of course. It has been bandied about by conservative bloggers for months. But this is the first time I had seen such a blunt statement of it in the mainstream media. Reactions to France's recent intransigence have ranged from the absurd (renaming French fries, Freedom fries) to the poorly thought out (pouring already purchased French wine down the drain) to the highly effective (boycotting French wines and abstaining from French vacations).

But beyond these retaliatory measures and expressions of displeasure, is it time to fundamentally rethink our strategic relationship with France?

The answer, I fear, is an unequivocal yes. An examination of France's recent policy moves, beyond the limited sphere of the Iraq War (about which even reasonable people can disagree) shows just how far French values have parted ways with American ideals. In fact, a close look will show that the two have never had a special affinity, and that our historical interactions have simply revealed the ebb and flow of national interests periodically coming into alignment.

The French Tradition

Many readers will, at this point, interrupt and bring up the long history of friendship between the United States and France, starting with their support during our revolution. Indeed, we most likely owe our victory to the French aid, but the idea that it is based on any sort of inherent friendship between the nations is off base.

France is the birthplace of raison d'etat, which claims that nation-states, as finite and temporary creations of man, are not bound by the same moral restraints that govern the immortal souls of man. With this logic, Cardinal Richelieu justified Louis XIV's alliance with the German princes against the Holy Roman Emperor — the first time any major Catholic country had aligned itself with Protestants. The doctrine was expanded to condone the scorched earth policy of the cordon sanitaire around France, which helped fuel French expansionism of the period.

By the time of the American revolution, raison d'etat was firmly entrenched as the foundation of French diplomacy. French support of the Colonies, far from based on any identification with the ideals of the revolution, was simply another step in France's recurring conflict with England, another try at the French and Indian War.

This fact is born out by the oft-forgotten fact that the first war ever fought by the new United States was against the French — the so-called Quasi War of 1791-1800, a dispute about tonnage charges on French vessels that led to attacks on American merchant ships.

Any further affinity with French ideals is surely mitigated by the fact that two empires and no less than five republics have held court in France since their support of our revolutionary beginnings.

All of this is not to say that France is alone in its use of raison d'etat. States do tend to look after their own national interests after all. From Bismark, to Disraeli, to Stalin, to De Gaulle, to Kissinger, most modern states have had their practitioners of realpolitik. So given that states can be expected to act self-interestedly, it's worth looking at the diplomatic and political traditions of the state to judge the likelihood of our interests ever being aligned.

Despite the gift of the Statue of Liberty, French traditions have never been in strong agreement with American ones. Replete with as much exceptionalism as American foreign policy, French diplomacy has never been counter-balanced by the strong currents of isolationism and Wilsonian idealism that must be reckoned with in the US.

Today, the dominant foreign policy traditions in France revolve around neo-colonialism, mono-culturalism, and Continental rationalist liberalism, all of which are at odds with American ideals.

So, through this lens, let's examine recent French actions to determine how aligned our values (and not just our temporary interests) are.

The French Record

Everyone should be aware of the familiar litany of charges of French obstructionism during the build up to the Iraq war: Chirac's threat to veto any US resolution authorizing force; France's veto of NATO defensive planning for Turkey (forcing the US to take the matter up at the Defense Planning Committee, of which France is not a part, in order to get unanimous consent for the planning from the other 18 members); the extensive lobbying of the three African nations on the Security Council to vote against the US resolution; the use of Turkey's imminent bid for EU membership as leverage for getting them to deny the use of their territory for US troops; the attack on "New Europe" where Chirac told the 13 nations that signed the letter supporting the United States that they missed a good oportunity to "shut up"; etc. Since the fall of Saddam, they have continued their opposition to the US occupation and insisted on a (too) hasty transition to Iraqi control.

Together these show, as Friedman argued, more than an alternative approach to Iraq, more than a difference of opinion — they show an active desire to thwart the current US policy, and a willingness to spend real diplomatic capital to achieve that goal.

But even if you opposed the war in Iraq, and believe the French acted in a principled fashion in their opposition, the record of French perfidy goes back much farther, and it is marked by a complete absence of principles. I submit:

  • NATO & Force de Frappe — Since the Suez Crisis, the French, angered at the lack of US support for Anglo-French interests, led by Charles de Gaulle, have insisted upon having their own independent nuclear strike force. They went so far as to withdraw from NATO. Showing again their fair-weather multilateralism, they bucked world opinion in 1995 and 1996 when they performed above ground nuclear tests in the South Pacific. It is widely believed that, despite the environmental consequences, the tests were unnecessary except as a show of force.
  • Bosnia & Kosovo — Siding with its historical ally, the Serbs, France refused to support NATO action in Bosnia without a UN resolution authorizing force, despite evidence of ongoing ethnic cleansing. Chirac allegedly brokered a deal with Milosevic to hold off NATO bombing of Serb forces approaching Srebrenica in exchange for the Serbs returning captured UN peacekeepers. Free to act, the Serbs killed all 7,000 male Muslims in the town and expelled the women. After the war, France was also unhelpful in prosecuting war criminals, refusing to allow the French commander of UNPROFOR forces, Gen. Janvier, to testify in public at the Hague and allegedly striking deals with Ratko Mladic and blocking British and NATO attempts to capture Radovan Karadzic.
  • Mugabe & Zimbabwe — Despite his racist and catastrophic policy towards white farmers and his brutal suppression of dissidents and the media, Chirac continued to coddle Robert Mugabe, inviting him to a meeting of African Heads of State and meeting with him personally. All this in spite of the EU's travel ban and sanctions. This is all part of an effort to expand French influence in Anglophone Africa, fortifying France's perceived "special relationship" with the continent (see below).
  • Rwanda — In the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, France armed and trained the (Francophone) Hutu paramilitary groups, supporting them against the (Anglophone) Tutsi minority. In their Operation Turquoise, they allegedly protected and armed the fleeing Hutus, slowing the advance of Tutsi rebels, presumably out of fear of losing influence to the English-speaking Tutsis from Uganda. The genocide of 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus resulted. After a Tutsi revolt successfully overthrew the Hutu extremists, France allegedly helped evacuate Hutu leaders suspected of genocide. While they initially denied their involvement during the genocide, it later surfaced that France was a "co-belligerent" with the Hutus. (Full disclosure: the US is certainly not blameless here as the Clinton administration, potentially still gunshy after Somalia, teamed with the British to beat back a UN resolution to intervene early in the process — but the French efforts go beyond indifference).
  • Neocolonialism — Long after WWII, France continued to exert control over its African colonies through the Communaute and then the Ministry of Co-operation and the Franc Zone. It fostered economic dependence in its former colonies. It also was involved in military actions to prop up governments in Cameroon, Mauritania, Gabon, Congo, Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic. There is evidence much of this post-colonial intervention was driven by the desire to maintain the balance of Francophone and Anglophone spheres, to support governments that promoted France's economic interests, and to succeed in attempts to get uranium for France's nascent nuclear program. Even after their involvement in Rwanda in 1994, and their subsequent "hands-off" policy, France has not been able to stay out of Côte d'Ivoire (despite not having a mandate from the UN or EU).

    Of course, having mostly lost the language and currency wars on its own, France has now shifted to a new and ultra-modern form of colonialism — a colonialism masquerading as internationalism. This new colonialism transforms UN mandates into massive and corrupt aid programs (like the late Iraqi Oil for Food program) administered by (and with proceeds going to) Eurocrats. With the nod of the "international community", failed states are turned into dependent states — dependent on peacekeeping troops for security, foreign aid and NGO hand-outs for subsistence, and the often illiberal whim of the UN for legitimacy. Instead of fostering local institutions to enforce the rule of law, property rights and contracts, administrators are installed who play favorites. Instead of opening barriers to trade, addictive aid grants are given and loans made. Instead of encouraging liberal, federal republics (complete with the attendent loss of control) local strong-men are supported and coddled. Instead of promoting internal security forces, the peace is "kept" just enough to make arms trafficking attractive again (See the recent news about Pierre Falcone "unfortunately" being named Angolan ambassador to UNESCO in order to give him diplomatic immunity to charges of trafficking 350 million of Russian arms in 1993-4.) Also, the TotalFinaElf scandal shows the depths of the ties between French industry and its colonial policies.

  • Israel & Palestine — France consitently takes a soft-line with Palestinian terrorist groups, and continues to deny that Hamas is a terrorist organization. This is part of the larger French mission of assuaging the Arab street to achieve the position of special liaison between the West and Islam. It also plays well with their disillusioned Algerian youth and feeds the already strong currents of anti-semitism at home. There has been much discussion of their tepid responses to the recent anti-semitic hate crimes which have taken place in France since the latest intifada. A clear example of this tactic could also be seen after Mahathir Mohammad's recent speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which claimed that Jews ruled the world and implied they got others to fight and die for them) where France joined Greece in blocking an EU condemnation of the speech.

  • Farm Export Subsidies — France spear-heads the EU's recalcitrance on agricultural subsidies. While the US and Japan are no saints in this area, the EU insists that the farm support be export subsidies, some of the most trade-distorting and damaging to developing countries. In addition to supporting France's rich farmers, this helps keep the developing countries dependent on the international aid and is part of France's larger neocolonial strategy.

The French Strategy

France continues to practice raison d'etat and have co-opted the principled stances of the peace movement to push their current agenda. That agenda is three-pronged:

First, to continue to expand it's neo-colonialist efforts through the UN and international community;

Second, to create a counter-balance (led by France) to perceived American hegemony through the replacement of NATO with a European defense force and of the dollar with the Euro; and

Third, to act as a bridge between the Muslim world and the "West" by consistently opposing Israeli and American policy.

However, to anyone with a grasp of economic, demographic, and geopolitical reality, unless they manage to fully hijack the international organizations, their ambitions far exceed their abilities. Their current position on the world stage does not reflect their importance, but simply rewards their once-greatness. Their permanent seat on the UN Security Council is ludicrous by any metric that denies India, Brazil, and Germany a spot. The mini-revolt of "New Europe" made them realize that even their de facto leadership role in the EU is in jeopardy. Their military lacks the basic logistical support to fly itself anywhere, taking months to assemble the single division that fought in Gulf War I. Their economy is in shambles, hampered by short work weeks and incessant strikes. Demographically, they face twin time-bombs of old pensioners and disenfranchised Muslim immigrants (mostly from former-colony Algeria). In fact, the latter shows the unlikelihood of them playing the role of a successful bridge to the Arab world.

However, the eventual failure of their strategy, no matter how assured, should not cause much comfort, as there is plenty of room in the mean time for them to cause trouble and, as in the case with the Iraq war, thwart American policy.

So what should we do about it? This is a difficult question, and since this post is getting fairly long, I will defer my thoughts on what America's response should be to a future post, but it is clear that we are well past thinking of them as an "annoying ally".

Posted by richard at October 28, 2003 11:54 PM

How were the french wine and vacations boycotts successful? we didn't go on one?

Posted by: Julia Ott at October 30, 2003 11:32 AM

My summation of the indictment of France: France tends to act in its own interests — even when pursuit of its own interests cause broader detriment to the international community.

Well, whoop-de-do. How does that make France any different than America? Can we really regard France as less than an ally because it has been known to [ahem] prop up foreign dictatorships? And let's put aside France's position on Hamas for a minute: has America's unflaggingly pro-Israeli "mediation" of the Palestine/Israel crisis advanced the ball any? It seems your concerns are not that France is any worse an actor on the international stage than we are: the real sore point is that it thinks for itself.

Whoa whoa whoa, Phutatorius. That sounded un-American. Let's start all over again with first premises:

(1) America does what's good for America, and screw everybody else.
(2) France does what's best for France, and screw everybody else.

For the most part, I would argue, French and American interests coincide. Friction arises, of course, when these interests deviate, and then we Americans write lengthy screeds about What Is Wrong with the French and What to Do About Them.

Think about it: would this post even be on the board if the French supported the use of force in Iraq? Would we be reviewing the French record for African abuses is there were no such occasion for it? This is the stuff of J. Edgar Hoover: "I don't like that man. Have him investigated." The record is appalling — fine. But the U.S. has had its moments and is arguably continuing to have them even as I write.

A nice step toward transcending the Freedom Fries pettiness would be for each country to step out of its self-absorption and recognize that it is wholly appropriate for the other to push its own agenda. Until this happens, the agendas will continue to fold in on themselves, leaving the French to define their national identity against the Americans, and the Americans to plumb greater depths of middle-finger unilateralism.

That is, one country's warped view of the other affects its perception of its national interest in a way that condemns it to oppose the other. Both of these countries need to get over themselves and one another. The common values are most important: human rights, world peace and security, stability and growth. A truly cooperative pursuit of common interests will dissipate the distrust and alarmingly pervasive perception these days that the world will be better for France if the U.S. gets its ass handed to it, and vice versa.

In short, can't we agree to disagree now and then? It's not like Iraq was, is, or will historically be recognized to be a slam-dunk question. Months ago, I was on the anti-France bandwagon. There's a lot of material to cover there, I grant you. But I'm troubled now by the way this Administration has turned on France, because it mirrors its contemptuous, intolerant attitude toward domestic voices of dissent.

Posted by: phutatorius at October 30, 2003 04:07 PM

Of course France is looking our for French interests. Of course the US is looking our for US interests — I never claimed otherwise.

But, that's exactly why we need to constantly examine whether our interests are aligned and whether they will continue to be aligned in the future. The trend, I fear, is towards continued and escalating conflict.

I was arguing that France has chartered a path, one which the French believe furthers their interest, but which I believe puts them in conflict with us for the foreseeable future. A path whose main goal is to take us down a notch and promote technocratic institutions that work against liberal values.

A path that will hurt our economic, military, political, and strategic interests as well as violate our principles.

A path that will continue the oppression of the developing world with a web of bureaucratic organizations, international regulations, aid agencies, peacekeeping forces, and trade barriers.

A path that I think we'll have to oppose, now or further down the road.

Our alliance with France was always strongest when we had a shared enemy: England, Spain, the Huns, the Nazis, the Soviets. I think they now believe that they are safe and have no common enemy with us. They believe they are beyond enemies, and that kind of thinking in this day and age will bring ruin on all of us.

They've bought into the zero sum game — the only road to French power is to take some from the US.

So, yes, let's criticize the US when we choose poorly (I listed a few things above), but when it's obvious that someone is working against us (and not just for themselves), let's push back too.

Posted by: richard at October 30, 2003 05:58 PM