The Magazine

FRENCH RESISTANCE

Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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PERHAPS THE ONLY HAPPY SURPRISE so far in the NATO campaign against Serbia is that our major allies, Britain, Germany, and France, have for once proved as tough as Washington. Indeed, as the bombing campaign entered its fourth week, popular support in Europe was increasing. Far from being pressured by peace movements, the "third way" politicians Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder and the cohabiting French team of Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin are all moving up in the polls.


Like many aspects of the war, the absence of popular opposition to the bombing campaign has clearly caught these governments off guard, and understandably so. Many of today's top officials in NATO countries spent significant parts of their careers opposing military campaigns led by the United States; these are people who know something about peace movements. What they seem not to have anticipated is that, now that they themselves are making policy, they are unavailable to lead an opposition against it. And of course they are fortunate in their adversary: Slobodan Milosevic is a man with whom no one on the left could even begin to identify. As for those on the moderate right, they have either encouraged firm action against the Serbs or, where they have expressed doubts, have done so generally on prudential grounds.


This benign political climate has no doubt encouraged President Clinton to believe that time is on his side. Kosovo may lie in ruins, with much of its population exiled or killed, but the war strategy appears to be safe from the only thing that could derail it: a crack in the alliance. The president has so far done a much better job in routing any likely sources of mass popular opposition than he has in waging an effective war policy against Milosevic.


Still, there are rumblings, primarily in France, of a nascent anti-war movement. A close reading of the press there reveals a curious alliance of thinkers of the right and left, which stretches far enough into the respectable center to provide eventual cover for a much larger group. Any such movement in France -- still the country on which many intellectuals focus -- is sure to echo across the rest of the continent. What unites these thinkers is not so much an old-style appeal for peace, as a polemic against America and the "Fun-Military-Industrial complex" it represents. The events in Kosovo, they say, cannot be seen in isolation from -- indeed they are closely tied to -- the great issue of our times: America's hegemony over Europe and its accompanying claim that universal norms might play an active role in the conduct of world affairs.


Opposition to NATO's policy was pronounced first by Jean-Francois Kahn, a leading intellectual of the far right. As the bombing began, Kahn wrote, "For the first time since 1945, our country finds itself engaged, where no vital interests are at stake, in a destructive conflict that has been sought and determined by the United States." The ground for this policy, Kahn went on, had been systematically prepared by the great media outlets of the West, among which CNN figures prominently. Kahn's arguments were followed up last week in a front-page article in the prestigious left-of-center daily Le Monde, where the Parisian philosopher Daniel Bensaid evoked the Cold War shibboleth of moral equivalence -- this time between an American-led NATO and Milosevic: "The barbarism of ethnic cleansing is not a barbarism of 'another age,' opposed by the unified force of the absolute good of 'civilization.' Milosevic and NATO are twin contemporary forms of modern barbarism."


The views of these intellectual outsiders have found echoes among those much closer to governing parties. Max Gallo, a leading intellectual of the left, joined with Charles Pasqua, a former Gaullist minister of the interior, to make the following appeal: "In contrast to a B-52 diplomacy, which had no better results in Vietnam than it is likely to have elsewhere, the correct path is clear: France must make her European partners understand that there can be no solution to the Balkan problem, nor to problems elsewhere in Europe, except that made by a European Europe." In other words, America out (and Russia in). Observers of France may recall that it was Gallo who took the lead earlier in this decade in trying to stop Euro Disney, which he depicted as a Trojan mouse infiltrating the citadel of European civilization and threatening to "bombard France with uprooted creations that are to culture what fast food is to gastronomy."


But pride of place for invoking hegemonic America to oppose NATO action in Kosovo goes to Washington's old nemesis, Regis Debray. For those who may have forgotten, Debray is the scion of a wealthy French family who made his early career fomenting Third World revolutions with Che Guevara. In a lengthy and "philosophical" article, again in Le Monde, Debray contended that the Kosovo crisis demonstrates just how far Europe has become America's colony. Not only militarily but in thought and culture, argues Debray, Europe has adopted the "seal of American foreign policy and made it our own: moral idealism plus technological superiority . . . the idea of right plus the machine." This combination of universalism and technology represents a "flight from political reasoning." All of Europe has been "deprogrammed" to adopt American ways of thinking. A mind has become Americanized when it simplifies everything, when "the notion of time is replaced by that of space, when historical thinking is replaced by technological calculation, and political thinking by moralistic thinking." Above all, the Americanized mind is one that cannot appreciate historical context. It finds its purest expression in a media-saturated world. "With CNN, all the planet becomes America."


Debray sums up America's relation to Serbia as follows: "a stop and go empire, arrogant and without memory, moved by a Manichaean mythology, sees itself invested with supreme power, a power of life and death, over a region that in a sick state of its own suffers like no other from an excess of memory." The Kosovo situation, for all it reveals about the crisis of Europe, represents for Debray an opportunity. A NATO failure would force Europeans to realize the extent to which they have become Americanized -- "as uncultured and shortsighted as their leader." Kosovo can become the opportunity to rescue the European mind from Americanism.


As detached as these views may seem from anything happening in the Balkans, they draw on a long tradition of European intellectual thought that has invoked the symbol of America to generate opposition to any notion of universal norms. This tradition extends as far back as the Romantic reaction against rationalism, when the German poet Heinrich Heine described America as "that pig pen of freedom / inhabited by boors living in equality." In the current phase of the struggle, the far Right champions the particularities forces of nationalism against America while the postmodern Left celebrates the free-floating idea of "differences." In both cases, the defeat of America is understood to be the real battle of our times.


This general line of argument, in less virulent form, has a wide following in European intellectual circles, and it has proven itself quite capable in other circumstances, such as during the Gulf War, of generating sentiment against any kind of military venture led by the United States. If this discourse has so far remained largely on the sidelines during NATO's bombing of Serbia, it is only because its exponents feel that it is too fine a position to be endangered by any association with the likes of Milosevic.


But the few intellectuals who have been wielding this discourse have positioned themselves adeptly. It is not their argument that Milosevic can be excused, but that the American mind is utterly too coarse to solve the problem. NATO's policy -- America's policy -- is one without subtlety and comprehension: It is clueless. These intellectuals are trying to attach their long-standing argument against "Americanism" to the possibility of a failure of the Kosovo war strategy. If people wake up at some point to see that this policy has produced no worthwhile result on the ground -- if Clinton's Kosovo policy becomes the international equivalent of his ill-fated siege in Waco -- then these thinkers hope to extract a victory for their larger argument against universal norms. Their position also offers the political bonus of a foreign scapegoat. If the policy fails, Americans will have only themselves to blame; Europeans can shift the onus onto America.


Whatever his initial motives may have been in starting the bombing in Serbia, President Clinton has come to engage not just the credibility of the United States and of NATO, but also the standing of a philosophical position about the role that universal norms may play in the conduct of world affairs. At the moment it is far from clear how all this will turn out. No one can have great confidence in an administration that has shown so little judgment; an administration that, even for the sake of a legitimate moral cause, engages in shameful manipulation by upping the ante of moral rectitude to distract attention from mistakes of prudence. It is no wonder, under the circumstances, that European intellectuals would want to hedge their bets.



CORRECTION-DATE: May 24, 1999



CORRECTION:

In my April 26 article "French Resistance," I mistakenly identified Jean-Francois Kahn as an intellectual of the far right. I should have said center or center left, and I very much regret the error.




James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and author of Reconstructing America (Yale).