How Europe Sees Us
The old world confronts the new.
Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By FRED SIEGEL
Our Oldest Enemy
Rising from the Muck
LES FOLIES BERG RE STILL OCCUPIES a prominent place in American memories of France, but Paris in the summertime actually hosts as many conferences on the crisis of French national identity than it does striptease shows. A French philosophy professor named Chantal Delsol was widely quoted when she recently asked: "How is it that such a brilliant nation has become such a mediocre power, so out of breath, so indebted, so closed in its own prejudices?"
Delsol went on, "To be French today is to mourn for what we no longer are." A pervasive sense of decline in the face of globalization is at the heart of the growing virulence of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in both France and Germany. But the sources of that decline are largely papered over in what is being touted as a major new book on European-American relations.
Timothy Garton Ash's Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West, by the author of a number of outstanding works on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, is bound to be widely noted in policy circles. Garton Ash, by all accounts an admirable man of impeccably liberal values, bridges the transatlantic divide by splitting his time between Oxford and the Hoover Institution. He is widely respected on both sides of the Atlantic: The American edition of the book boasts blurbs by Madeleine Albright and George Shultz, while the cover of the slightly earlier British version boasted praise from no less than Vaclav Havel.
But despite the praise and promise, Free World has the depth and verve of a 286-page New York Times editorial. The book's theme can be summarized when the author asks why, after all, can't Europe and America be "more sensible"? Garton Ash rightly wants us to come and reason together, but he never quite demonstrates that an absence of reasonableness is the source of European-American animosities in the first place. Who doesn't want a calmer, more measured tone among nations? But Garton Ash systematically skirts questions of interest, power, and resentment.
He does his case no good when he obscures the underlying tensions. Free World cites, as an example of the good will that has been lost, the oft-quoted editorial written by Jean Colombani for Le Monde in the wake of the attacks of September 11: "We Are All Americans Now." But Garton Ash seems never to have actually read it--or he would know that by its fifth paragraph the editorial had descended into the claim that America essentially deserved what it got for backing the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Colombani ends by suggesting that it was Americans "who gave birth to this devil" of bin Laden in the first place.
AS A CONTRAST to Garton Ash's gauzy approach, one might pick up Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, in which John Miller and Mark Molesky take a hard-edged view of French and American relations.
Franco-American ties are traditionally described as a friendship between two liberty-loving sister republics. The high points of this narrative are George Washington's close relationship with the young Marquis de Lafayette, who fought with Americans against the British, and the French gift from Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi of the Statue of Liberty. Bartholdi had been inspired by Edouard-René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, an ardent admirer of Abraham Lincoln--even as the French government and French public opinion had supported the Confederacy.
Both Lafayette and Laboulaye were liberals, a rare breed in France, where glory in the name of greatness has been far more important than the love of liberty. And Miller and Molesky construct a very different narrative that begins well before the American Revolution, with the French and Indian wars. They show that in a foreshadowing of Franco-Arab hostility to the United States, America's identity was forged in part by the war the colonists fought against the French and their Indian allies along the Western frontier. With the French using their Indian partners as "a tool of terror," Ben Franklin warned that unless the colonists unified, the French will "presume that they may with impunity, . . . kill seize and imprison our traders, . . . murder and scalp our farmers, with their wives and children."
In a stormy tactical alliance, the French monarchy aided the American revolutionaries fighting for their independence against the British. But even as they worked with the Americans, the French tried to confine them to the land between the Atlantic and the Appalachians for fear that the United States might become a mighty rival. After Yorktown, the tensions between America and France meant, in the words of James McHenry, an aide to Washington, that the alliance was "terminated without leaving behind it any political principle or true permanent connection."
By 1798 Napoleonic France and the fledgling United States were embroiled in an undeclared naval war that lasted until 1800. Long before the U.N. Oil for Food scandal enabled Saddam to buy French officials, Napoleon's foreign minister, the oleaginous Talleyrand, was demanding a "douceur"--a sweetener, a bribe--from the Americans trying to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Talleyrand's shakedown, known as the XYZ Affair, led to widespread anti-French sentiment and the slogan: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."
France and the United States would continue to joust over French attempts to reestablish a foothold in North America. In the 1850s, Louis Napoleon, alarmed by the growth of American strength, looked to Mexico to create what a Parisian journalist described as "a counterweight to the Republic of the United States." A supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War, Louis Napoleon installed a puppet Hapsburg, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, as emperor of Mexico. France and the United States came to the brink of war; but Maximilian was brought down by Mexicans themselves, unwilling to be ruled by a European fop.
ALL OF THIS HISTORY is fascinating, but by the time Our Oldest Enemy gets to the twentieth century, Miller and Molesky's jaundiced view of the French gets the best of them--as, for instance, when they argue that France and its leader during World War I, Clemenceau, bear the bulk of responsibility for World War II.
Still, Our Oldest Enemy is right that things are pretty bad today. The book's closing sections anticipate the Duelfer report. Charles Duelfer, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, found that tight Franco-Iraqi ties greased by the U.N.'s Oil for Bribery Program made war more likely because Saddam thought correctly that the French would do everything they could to undermine the United States. The French prime minister, responding recently to a question about French citizens taken hostage, noted that the "Iraqi insurgents are our best allies."
IT IS, in fact, France's lack of a liberal tradition that perpetually pits it against the United States. In another recent volume, Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality, the German economic journalist Olaf Gersemann notes that "the French, Germans, and Italians got rich during times in which technological progress was relatively slow and the pressure to adjust quickly was relatively low"--while, in other words, "global competition was relatively weak." But, as in the Arab world, the economic reforms needed to respond to globalization are demonized in France as "Americanization." Despite (or perhaps because of) widespread early retirement, the thirty-five-hour work week, and a wellspring of government subsidized jobs, France's inability to reform has translated into ongoing unemployment rates of nearly 10 percent. A quarter of French youth are unemployed while roughly 40 percent of immigrant families are jobless. Yet over the last twenty years every attempt by French governments of both the left and the right to reform the system of unaffordable social benefits and rigid work rules has been met with massive street demonstrations and, in the end, defeat.
Sclerotic, unable to reform internally, a French society in decline is held together by the glue of anti-Americanism. Two additional factors add to the intensity of recent French anti-Americanism. The first is the conscious attempt, first laid out in 1945 by Alexandre Kojève, one of the intellectual architects of the European Union, to use the Arab world to create a Eurabian "counterweight" to the United States. The second is that during the run-up to the Iraq war, France and its partner Germany, in what Garton Ash describes as Euro-Gaullism, tried to use anti-Americanism as a means of maintaining rule over a European Union expanding into Eastern Europe. France and Germany needed to control the governance of a guaranteed European market because of their declining ability to compete globally. They failed.
In Free World, Garton Ash devotes his closing chapters to ideas for how the United States and Europe can heal the world's social wounds. He dismisses American worries about European anti-Semitism as overheated. After all, he notes, in another piece of intellectual slovenliness, both Israelis and Palestinians kill civilians. But Europe, with its rising Muslim underclass and virulent anti-Semitism, needs to worry about healing itself.
As Barry Rubin has noted, when it comes to Judeophobia, "rather than easing the Middle East's madness," Europe has caught the disease itself. In Rising from the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe, philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, a non-Jew, has written a powerful account of how European Islamophilia has generated a riptide of hatred not only on Europe's Arab streets but among left-wing and Euro-Gaullist politicians. With bin Laden being hailed as "the Che Guevara of Islam," the French guilt and humiliation left over from World War II has melded imperceptibly with the Islamist attempt to paint Jews as the true Nazis. As in America during the 1960s, there has been a "heroic aestheticization" of an underclass, which coincides in this case with the attempt by the French to align themselves with third-world thugs, from Rwanda to Sudan to Vietnam, in order to increase their international leverage. But France, argues Taguieff, is playing a fool's game. He quotes a French Islamist leader: "France has more Muslims than most countries in the Arabian Peninsula, Libya, or Lebanon, . . . and [still] you don't think it's part of dar al-Islam."
The problems Garton Ash ignores aren't confined to France. They occur right under his nose in the pages of the London Guardian, a newspaper for which he writes regularly. The Guardian repeatedly strays across the thin line separating its love affair with Palestinian rage from anti-Semitism.
The effusions of goodthink in Free World float above all the disfigurement of Europe's decline, and the book's reasonableness is at odds with the realities. Reasonable fellow that he is, Garton Ash can't take either French or Islamic revanchism seriously. That's why Free World can't be taken seriously.
Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York.