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."