What Would Nixon Do? Thoughts on Salvaging the Franco-American Relationship

 In a column written for The Australian (February 21, 2003), Daniel Mahoney, assessing the latest spate in trans-Atlantic relations, observed, "Those old realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had more understanding for the positive features of F

 In a column written for The Australian (February 21, 2003), Daniel Mahoney, assessing the latest spate in trans-Atlantic relations, observed, "Those old realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had more understanding for the positive features of French prickliness and self-assertion than any other Anglo-American statesmen of their generation." 

Since one of the partners that produces In the National Interest is named in President Nixon's honor, it raises an interesting question: What would Nixon do, if faced with the unraveling of the Western alliance? 

And make no mistake, the Euro-Atlantic community is in trouble.  The signals have been accumulating for the past year.  Nearly a year ago, in the April 27, 2002 issue of Polityka, Marek Ostrowski wrote: "It is certain that the dangerous parting of ways between the United States and Europe might be stopped.   Surely there is no other way to achieve this but to show good will, try to understand the other side, and present relevant arguments when working on a joint strategy.    These signals might be too alarmist, but an alarm for a good cause is never premature." 

With all due respect to Vaclav Havel, the Western alliance cannot survive as a "community of democracies" or as some sort of vague commonwealth espousing shared values.  A viable alliance can only function as long as its members share common interests and a common outlook on security.  It is increasingly clear that France and several other "Continental" European states have a divergent view from the United States, Britain and the states of east-central Europe.   

How should realists think about bridging this gap? 

For one thing, we have separated our private opinions from public diplomacy.  Certainly many Americans have gotten a good laugh from various anti-Gallic missives.  As Mahoney notes, "It is no doubt a good deal of fun for stand-up comedians, syndicated columnists and internet bloggers to mock French cowardice and to exaggerate the extent to which anti-Americanism underscores French foreign policy."  It is not so productive, however, when the dialogue between Washington and Paris begins to be characterized by the contents of the humor pages.  Obviously, the official communications continue to be characterized by formal politeness--but the tone is increasingly being set, not by demarches and communiques, but by public commentaries (in both France and the United States) that have had the effect of confirming, rather than demolishing, the stereotypes each side holds about the other.  Bruno Tertrais, writing in last week's In the National Interest, is quite correct in urging American and French policymakers to pragmatically and rationally assess their interests.  Mahoney concurs:  "It is necessary for thoughtful people on all sides to put things in perspective before these rigid assessments become received--and destructive--truths on both sides of the Atlantic." 

Realists also make it a point not to forget the primacy of national interests in any country's decision-making.  Substitute France for Australia in Paul Kelly's forthcoming article in the Spring 2003 issue of The National Interest and France's own policies begin to make a bit more sense: "As a middle power, [France] is interested in seeing that U.S. hegemony is deployed not just on behalf of America itself but for a better global order. This is how any sensible middle power thinks. [France] wants the United States to operate as a constructive global leader  … [France] has prized the U.S. alliance with its military and security dimensions to bolster its own security and political leverage. In its multilateral commitment [France's] interests have been in the development of law, treaties, economic agreements and peacekeeping to advance the development of a rules-based international system.  … The [French] government therefore does not want an America so imprisoned by the search for consensus that it is paralyzed from taking military action. But neither does it want an America that is walking away from global institutions rather than laboring to work within them. " 

The current government in Paris does not believe that its interests--its own economic and political security, its leadership position in Europe, its relations with the Arab world--are best served by facilitating an American attack on Iraq.  In other words, President Chirac and his advisors have concluded that siding with the United States does not serve the French national interest.  So why have some neo-conservatives failed to recognize this essential principle of international affairs?  After all, Richard Perle, in these very pages, drew a real distinction between the national interests of France and the United States vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein, observing, "The French manage him by collaborating with him, by taking up his case. He can't be managed, however, with respect to the United States. And the important point is that the situation of the United States is very different from that of France or Germany or any other country."  (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue1/vol1issue1Perle.html)  Under the current conditions of embargo and inspections, Chirac is  persuaded that Hussein does not threaten France, nor is Paris convinced--despite the circumstantial evidence presented by Colin Powell at the Security Council--that Saddam Hussein has any link to extremist groups that might threaten its security.  So the end result is that the national interests of France and the United States are currently not aligned in this matter, regardless of whether President Bush is an "irresponsible cowboy" or the French truly are "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."  (And harping on these caricatures is not likely to change that fact.)