De Gaulle and the Death of Europe

De Gaulle and the Death of Europe

Mini Teaser: The French understanding of the "national interest," epitomized by De Gaulle's thinking, reminds realists of the necessity of reflection on national identity.

by Author(s): Daniel J. Mahoney

The concept of "the national interest" is omnipresent in contemporary
discussions of foreign affairs--in the speeches of presidents and
senators, in the scribblings of editorialists, as well as in the
speculations of academic specialists. The influence of this idea is
one of the lasting legacies of the so-called "realist" school of
international relations, whose luminaries included the political
scientist Hans Morgenthau and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

The American proponents of realism were publicists as well as
scholars, and they engaged in a polemic against the notion that U.S.
foreign policy ought to engage in crusades on behalf of such
allegedly abstract causes as democracy, human rights, and
anti-communism. Its proponents were "Burkeans" who tried,
paradoxically enough, to wish away the reality of Jacobinism and its
ideological pedigree. As Raymond Aron suggested, the American
realists transformed historically specific periods in European
statecraft when a "moderate Machiavellianism" had prevailed--the
period between the wars of religion and the French Revolution, and
again the century between the Congress of Vienna and the First World
War--into a normative account of the permanently valid requirements
of statecraft. Theirs was a conservative, nostalgic, and even
reactionary lament against the unleashing of societal passions in an
age of ideology and mass democracy.

What gave realism much of its allure was its claim to the authority
then accorded social science. Some historically-minded realists such
as Henry Kissinger occasionally concede the historically specific
character of their realist prescriptions, but most lament the
stubborn persistence of American "exceptionalism." This is somehow
taken as evidence of the immaturity of the American people and of the
utopian imagination of the American political class. Most realists
fail fully to appreciate that American exceptionalism is another name
for the universalism that is inseparable from American statecraft
because it is integral to America's founding principles, and
therefore to its very self-definition as a nation.

This is not the occasion to examine the nature of American
exceptionalism or its role in the articulation of a distinctively
American foreign policy. But it is useful to contrast the
universalism of America's principles with the European state that
best embodies universalist claims or pretensions: France,
simultaneously the "eldest daughter of the Church" and the originator
of what Burke called the "catechism of the rights of man."

The realists are undoubtedly right that American exceptionalism leads
some Americans to reject the ways of the world. In their view, the
United States is too good to muddy itself in the rough and tumble of
international political life. In contrast, French universalism does
not preclude the French from pursuing their interests, and they are
unapologetic about the "Machiavellian" requirements of statecraft.
(Witness, as one striking example, the cool response of French public
opinion to the complicity of their intelligence services, and almost
certainly of President François Mitterrand himself, in the bombing of
Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbor in 1985.) And
many on both the Left and Right, socialists and Gaullists alike,
continue to believe that France has a distinctive "mission" to
perform on behalf of liberty, even if France's relative rank in the
world has declined in this century. In this sense, the French remain
historically and politically-minded in a Europe that is increasingly
depoliticized. (Whether this is just a fading ember from the fire lit
by General Charles de Gaulle two generations ago is an interesting

This French sensibility, simultaneously universalist and
Machiavellian, is distinct from the idea of realism shaped and
codified by American academic specialists. American realists despise
all ideological pretensions--"power politics", and not the
cultivation of glory or the defense or promotion of national ideals,
are at the center of their political universe. They ignore the
manifold and contentious ends of foreign affairs and reduce thinking
about the national interest to a question of means: their realistic
statesmen are concerned with the calculation of forces and the
shifting requirements of the balance of power. American neo-realists,
such as Kenneth Waltz, have scientized this already sharply reductive
focus: their world is stripped of nations as well as ideologies,
history as well as popular passions. International relations instead
becomes a chess-like game that is played in almost complete
independence from the messy contingencies of domestic politics. Such
theories dominate the teaching of international relations in the
United States, where, in contrast and as Tocqueville tells us, public
opinion is the sovereign and uncontested ruler of public life and,
willy-nilly, of foreign policy itself.

Not so in France. French thinking about foreign policy and the
French understanding of the "national interest" have not been reduced
to such desiccated formulae. Perhaps the best way to show this,
avoiding the overly summary and abstract, is to highlight the thought
of Charles de Gaulle, the French statesman and political thinker who
has most deeply reflected on the meaning of France and its role in
the modern world. De Gaulle, with his penetrating recognition of the
persistence of national identity, reminds American realists of the
necessity and even the nobility of reflection on the independence,
rank, and grandeur of political communities. In addition to de
Gaulle, a range of important French thinkers from Tocqueville to Aron
have shared questions with de Gaulle but have not always provided the
same answers. These men have much to suggest about the prospects for
self-government and national sovereignty, presupposed and championed
by de Gaulle, in a Europe increasingly committed to a supra-national
project of civil and commercial association that is lacking in
authoritative political direction.

The Politics of Grandeur

If Americans think at all about France today, they do so through the
lens of an unexamined prejudice. It is widely held that, of all
European states, France has least resigned itself to its diminished
place in the world, that France alone maintains a somewhat ridiculous
and certainly irrational concern for its rank, even after ceasing to
be a world power of any consequence. We Americans cannot resist being
a bit condescending toward France and its greatest statesman, de
Gaulle. While admired, he is often dismissed as the noble if
irrelevant architect of France's anachronistic and annoying
posturings. Putting all prejudices aside, let us try to articulate
the politics of grandeur, as de Gaulle himself understood it. De
Gaulle is commonly perceived as both a Machiavellian realist and a
starry-eyed romantic. Perhaps this common opinion, in its confusion,
provides the best starting point for a presentation of the Gaullist
politics of grandeur.

De Gaulle undoubtedly shared certain first principles with the
realist school. These include the recognition that the nation-state,
as the contemporary embodiment of the political community, is the
central unit of international life and the indispensable instrument
of statecraft. De Gaulle also shared with realists an untroubled
acceptance of the role that duplicity and flexibility inevitably play
in diplomatic conduct, as well as a keen appreciation of the balance
of power as the means by which order and a measure of sociality are
maintained amid the competitive interplay of sovereign states.

De Gaulle had a broad and deep, perhaps an obsessive, historical
memory: he quaintly called East Germany "Prussia" and "Saxony", and
he feared the reunification and revival of a centralized "Reich",
even a democratic and Western-oriented one. He wisely and nobly
promoted France's reconciliation with Konrad Adenauer's Germany, but
he did not look forward to a united Germany in any form. Despite
initial misgivings and hesitations, he supported the Atlantic Pact of
1949, partly out of anti-totalitarian conviction but mainly because he
feared that the European balance of power was shifting dangerously in
favor of a Soviet imperium. His rhetoric combined and oscillated
between a genuine appreciation of the new ideological dimensions of
politics in the twentieth century and a dogmatic insistence that what
was really at stake in the Cold War was the age-old and unchanging
question of the European balance of power. He clearly recognized the
totalitarian character of the Soviet-style regimes but was not
convinced that the totalitarian or ideological character of the
Soviet Union fundamentally affected its pursuit of imperial
domination. This partisan of "eternal France" finally only saw
"eternal Russians" at work in the machinations of communism and the
movements of the Red Army.

This helps explain why de Gaulle supported an Atlantic Pact in 1949
but did not hesitate to undermine the ideological solidarity of the
Alliance after 1965. He unwisely took for granted that his countrymen
would continue to recognize the totalitarian character of the Soviet
regime and therefore would accept the necessity of Western solidarity
(as de Gaulle himself did, to his credit, during the Cuban Missile
Crisis of 1962). This neglect of ideology sometimes led to
significant missteps on de Gaulle's part. He wildly overestimated the
"national" and "liberal" character of certain post-Stalinist regimes
such as Gomulka's--or even Ceausescu's. He presupposed an American
commitment to the rump of liberal Europe, even as he pursued detente
with the East and railed against American "hegemony."

On the basis of all this, one is tempted to conclude that de Gaulle
was a realist in the worst sense of the term, sharing the realist
school's "unrealistic" neglect of the ideological dimensions of
statecraft in our century. But the truth is a good deal more complex.

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