The French Position

The French Position

Mini Teaser: The French, believe it or not, have their reasons for being so quarrelsome with the United States.

by Author(s): Philip H. Gordon

In an unguarded moment during last year's primary season, Senator John McCain referred to a minor diplomatic incident as "one of the many reasons I hate the French." McCain probably does not hate the French, but his comment does give some indication of France's place in the American imagination. For more than fifty years, France has been tweaking America's nose, refusing to tow the U.S. line on subjects as diverse as NATO, Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, and what Americans until very recently were encouraged to think of as "rogue states"-the very concept of which, of course, the French do not accept.

The latest example of French obstreperousness has been the growing tendency of France's leaders to criticize American unilateralism and call for a more multipolar world, in which a strong Europe provides a counterweight to the United States. Statements such as the recent one of Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, that France "cannot accept a politically unipolar world, nor a culturally uniform world, nor the unilateralism of a single hyperpower", led Michael Gonzales to warn, in a Wall Street Journal article of November 23, 1999, of "a serious split in the North Atlantic Alliance" caused by France's "increasingly petulant attacks on the U.S." The article, entitled "Can America Trust the French?", suggested that France's aim was to "contain U.S. might in all areas." Former Reagan administration official and George W. Bush adviser Richard Perle provided the answer: "To be perfectly blunt about it, we don't trust the French."

Clinton administration officials are obviously more circumspect, but a similar sentiment extends to a wide variety of subjects. France is invariably seen in Washington as the ally most likely to challenge U.S. positions and oppose American leadership, and most determined to obstruct and dilute American power. In June 2000 U.S. officials were stunned by France's refusal to sign the Warsaw Declaration on the strengthening of democracy, a U.S. initiative and a high priority of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. One senior U.S. official tersely commented that "107 countries had come to support democracy, but only 106 actually did so." Similarly, after a series of speeches late last year by French leaders calling for a more "multipolar world", State Department spokesman James Rubin was moved to comment that it was "passing strange that France would spend so much energy and focus so much attention on the danger to them of a strong United States rather than the dangers that we and France together face from countries like Iraq." French critiques of American policy are often seen not merely as alternative approaches to a difficult issue (as, for example, when similar critiques come from the British or Germans), but rather as attacks on America itself.

One could, of course, argue that it matters little whether the French and the Americans disagree. Both countries have quarreled periodically over the past sixty years, but they tend to stand together on the vital issues of the day, as in Kosovo last year. As difficult as France can be, it is one of only two allies (along with Britain) that share basic American values and interests and that have the resources, the military means and the will to take substantial risks in the name of international security. Particularly as the European Union seeks to develop its own foreign and security policy, France remains the linchpin to friendly relations with America's most vital, democratic and prosperous allies, and the single most important factor in determining whether the EU will cooperate or compete with the United States. Like it or not, Americans are going to have to live with a France that is as proud, assertive and-most infuriatingly-as fundamental to world order in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth.

Historical Ups and Downs

Any suggestion that France and the United States always disagree would be inaccurate. From Lafayette's contribution to American independence to the extremely close U.S.-French military cooperation in Kosovo last year, there have been countless examples of the two countries standing together on important, contentious issues: the Berlin and Cuban missile crises in the 1950s and 1960s, the Euromissile debate of the early 1980s, and Bosnia after 1994-95, to name just a few. Still, the more constant themes of the past half century have been resentment and frustration.

In the 1940s, the driving force in Franco-American relations was General de Gaulle's deep resentment of Washington's recognition of the Vichy regime and its refusal during wartime to recognize the Free French as the legitimate government of France. Roosevelt's numerous snubs of France in general and de Gaulle in particular-excluding France from the Yalta Summit, summoning de Gaulle to meet in Casablanca (i.e., on French soil), or planning to introduce a new French currency without French consent-intensified the estrangement. The common threads in all these incidents were a refusal by America to take the French seriously or treat them with respect, and American exasperation at France's stubborn and prickly insistence on having its positions and interests taken fully into account.

In the 1950s, bilateral frictions revolved around America's refusal to support France's efforts to protect its colonial interests, despite French claims-very similar to American claims in subsequent decades-that their global policies provided a foundation of world order and Western security. In Indochina, the United States provided significant military aid to the French for several years, but in 1954 it allowed the final French garrison at Dien Bien Phu to fall, refusing to risk American troops or even air power to save it. Two years later at Suez, the American position went further. Eisenhower opposed the French and British intervention publicly and undermined it through the manipulation of oil and currency markets, a deep betrayal in the eyes of many French people. Indeed, Suez proved a turning point in the way France viewed its relations with the United States. Whereas the lesson of Suez for the British was to "never again get on the wrong side of the Americans", for the French it was to "never again depend on them." In Algeria-the central issue of French foreign and domestic policy from 1954 to 1962-the French found no more support from Washington than they had anywhere else. Washington believed it alone defined the interests of the Western alliance, and pulling French chestnuts out of the North African fire was not part of the plan.

In 1958 General de Gaulle returned to power, and with him France's reputation as a difficult ally assumed a new dimension. Determined never again to suffer the dependence on Washington he had endured in the 1940s, the general created an independent French nuclear force, strongly opposed by Washington, and withdrew from NATO's integrated military structure. Abroad, de Gaulle felt no compunction about bluntly criticizing America's war in Vietnam or about breaking with Israel, America's ally, after the 1967 Six-Day War. With the Soviet Union, meanwhile, de Gaulle set out to pursue "détente, entente and cooperation." He denounced the reserve currency role of the U.S. dollar as an "exorbitant privilege" and sought to construct French "national industrial champions" to overcome the dominance of U.S.-based multinationals that were heavily invested in France. For Americans, all this amounted to more evidence of the same: a quarrelsome, free-riding ally unwilling to see the wisdom of U.S. positions.

The 1970s opened on a familiar note, with France criticizing U.S. management of the international monetary system and refusing to accept the idea of a U.S.-led energy policy after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The decade ended with disputes over détente. French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing refused to back NATO's Euromissile deployment on the thin grounds that France was not part of the alliance's military commands, and he refused to take a tough line on the Soviet Union even after Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. After 1981, President Franois Mitterrand changed tack to eliminate those two sources of friction, but new ones quickly arose. Mitterrand opposed Ronald Reagan's arms build-up, refused to accept the logic of supporting "freedom fighters" in Central America, denounced the Strategic Defense Initiative, and pointed to massive U.S. budget deficits as further evidence of America's irresponsibility as a global power.

The end of the Cold War raised new issues, but the question of U.S. global leadership, and France's willingness (or lack thereof) to embrace it, has lingered on. France strongly opposes the U.S. policy of confronting rogue states with economic sanctions and military force, preferring the tools of dialogue and trade. In Europe the French continue to push for a European defense structure that could act independently of NATO. Increasingly vocal critiques of U.S.-led globalization and of the perils of a unipolar world have become a staple of French rhetoric. It was perhaps fitting that the last major French foreign policy speeches of the century, by President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister VŽdrine in November 1999, focused on the imperative of promoting multipolarity. Such themes could have formed the basis of French speeches at any point over the previous sixty years.

The sources of Franco-American friction over the past sixty years have thus been constant. France, resentful of American power, has been unwilling to play the passive junior partner in an alliance dominated by the United States, and the United States, in turn, has never been willing to modify its approach. Although the issues have changed enormously-from colonial conflicts and the Cold War to dealing with "rogue states" and humanitarian interventions-the issue has not: Paris is unwilling to let Washington dictate the terms of world order.

Why We Clash

For centuries before World War II, France was a major political, military and economic power, with control not only over its own fate, but over that of large parts of the world. As recently as 1930, the United States was focused inward, unsure of its international role, struggling with economic depression, and determined to stay out of European affairs. France, by contrast, boasted at that time the most powerful army in Europe, a hugely successful economy not yet slowed by the Wall Street crash, colonial holdings in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, a widely used language, and a culture appreciated around the globe. Coming to terms with a fall from these heights to being a medium-sized power has not been easy.

France is not the only European power to have been eclipsed by the United States, but its case is unique. Germany was a great European power, but it never had the global presence of France, and in any case lost any sense of truly global (especially military) ambition after the Second World War. A better comparison might be Britain. Yet the British possessed an enormous advantage over the French: given its cultural, linguistic and historical links to the United States, the United Kingdom at least had the option of trying to influence Washington-"playing Athens to America's Rome", as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once put it-an option not available to France. Unwilling to surrender entirely its global influence, France was left to exercise its influence in the only way it knew how-often by getting in the way of the United States.

Many of the clashes between the United States and France are not so much the result of differences as of similarities. Both want to be major world powers, and both seek recognition as such. Both see themselves as significantly responsible for developments in various parts of the world, and both-as a result of their respective eighteenth-century revolutions-have traditions of attempting to shape the world in their own image. Not only do they seek to do this by imposing their distinctive national cultures and socioeconomic models on others, but, as Stanley Hoffmann has pointed out, both seem to have trouble distinguishing between what is good for them and what is good for the world as a whole. (Nearly all French leaders and experts seem to believe that multipolarity is the healthiest formula for the management of the international system, whereas many Americans tend to think that system functions better with a single leader.) So long as France and the United States remain determined to leave their respective marks on the world, clashes may thus be inevitable even when fundamental interests are shared.

Where the two countries do differ significantly is not so much in how they define their interests but in how they seek to safeguard them. France tends to adopt a patient, laissez faire stance toward problems-accepting ambiguity and seeking mainly to limit the impact of those problems. The United States impatiently and assertively searches out solutions, often based on a technological fix, with a clear-cut result. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the French approach, at least until 1995, was to avoid taking sides while attempting to limit the damage of Serb aggression. The Americans, conversely, first insisted on avoiding involvement, and then, once that became unsustainable, took sides and intervened with massive military power. In Iraq the French and American stances are equally at variance. France may not like Saddam Hussein, but in the absence of alternatives it looks to ease sanctions and live with a problem that it figures it can control. The United States feels it must take action-sanctions, air strikes, aid to the opposition-designed to fix the problem, or at least foster the impression that it is trying to do so.

Vadrine's distancing himself from Albright's democracy promotion conference last summer also shows how France's proclivity for living with the world as it is contrasts with America's determination to improve it. The current dispute over national missile defense is yet another example: French and American assessments of the emerging threat are similar; what is different is the U.S. determination to solve the problem-to avoid vulnerability by counting on technology, as opposed to a French willingness to live with the problem.

These contrasting approaches, like much else in this story, are largely the products of dissimilar histories. France's relative acceptance of vulnerability and its fatalism derive from centuries of living with danger, enduring invasions, and experiencing the complexities of international relations. America's "can do" attitude, by contrast, results from the country's idealistic birth, its advantageous geography, and its preponderance of power.

Why We Still Clash

When the Cold War ended, many serious observers predicted that the traditional tensions between France and the United States would erode. A new generation in France, the argument went, would overcome its reservations about U.S. power, the United States-focused on domestic affairs-would come to accept the importance of a stronger Europe, and France would seek better relations with America to balance a united and more assertive Germany. Looking back at the disputes of the 1990s, it is clear that the rapprochement has not taken place. To be sure, the geopolitical stakes have diminished since the United States and France clashed over colonies and the Cold War, and a new generation of English-speaking French men and women care more about starting Internet companies than about whether de Gaulle should have been present at Yalta or whether there are too many McDonalds in France. At the same time, however, several features of the current geopolitical environment actually make Franco-American comity even harder to achieve than before.

The first such feature is the unprecedented breadth of U.S. power. When Védrine uses the term hyperpuissance, he means to evoke something even greater than a superpuissance of the Cold War. Even if not meant to be derogatory (hyper, in French, is a neutral prefix), the hyperpower concept nonetheless calls to mind for the French a problematic feature of the international system. The French public seems to feel the same way: in a 1999 opinion poll, majorities responded that the United States had "excessive influence" in all categories of power: cultural, economic, military and political. In a similar vein, 68 percent said they were worried about America's "sole superpower" status. In fact, French leaders routinely frame their appeals for a "more multipolar world" as criticisms not of America as such but simply of the concept of unipolarity. Unfortunately, this is small comfort for Americans, who rightly interpret the French aim as a reduction of U.S. power and influence.

Senior U.S. diplomats sometimes throw up their hands in despair and say there is nothing they can do since the French now oppose "not what we do but who we are", but that is only half the story. The French have a problem not only with how much power the United States has, but also with the way it wields that power. Védrine now asks the same question de Gaulle used to ask in the 1960s: "whether the United States is capable of going from unilateralism to multilateralism, and accepting a partnership . . . that is anything other than fleeting and incomplete." What for many Americans are signs of the burdens of leadership and the willingness to make tough decisions are for the French signs that the United States "thinks it can do what it wants, where it wants, whenever it wants", as the head of the French parliament's Defense Commission, Paul Quils, has put it. The U.S. willingness to act unilaterally when necessary may be an inevitable consequence of having so much power; more than one French colleague I have spoken with privately admits that if France had this much power it would probably be "even worse." Indeed, Vadrine himself candidly concedes in his new book, Les Cartes de la France, that many Europeans think the same thing-that "if by a stroke of fate the French were to find themselves in the same position as the Americans today we would be more unbearable than they are!"

Growing European integration-especially in foreign and defense policy-has also been complicating U.S.-French relations. For years the French have acknowledged that their only real hope of maintaining a prominent role in the world is to stand on the European platform. This is what Macmillan meant when he said that de Gaulle "often says 'Europe' but means 'France.'" During the Cold War, few Europeans were willing to follow France's lead. It was easier and cheaper to rely on American geopolitical leadership, and France's neighbors for the most part shared neither its skepticism of American intentions nor its desire for a prominent world role. All this made it simple for Americans to profess an interest in a stronger and more united Europe, while never really having to worry about the consequences were such a Europe actually to emerge.

A unified Europe with a distinct political profile remains a key French objective-this was most recently made clear in Chirac's June 2000 Bundestag speech, in which the French president called for a "pioneering group" of EU countries to steer the union after its enlargement, and encouraged Germany, alongside France, to think and act like a great power. And whereas the French remain more keen than other Europeans to see Europe become a major geopolitical actor, certain developments give them hope that their neighbors will soon see the light. First, there is the newly launched euro, which the French have for years viewed as the precondition to European integration and a common foreign policy. Second are changes in Germany, which has been overcoming its aversion to projecting military force and showing an almost France-like irritation with U.S. hegemony, notably after Washington vetoed Berlin's nominee to run the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most important has been the drive toward a unified security and defense policy, stimulated largely by new attitudes toward Europe in London. The British naturally stress that the EU defense initiative is compatible with a strong role for Washington (and thus nato), and that EU and NATO capabilities should be seen as complementary. But unless and until France and the United States exhibit more trust in each other's ambitions than they do now, Europe's push to enhance its defense autonomy could easily prove a new source of tension between the two countries. In fact, it already has generated considerable transatlantic friction.

The final reason Franco-American differences have not faded is globalization-the new ease with which people, capital, goods and ideas travel across borders. The effects of globalization have been felt especially keenly in France, which has long been proud of its dirigiste economy, distinct national culture and national independence. Of course, not all of the French agree with José Bové, the small farmer who became something of a national hero last year for vandalizing a McDonald's and denouncing globalization, but many of them share some of these same apprehensions: 67 percent of the French worry that globalization threatens French identity; 52 percent reject the American economic model; and 80 percent do not want to emulate the American lifestyle. Bestsellers in France this year include The World Is Not Merchandise, a tract by Bové criticizing globalization and bad American food, and A Strange Dictatorship, a diatribe against U.S.-inspired liberal capitalism by Vivianne Forrester, whose previous attack on the liberal model, The Economic Horror, sold over 350,000 copies in France. The fact that many French citizens equate globalization with Americanization and are concerned with its effect on their lifestyle and culture by no means guarantees diplomatic friction with the United States. But it doesn't help.

Limiting the Differences

No one should expect the problems between Paris and Washington to go away anytime soon. But there are a few things American leaders could do to make the relationship less tense and more productive than it currently is.

The first step should be to stop treating every disagreement with France as an attack on the United States itself. Clearly there are cases when the French are motivated more than anything else by a desire to constrain the United States-French leaders themselves implicitly admit as much when they call for a multipolar world. But more often than not their positions derive from a logical understanding of France's own interests; if they are to be rejected it should be on the merits of the case rather than reflexively. Historically, de Gaulle's positions on the Vietnam War, detente and the Arab-Israeli conflict were all seen in the United States as particularly egregious examples of French anti-Americanism. But did these positions not look rather better over time? Today, are we so certain that maintaining sanctions on Iraq and pursuing national missile defense are so obviously the right approaches that the articulation of possible alternative courses must be a sign of hostility to our goals and our leadership? Even as he calls for alternatives to a world run exclusively by the United States, Védrine has urged France to move away from what he calls "a vain and routine aggressiveness [in its relations with the United States] that led to nothing and . . . compromised our chances to convince our other essential partners to undertake anything important with us." Maybe it is time for the United States to try out a similar approach in its dealings with France.

A second useful principle would be to keep in mind that France, however frustrating it might be, is likely to be at America's side when it is most needed. This was true during the Cold War, when American protection afforded France the luxury of standing by the United States only when it really had to, and it remains true today, when the stakes on most international issues are small enough that narrow national interests and the desire for national recognition can take priority over transatlantic unity. To be sure, the ideal ally from an American point of view would be one that combined the resources and willingness to act of the French with the Atlanticist orientation and lack of geopolitical ego of the Dutch or Italians. But for all the reasons discussed above, that is not a choice for France. Americans ultimately will have to take the advantages of an assertive France with the disadvantages; and there are times when a difficult but activist ally may be better than the reverse.

A third suggestion is for the United States, at the peak of its power, to share as much glory and credit with France and Europe as possible. In Paris a little bit of gloire goes a long way. And since many of our disagreements are concerned less with interests or substance than pride and perception, why not allow the small number of allies with global ambitions to have a greater stake in global leadership and engagement? If allowing the French to deploy the Eurocorps, lead the Macedonia Extraction Force, and dub the Dayton Accord the "ElysŽe Treaty" leads them to work more closely with NATO, devote more resources to common objectives, and feel a greater sense of contribution to a common cause, Washington should be more than pleased to share the limelight. As it should, too, in Lebanon or the Golan Heights. American gloating about its own pre-eminence and indispensability only diminishes the willingness of France and others to cooperate with U.S. dictates.

Even if Washington does all the right things in dealing with France, Paris may not always reciprocate, which leads to a fourth piece of advice for dealing with France: when necessary, isolate it. The French have in the past shown a high tolerance for isolation on key international issues, but we are now a long way from the days in which standing alone-while building a national nuclear force or blocking the European Community with an "Empty Chair" policy-was considered a mark of honor in France. The French may sometimes resign themselves to standing alongside only the Russians and Chinese at the un Security Council-as was recently the case with regard to Iraq-but this is far from their preferred position. Instead, and particularly as the French come to see their future tied intimately to that of the rest of Europe, they will only maintain a policy that the United States rejects if their European partners are behind them. If America has the merits of the argument on its side, and most Europeans agree with it, France will have a very hard time standing in its way; if all the Europeans side with the French position, it is quite possible that a U.S. policy pursued in isolation will not succeed.

Finally, in its relations with France the United States should go out of its way to preclude the injection of French "theorizing" into foreign policy debates. Principles and concepts are very important to the French; as the joke goes, even if something works in practice they want to know whether it works in theory. Thus Americans are baffled when the French dogmatically insist that NATO's Strategic Concept should authorize military intervention only under a un mandate, while at the same time calling for NATO intervention in Kosovo even without such a mandate. This rigorous defense of pride and principle exasperates Americans, and it is best resisted, whenever possible, by avoiding the theoretical debate in the first place. The United States and France are at their worst when they are quibbling over abstract principles like whether NATO has a "right of first refusal" or whether "neither the EU nor NATO is subordinate to the other." On such issues they would be better off saying nothing.

Following these modest suggestions will by no means eliminate the sources of friction that animate the Franco-American relationship. But testing a new formula might help attenuate that friction, and lead to a relationship in which disputes between the two countries are seen as legitimate disagreements between relatively trusted friends. It may prove to be much more boring for those of us who like to follow such things, and Americans may come to miss "hating the French." But we would both be better off.

Essay Types: Essay