Is Help on the Way in Europe?

John Zvesper

December 1, 2004

The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was impressively successful in dividing America from some of its European allies. Contrary to that regime’s expectations, its clever and resourceful diplomacy did not save it from attack and defeat. But we can agree with the oft-repeated French pronouncement that war is always a sign of failure, even if we think that in this case the main failure lay in Jacques Chirac’s succumbing to the blandishments of his old friend Saddam Hussein, fracturing the alliance between America and Europe, and thereby making invasion the only way of ending the dictator’s regime.

This fracture persists (as do related doubts about the integrity of the United Nations). Will this alliance be able to put itself together again? As the bitter divisions over Iraq fade, can what the dictator sundered be rejoined by European and American statesmanship? Now that America, with its elections, has decided to continue rejecting European opposition to the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq, much of the answer to this question depends on France.

We should not allow French-led rhetoric to overstate the extent to which European governments (as distinguished from public opinion not expressed through elections) have agreed with the French position on Iraq. Bernard Kouchner, one of the few leading politicians in France who supported the invasion of Iraq, has recently identified certain elements of a “French syndrome”: “talking louder than anyone else, making a little more noise, and thus believing that you constitute a majority all on your own.”

Trevor Stanley, a blogger in Australia, publishes a map that shows European governments’ positions on the Coalition for Iraqi Freedom:

Blue means Coalition supporting governments, red the opposing ones; grey means neutral or no declared position, and green means ambiguous position (e.g. Sweden, while verbally opposing the invasion, supplied arms). The yellow rectangular symbols show countries with troops in Iraq in March 2004.

This map is a useful antidote to the French syndrome. Even after Spain (population 40 million) left the Coalition soon after its March 2004 elections, the anti-Coalition governments in Europe were far fewer in number (10 versus 21) and lower in population represented (206 million versus 322 million). (Adding Russia would bring the opposition totals to 11 governments and 350 million people, but most of Russia is not in Europe.) Moreover, even some of the formally anti-Coalition governments have done things that would normally be considered supportive of the Coalition; for example, Germany, Belgium and Greece allowed overflights and troop movements.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably troubling that, led by France, the governments of five of Europe’s large countries (large = a population of 10 million or more), with a total population of 202 million, have at some point opposed the Coalition. And although France signed the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 1546 in June 2004, which requested “Member States and international and regional organizations to contribute assistance to the multinational force, including military forces,… to help meet the needs of the Iraqi people for security and stability, humanitarian and reconstruction assistance,” France continues to publicize its refusal to contribute to Iraq’s military needs, and shows scant respect for the government of free Iraq. (That feeling, naturally, is mutual.)

It is hardly the first time that France has been an irksome ally in the post-World War II era, trying to benefit from being more than one thing to more than one side. President de Gaulle established this pattern in the 1960s, when he expelled American bases from France, separated the French military from NATO, insisted on developing nuclear weapons, and cultivated relations with America’s enemies. However, as Winston Churchill said (partly with France in mind), “The only thing worse than Allies is not having Allies!” Today no less than forty years ago, France, though relatively weaker, is still an important part of western Europe. It will not go away. And even if France were strategically less significant, as someone has wittily remarked — and as de Gaulle would have acknowledged — the French will always be there when they need you.

Will France change, so Europe and America can work together more successfully? This is not impossible. Although Chirac’s leadership of the anti-Coalition coalition initially increased his popularity in France (in the early days there were even whispers of a Nobel Peace Prize!), it did not for long secure a high approval rating, which currently dawdles in the mid 30s, compared to his would-be 2007 replacement Nicolas Sarkozy at 55%. And French criticisms of the contradictions, impasses, and isolating effects of French foreign (and domestic) policy are beginning to be heard more often. Perhaps help is on the way.

However, if these criticisms are to sink in, something will have to change: the something that makes France, more than any other European country, resistant to recognizing American leadership as one of the elements of the European-American alliance.

Part of the problem here may be linguistic: many years ago, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle pointed out that there is no single French word that translates “leader,” and while the French frequently use the English word, they use it to mean only “chief” or “boss,” not, more modestly, “guide” or “inspirer.” So when English speakers talk about leadership, French listeners sense only the prospect of bossiness, not of guidance or inspiration.

At any rate, that French reaction against the notion of American leadership explains Chirac’s constant wishful speculation that the world be “multipolar,” and that Europe (led by France, naturellement) become one of the several emerging global poles, so it can be less dependent on American power and will. (As if such multipolarity, shepherded of course by international law and the UN, were a sure-fire recipe for global harmony and peace!) Long before the G. W. Bush presidency, French leaders expressed fear of America’s global strategic “monopoly,” which they think Americans are bound to abuse.

There is no cure for this fear, short of learning and accepting that America and Europe really do share the liberal democratic principles that European politicians — including French ones — say they do, and that therefore American “hyperpower” is not in itself a danger (especially when compared to the likely alternative of global anarchy). During the latter years of the Cold War those who favored the deployment of cruise missiles in Europe were often told that this was certain to make the world far less secure, because it was bound to make the Soviet Union more fearful of NATO aggression — as if the leaders of the USSR were incapable of judging NATO by its intentions as well as by its capacities.

The French are not naturally incapable of such judgement. De Gaulle, precisely when he was making the most waves within the Western alliance, was always aware that France could get away with this — for example, that the USSR would allow France to make nuclear weapons — only because France remained in the Atlantic alliance, and thus protected from Soviet dictation.

In other words, de Gaulle knew that the USA was a “titan,” which France could never come close to matching. (He also saw that a truly political United States of Europe was not feasible.) He was simply determined that France did not for that reason have to consign itself to being a dwarf. There was a middle way! America did not have a monopoly on all political and economic vitality! But in France today what de Gaulle did as a way of lifting French civic morale — by seeming to behave as if France could be a great, independent power, all the time resting in the calm waters of the Atlantic alliance — is pursued or at least longed for as if it were a serious policy, and as if America were, at least for France, a dispensable nation. Unless this changes, that help will not arrive.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in southern France.