Finally, a Chance to Diss France
Now that President Bush's second term has officially begun, a lot of ink has been spilled on the need to revitalize the transatlantic relationship. As an avowed atlanticist, I think this is a good thing. I could go into more detail on why I think this is a good thing, but that would mean a separate post, so for right now, I encourage our readers to go along with me.
One thing that is important to remember when discussing US-EU relations is to remember that Europe and France are two different entities, and that pointing out the flaws of the French, which is quite fun (in fact, I intend to diss France in this piece), is not the same as taking Europe down a peg. It is important to remember that while we may have issues with Europe, or the EU in general, they are often very distinct from those issues we have with France.
So why do we kvetch about the French?
Multipolarity, for starters. Multipolarity is the notion, popular among the welfare-intelligentsia in France and elsewhere in Europe, that there are various “poles” of influence. Europe is a pole, the US is a pole, India is one, China another, etcetera. The French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, recently espoused this charmingly academic notion (read all about it here at Marc Shulman’s always excellent American Future blog).
When I use the words “charmingly academic” readers must understand that the word “charming” is sarcasm, and “academic” in this case is not a compliment. The whole concept of multipolarity may sound great in the form of typed pages passed around the corridors of the Sorbonne or Yale or somesuch place, but when put into practice it does nothing to advance what should be the interests of France and the EU. And therein lies the problem: the idea of multipolarity does a lot to advance the short-term, selfish interests of France, but even a passing study of history shows that looking at the world in such a dispassionate fashion has given the world more problems than it is worth.
To me the idea of multipolarity is nothing more than old-fashioned balance of power politics writ large; France now wants to apply to the rest of the world the same principles that statesmen once applied to keeping peace in Europe in the 19th century. The problem here is that, failing to look at the balance of the world’s powers qualitatively, one might end up bulking up some illiberal powers at the same time, which could have disastrous effects for those poor individuals caught in between said powers (or even the powers themselves: America, like Europe has also suffered from bulking up illiberal regimes in order to balance out competing powers, such as in Iran in 1979).
When the whole balance of power system came about after the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Europe was relatively homogenous and there were very few democracies in the world. The system worked for nearly one hundred years largely because the various nations involved were largely similar. It all came crashing down, however, during World War I, when technology improved the ability to kill beyond the ability of statesmen to keep re-balancing the power.
So the balance of power system worked for a while, when applied to a relatively small, homogenous region, with limited military technologies over a hundred years ago. Why should it work when applied to the larger world, today, when cultures and ideologies are as diverse as the world itself? It won’t.
If the French are honest with themselves, they should realize that what is in everyone’s interest is not trying to lead Europe into acting as some kind of counterweight to the American hegemon. They should realize that America and Europe are in it together, because foreign affairs is not a zero-sum game of balancing competing nations or poles against one another. A brief glance at the history of the last one hundred years will reveal that the greatest threats to stability have come from illiberal states and/or ideologies. This continues to the present day: illiberal strains of Islam (and the states that give them succor) pose a serious threat to the democratic world.
Rather than concern themselves with balancing the various pillars of the world, like-minded democracies, such as those in the US, EU, Australia and perhaps India, should create a balance of power that favors the spread of democracy. (This may sound familiar: the last line comes almost directly from the National Security Strategy of the United States.) Rather than wasting our time trying to play some silly 19th parlor games, the community of democracies should make earnest efforts to share the most effective way to promote long-term stability: liberal democracy. If any kind of balance of power must be effected, let it be that. And let the democratic side of that balance continue to grow until it far outweighs the illiberal side.