European Affairs

"Jean Monnet: Unconventional Statesman," by Sherrill Brown Wells     Print
Reviewed by Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

michaelmosettigAs Europe endures some of its worst political and economic tremors since the Second World War, it is useful to have a well-packaged reminder of how it reached this historical point, for better and worse.  Recently, and grandly, it came in the Nobel Peace Prize for the European Union. Perhaps more practically, it comes in a workable and readable biography of a key figure in Europe's post-war evolution, the Frenchman Jean Monnet.

This work by Washington writer Sherrill Brown Wells is not the first nor most complete biography.  Those would be earlier books by Monnet collaborator Francoise Duchene and French journalist Eric Roussel.  But for younger readers in universities and graduate schools, especially in the United States and for whom the immediate years after the war are almost as remote as the Middle Ages, this 278-page book is far more accessible.

And this biography can be especially useful for Americans baffled by the European political process and the current debt crisis. Assessing  the life and work of a man who never held elective office but whose ideas and salesmanship were at the core of European unification, it  provides guidance about how Europe has come this far, but may go no further as a single entity.

Jean Monnet was born into and worked for a French Cognac company, served in a variety of inter-allied posts in both world wars, developed a vast network of influential people in Europe and the United States and in the post-war years put his talents of persuasion mixed with pragmatism behind plans built around the core idea of preventing France and Germany from ever fighting another war.

As Wells asserts, Monnet's greatest achievement and the high point of his influence came in his advocacy of an arrangement for Germany and France to pool their coal and steel production.  It was unveiled by French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman on May 9, 1950, and after some struggle emerged two years later as the six-nation European Coal and Steel Community, with Monnet as president of its High Authority in Luxembourg.

The value of Wells's book is how she describes and rents asunder the now often assumed view that "the rest is history."  With enough detail to inform but not overwhelm, she describes how the process of European integration, along with  Monnet's vision of an Atlantic partnership with the United States, has been marked by nearly as many setbacks as triumphs, of broken dreams as well as grand ideas. For instance, the Coal and Steel Community advanced to fruition almost simultaneously with the crushing defeat of a common European Defense Community. The evolution of the European Economic Community (Common Market) came later in the decade and in tandem with the far less successful European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). As some of these projects, all with Monnet's fingerprints, advanced and others faltered, Monnet continued pressing for more economic and monetary union. But that only emerged after German unification in the early 1990s and a decade after Monnet's death. And reading these pages, one has to wonder how he would respond to the chaos and resurgence of nationalism that project has currently engendered, perhaps the bridge too far on the road to a more united Europe.

As well as anyone, Wells explains how Monnet achieved what he did without benefit of political office. While he pushed a vision, he was a complete pragmatist and anything but an ideologue. He juggled the idea of a more united Europe between federalist, supranational and inter-governmental schemes. Wells, for instance reminds, that Monnet played a role in persuading French president Valery Giscard d' Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to regularize the concept of European summits, the ultimate in inter-governmental governance, on to the supranational institution of the Commission.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

In the increasingly bureaucratized and specialized era we now live in, it is hard to imagine the role of personality and persuasion in Monnet's success in getting his ideas transformed into reality. And then there was his incredible skill at networking. He was the Zelig of the mid-20th century, everywhere at the critical moment and knowing everyone. And as the author is not hesitant at pointing out, as the complete networker, perfectly capable of dropping people no longer useful to him. Perhaps that Washington-style skill partly explains his success in this capital. This book is a particularly useful reminder, and part of the modern historiography upgrading Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency, just how important Ike and his controversial Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were in supporting post-war European endeavors.  Monnet had known Dulles through business and diplomacy for decades.  His ties to Eisenhower only shortly pre-dated his presidency. He was influential with both. And while President John F. Kennedy was somewhat skeptical of the Atlantic Partnership advanced by Monnet through his ties with such Kennedy officials as George Ball, there is no doubt those aspirations reached their high point in Kennedy's July 4, 1962 speech calling for a Declaration of Interdependence between the two continents.

That concept came crashing down just six months later when French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain's proposed accession to the Common Market, a metaphor for the clash of ideas and ideals between these two Frenchmen. As she does throughout her book, Wells grasps and explains the nuances and subtleties of the alternative visions and how they have played out in decades of modern European history. De Gaulle's nationalism and skepticism of federalist ideas, his concept of a Europe of states rather than a Europe built on supranational institutions and his belief that this Europe could somehow get out from under the dominance of the United States all arrayed against Monnet's visions and plans. As De Gaulle's influence waxed, Monnet's waned. Yet, as Wells quotes the political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, in the belief that the Europe that did emerge was part de Gaulle and part Monnet. Perhaps, the next harsh test of that assertion will come as France faces the decision whether to cede sovereignty of its budget and spending if necessary to salvage the common currency.

The chapter on Monnet and de Gaulle brings to mind a minor quibble. The writer could have used copy editors with a better sense of place and history. She mentions that de Gaulle and Monnet marched together down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol for President Kennedy's funeral. The march of the leaders was up 17th Street from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral.  And like many Americans, whose president is both head of state and government, she refers to prime ministers as heads of state. In Europe, that designation goes to presidents or royals.

But Wells has written a book for a much wider audience than protocol particularists or historical quibblers. We have a reminder of the importance of Jean Monnet, the ultimate operator, and more importantly, the ultimate do-er, whose legacy is being played out every day in Europe and even across the Atlantic.  As the author touchingly reminds, this is a Frenchman whose ashes are interred at the Pantheon but whose funeral music included, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"Jean Monnet: Unconventional Statesman," by Sherrill Brown Wells Lynn Riener Publishers. 278 pages.