European Affairs

Closely Watched Allies     Print Email

Edited by David G. Haglund
Reviewed by Peter S. Rashish

The end of the Cold War has been bittersweet for the French. On the one hand, without the implacable hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, France can now pursue the creation of a European foreign and defense policy that is (somewhat) independent of the United States without fear of toppling the global balance of power.

On the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall has also led to a situation where the United States has become what France's own Foreign Minister, Hubert Védrine, calls a "hyperpower," unrivaled in its dominance of the international arena. If there is indeed a "leadership race," as this book's title suggests, then the Europeans, led by the French, find they must sprint ever faster just to keep pace with the United States, whose bigger and bigger shoes allow it to stride the globe while barely breaking a sweat.

This slim volume sets itself the task of understanding just how this ambition to create a distinct European voice on the world stage will be affected by the peculiar relationship between France and the United States. For nearly 50 years the Paris-Washington liaison, while not dangereuse, has been characterized by a puzzling prickliness.

Bringing together leading German and Canadian perspectives, this work provides a neighborly window into the forces that are driving the French and the Americans, placing them under the microscope - and on the couch. While certainly not the first time the Franco-American psycho-drama has been put on display, this book provides a useful post-Kosovo update, and offers some sobering insights into the limits on rapprochement between these two venerable democracies of the West.

By far the most intriguing chapter is by the book's editor, David Haglund, of Queens University in Ontario. Haglund suggests that French and American policies are a finely balanced product of pressures (and limits) imposed from the outside and the desire to project national styles and personalities coming from deep within domestic society and culture. While the force of external events often leads the two countries to cooperate, their internally-driven agendas tend to drive them apart.

Haglund sees in the French an inclination "to minimize the likelihood that states can Ôempathize' with each other." France, unlike several other European allies or Canada, has been unable, unwilling, or both, to subscribe to the belief in a Western Ôcollective identity.' France, in this view, has been more concerned with increasing its freedom of action, and less with cultivating "sentimental" attachments to other countries. The United States, by contrast, is driven by the need to find allies to include in its warm and fuzzy embrace.

Peter Schmidt, of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin, says much the same when he asserts that "even a constructive approach by France toward the United States will hardly result in the fostering of Franco-American Ôbrotherhood,' redolent of the ÔLafayette myth.' Instead, the partnership that may (but need not) develop would represent a more dispassionate relationship, founded primarily upon the two states' self-interest."

Of course cultural explanations have their limits for sharpening understanding, as Haglund readily admits. Cool, Cartesian France can claim its share of statesmen dreaming of European or global brotherhood (think of Clemenceau), while idealistic, emotional America has produced a respectable number of detached, calculating thinkers of the so-called "realist" school of international relations (Henry Kissinger comes to mind).

One reason for this is that neither France nor even hyperpower America has complete freedom to do as it pleases; hostile regimes, crises, and regional instability all may force the French and the United States to cooperate to promote common goals. The conflict in Kosovo is a perfect example of a successful joint effort where both the NATO-minded Americans and the European-minded French could claim their interests were furthered.

Overall, this book reinforces the notion that if the French have cozied up to the Atlantic Alliance of late, it is mostly as a short-term move to advance their longer-term goal of a Europe capable of defending its interests and projecting its values (or "civilizing mission," as the French would say) without undue interference from the United States.

While Michel Fortmann and Hélne Viau, two Canadian contributors, are right to point out that a certain cultural anti-Americanism does exist in France (as well as in other parts of Europe), the conclusion one draws from this work is that opposition to Hollywood movies or McDonalds restaurants is unlikely to be the determining factor in the future French-American relationship.

Rather, the driver will be the decades-old French ambition to rebalance the transatlantic relationship by creating a united European foreign and defense policy. Ironically, as several of these authors point out, if this Europe independent from the United States does one day emerge, France's attitude toward America may finally become quite cordial. Now that would take some getting used to in Washington.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.

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