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July 14, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ARE THE FRENCH REALLY SO ANTI-AMERICAN? The American and French relationship suffered an enormous rupture over the public quarrel at the United Nations over Iraq, and the subsequent U.S. invasion in Spring 2003 launched by the Bush and Blair administrations (and opposed by France). Americans reacted with bitter hostility and, in a burst of berserk nationalism, held modern-day Boston tea parties where they dumped out French wine and renamed French fries to freedom fries. The transatlantic rift suddenly was a wide and deep chasm, it was as if some devilish power had sped up plate tectonics and rapidly yanked the two sides of the Atlantic in opposite directions.

The American media of course had a field day. The front page of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post showed the graves of Normandy with the headline: “They died for France but France has forgotten." Our erstwhile allies transmogrified overnight into double crossers, an “axis of weasels” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” to quote that erudite political analyst, Bart Simpson. Leading intellectuals in the U.S. like Thomas Friedman, George Will, Christopher Hitchens and others, apparently drawing inspiration from Bart and Murdoch, piled it on, saying France should be removed from the Security Council (Friedman), that it had retreated “into incoherence” (Will) and that the French president Jacques Chirac was “the rat that tried to roar” (Hitchens).

Yet I have never found the French to be particularly hostile toward Americans, though they clearly feel competitive with America, not only economically but also over shaping the direction of the world. But those sentiments have always stayed within acceptable bounds of a hearty (though occasionally annoying) patriotism and nationalism, it seems to me. Since the U.N. fallout, everywhere I have traveled in France, whenever I have investigated this charge of French anti-Americanism I have found little evidence. Americans I know who have lived in France for many years, and have watched the dance between the two transatlantic partners, qualify the spat as one between two old and indignant lovers who, in the memorable words of the gay cowboy lovers in the film Brokeback Mountain, wish they were "over each other." Indeed, an American friend, Meredith Wheeler, a former writer and producer for the late Peter Jennings and ABC News who has been living in southwestern France for 15 years, told me how surprised she is by the affection and respect many French have toward the United States.

"There is a part of the French psyche that is very pro-American -- particularly the older ones who recall World War II and the American contribution to the liberation of France," she says. As proof of that she points to the fact that the local veterans association -- the anciens combattants -- began inviting Meredith to carry the American flag at Armistice Day and military ceremonies in November and June, commemorating the end of World Wars I and II. At the request of the French parade marshal -- himself a recipient of the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor -- she marches at the front of the parade in formal parade attire, with the Stars and Stripes side by side with the French tricolor, leading ranks of national, regional and regimental French flags. No other nation's flag -- even that of the United Kingdom -- is accorded this honor of walking with the French flag; the UK flag bearer walks (rather grumpily) several steps behind. Alongside the French veterans displaying their medals and ribbons on their blue blazers and their red berets, Meredith wears white gloves and a tan military garrison hat, creased down the middle and slightly cocked, holding aloft the U.S. flag and occupying one of the most honored positions in the parade.

"Last August I was invited to take part in a ceremony in the mountains near Mazamet,” she told me, “where the French resistance -- the ‘maquis’ -- were aided by a small group of American commandos who had parachuted in to help battle against Nazi occupation forces. Two Americans were killed in a firefight with a German patrol on August 12th, 1944. Their names appear on a granite marker near the site, along with several French war dead.” The guest of honor at the ceremony was the American widow of the commanding officer of the U.S. commandos. As part of the August ceremony, each name of the fallen was dramatically read aloud, and after each American name, an elderly veteran pronounced the phrase, 'Mort pour la France,' - They Died for France.

“I found it incredibly moving,” says Meredith. “Remember, this is 60 years after the battle. After the ceremony, a middle-aged Frenchman approached me to express his good wishes. He brushed aside my embarrassed remarks and said: 'We will never forget the Americans who came to France. That war wasn't on their territory. They didn't need to come -- but they did.'

“I wish those so quick to condemn the French for their lack of support for the Iraqi misadventure could witness these events,” says Meredith. Later, she was presented with a booklet carefully noting the exploits of the maquis in this region, and all the events of August 12th, 1944 are recorded in scrupulous detail. One sentence of that account stood out. It read: Il fallait que l'on sache que les américans étaient là, en appui du Maquis -- “One must always remember that the Americans were there, in support of the Maquis.”

So the idea that the French, either the people or their leaders, are somehow ungrateful or forgetful of American heroics in World War II couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, in his speech before the U.N. opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, France’s foreign minister Dominique de Villepin began his oration by saying France “does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom fighters who came from America.” But that hardly soothed Americans during our rush to war.

Indeed, it has been said that France and the United States quarrel not because they are so different but because they are so very much alike. Not only in terms of both nations’ longstanding imperial ambitions to lead the world, but even in terms of the types of entertainment and consumer pleasures that people gravitate to. American films typically are the top draws in France; the all-time top box-office film in France is an American blockbuster, Titanic. French teenagers download American rap to their iPods, and the entertainers most searched for on Google France usually are American stars like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. French consumers are so enamored with American and English-speaking pop culture that the French government has had to decree that at least 40 percent of the songs played on the radio must be in French -- a proscription that is routinely ignored. No, in certain ways the French and Americans are more alike than either care to admit.

But there are important differences as well, and it is best to remember that the Franco-American history has been long and complicated, filled with numerous high and low points. As much as Americans wish to remind the French how much the U.S. military saved their hides in World War II, Americans quite easily forget how much the French saved General George Washington and his ragtag army. In fact, without the French it is quite likely that there would be no United States of America. When a French army of 6000 troops commanded by Count Rochambeau landed in the American colonies and joined Washington's forces, General Washington felt compelled to express embarrassment at how undermanned and poorly equipped his army was. Washington believed, as did other colonial leaders, that by the summer of 1781 the resources of the country were exhausted and his Continental Army was on the verge of collapse.

Not only did the French provide badly needed reinforcements, but their military generals and strategists were far more experienced than Washington. It was the French who suggested a southern campaign against Britain's Lord Cornwallis that eventually resulted in the decisive battle of Yorktown, Virginia. Washington was obsessed with attacking the British in New York, where they were virtually impregnable and where experts agree his forces surely would have been defeated. If the British had not intercepted letters of Washington in which he identified New York as his primary target, Washington may not have followed the sage French advice.

The Battle of Yorktown itself mostly was planned by the French strategists, not Washington. Lord Cornwallis and his troops were surrounded with no escape route, thanks to the French fleet commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte De Grasse. Yale historian Jonathan Dull called De Grasse’s victory over British Admiral Thomas Graves's fleet, which was attempting to rescue Cornwallis’ forces, "the most important naval victory of the 18th century." The Yorktown siege was essentially an exercise in engineering, which was one of Washington’s major weaknesses. Fortunately, the French army included the best military engineers in the world. Historian Joseph Ellis writes, "Though Washington was officially in command, the Yorktown siege was primarily a French operation. He was given the ceremonial honor of firing the first cannon shot against the British defenses…Most of the time, however, Washington only watched and tried to keep himself busy as the noose tightened around Cornwallis's army."

So the "Father of Our Country" learned at the knee of the French, and enjoyed considerable French support, including from the Marquis de Lafayette who had been made an American officer and became a shared hero of both countries. As part of their broader strategy to oppose the British empire, the French extended a helping hand to this motley, ragtag assemblage at an extremely crucial moment. The French also were enamored with many of the American leaders. Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France was one of the world's first multilateralists, adored in the salons of Paris and the court of King Louis XVI for his sharp wit, folksy charm and backwoodsman's dress. Thomas Jefferson was invited to sit in France's National Assembly during the writing of the French constitution. Tom Paine (who was born in Britain but adopted America as his home) was granted French citizenship for his contribution to revolutionary thinking.

Ironically, America is one of the few western countries with which France has never been to war. The French gave to America the inspiring gift and icon of the Statue of Liberty in the late 19th century. Even de Gaulle supported America during the Cuban missile crisis, and reminded a joint session of Congress of the two countries' history of shared values. One 2004 poll reported that 72% of the French had a favorable view of Americans, more even than in Britain (62%) or Spain (47%). But these are all considerations that patriotic Americans would just as soon dismiss as ancient history, even as we remind the French of their obligation to America's World War II generation.

So what has prompted this Franco-American finger-pointing in recent years? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say the answer is: national narcissism. Both nations over-believe in their own mission and destiny to the point of monomania. As The Economist writes, each believe “in the universalism of its model -- the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilization -- and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to shore up French pride.”

Substitute the word "American" for the word "French" in the preceding two sentences and it will be equally true. When one’s nation is on a mission to save the world from itself (whether the world wants to be saved or not), it cultivates an aversion to examining one's own national faults and imperfections -- another trait shared by both countries. Indeed, author Jean-Francois Revel, who for several decades has been pinpricking his fellow Frenchman's smugness, in his recent book L'Obsession anti-Americaine argues that French anti-Americanism, particularly in the media, often flourishes at the expense of self-examination. He pointed out well before France's November 2005 riots that while a tenth of the workforce is out of work and young French Muslims are isolated in suburban tower block ghettos, the French have delighted in exposing American poverty, racism and ghetto life. America, in other words, serves to console France about its own failures by sustaining the myth that things are even worse in the U.S.

This of course should sound achingly familiar to Americans and the American media, who frequently beat up on France, Germany and Italy too -- the “old Europe” troika -- and lately Greece and the other PIGS debtor countries, as a way of avoiding any serious examination of our own national shortcomings. Only two months before the French youth set the suburbs on fire and gave a wake up call to the world, Hurricane Katrina exposed the American fault lines. And yet President Bush could sermonize a short time later about “the universal desire to live in liberty” and that “freedom is the destiny of every man, woman and child on this Earth,” sounding ironically like French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, rhapsodizing about a "responsibility to bestow a conscience, a soul upon our Earth" and France's destiny “to enact our universal and humanist dream.” For both leaders of the two narcissists nations, the lofty language and florid romanticism is nearly interchangeable.

Steven Hill 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
July 12, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ANATOMY OF A TRANSATLANTIC RIFT: AMERICA VS. FRANCE AT THE UN, AND THE CLASH OVER GEOPOLITICAL SECURITY...With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the skirmish between the United States and France in 2003 at the United Nations over Iraq was more than just a Cain and Abel episode between two erstwhile allies. It was a titanic clash over two different visions -- unilateralism vs. multilateralism -- for how the global security system should work.

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council to argue in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. Putting his considerable reputation as a soldier and statesman on the line, and employing his persuasive slideshow with visuals purporting to show mobile production facilities for biological weapons, Powell cited “numerous” anonymous Iraqi defectors and asserted that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” Powell also stated that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons.

On that day I had given a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and I remember watching Powell’s testimony with a professor who, moved by Secretary Powell’s riveting PowerPoint and personal conviction, shook his head and remarked grimly, “That’s it then, we have no choice. We must go to war to stop this thug [Saddam].”

While Powell’s testimony had been persuasive to most Americans, it had not been so persuasive to most of Europe, nor to most of the world. Nine days later, France’s Foreign Minister, Dominique Marie François Rene Galouzeau de Villepin -- yes those French aristocrats do have long names -- mounted the U.N. podium, a striking figure with his white, leonine mane and patrician bearing, his square, chiseled chin and trademark florid eloquence on display. Villepin, a diplomat, author and poet, highbred in France’s elite grandes ecoles who was later to fumble badly in his own bid to become France’s president, rode the wings of a quintessentially French brand of righteousness to spearhead a global plea: that the U.N weapons inspectors be given more time to search for weapons of mass destruction. His retort to Powell turned out to be prophetic.

“The use of force would be so fraught with risks for people, for the region and for international stability that it should only be envisioned as a last resort...Would not such intervention be liable to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism? Let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace…”

It was the soldier versus the poet, with war or peace hanging in the balance. The Karl Rove-Fox News public relations machine launched a frontal attack on France and other foot dragging Europeans. They were labeled ungrateful, cowards, hypocrites and “old Europe” in a fit of sandbox play that undermined any attempts at diplomacy. The U.S. followed this by threatening trade reprisals and bugging the U.N. headquarters of key allies whose votes they were trying to win at the Security Council, presaging the “ends justify the means” mentality that later would result in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, waterboarding, kidnappings, the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, wiretapping and civil liberties violations in the U.S.

Today, we know that the poet was right and the soldier was wrong. Powell had misled the world, and his country, into a war based on manipulated facts, outright fabrications and failed military intelligence. We Americans have never been able to admit that France was right and the United States was wrong, and France to this day fills the role of punching bag for patriots. Yet after he had resigned from the Bush administration, Powell himself was to call his UN speech a “blot” on his record. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he said, “and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Powell’s "painful" episode was the first of many that ricocheted with blowback, striking self-inflicted hits against the U.S.S America. Violations of the norms of decency, even in a time of war, became the ammo for the world's autocrats to take aim at, not America the country, the home front, but at the idea of America itself. They didn't aim at the heartland in the form of more 9-11 type attacks, instead they aimed at America's values and what Old Glory had stood for in the post-World War II era. The Bush administration’s bending of the rules was all the more shocking to Europeans, since they thought they had learned their own valuations of international law and human rights at the paternal knee of Uncle Sam.

In retrospect the skirmish in 2003 between the U.S. and France at the U.N. revealed that, fourteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Way of foreign policy had become not only boldly assertive but also strikingly different from the American Way. While some European governments joined the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing,” the populations all across the continent mounted massive protests, even in the coalition countries. The formerly warring tribal nations of Europe had learned a thing or two about how to advance -- patiently -- peace, democracy, prosperity and sustainability, with military intervention as the last resort. The Bush administration failed to grasp that Europe’s history of bloody militarism and total destruction in previous centuries gave the European public and most of its leaders a very different perspective on these matters. Ignoring the European historical experience made as much sense as ignoring the events of September 11 in understanding American behavior.

Military intervention is a last resort for Europe not because Europe doesn’t possess significant military capability compared to its potential enemies (European nations, in aggregate, have the second largest military force in the world after the US, including two nations with nuclear weapons, France and Britain, as well as advanced weaponry like tanks, jets and other military hardware), or because Europe always is opposed to military force. The E.U. is not pacifist. After all, the United States led and Europe followed behind to intervene with great force in the Balkans just a few years before the September 11 attacks, with support from even the formerly pacifist German Green Party. They saw with horror the ghosts of their fascist past return in the fields of Srebrenica, the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II with an estimated 8000 Bosniak men and boys murdered by Serb-allied thugs. The Europeans, having survived the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the 20th century, are not averse to principled interventions and military operations, as the presence of European troops in Afghanistan and the British and French actions in Libya in the spring of 2011 show.

No, Europe’s smart power is based more on principle than impotence: a continent of nations that spent centuries warring among themselves has learned a thing or two about the severe limitations of state violence, as well as the benefits of a regional prosperity that derives from steady economic growth among neighbors that is not interrupted by destructive wars. So Europe has based its foreign policy on the tools of investment, trade and Marshall plan-like aid, which it dispenses more of than any other place in the world, including the United States.

This is a new horizon, a watershed in human history, that a great power of the magnitude of the European Union should base its foreign policy so substantially on the principles of nonviolence and fostering "peace and prosperity partnerships" in its region. The advent of peaceful social capitalists who spread prosperity and security in concentric rings of connectivity that touch two billion lives living in the Eurosphere -- not only Europe itself, but the many nations on its geographic periphery or that trade with it -- is a momentous shift, unprecedented in its scope. The rise of an economic power that does not combine it with an imperial use of military power -- indeed, seems to have little desire to do so and to some degree defines itself by this lack of desire -- may be a historical first.

It is difficult for most Americans, fed by media stereotypes about "old Europe" and stuck along with their political leaders in the warring quagmires of Iraq, Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, to grasp the enormity of what European foreign policy has accomplished among formerly communist dictatorships, Turkey, and elsewhere. While Europe certainly has a smaller military stick than America, its very success with its smart power and America’s recent failures with its hard power raise a legitimate question about the best tactics in this post-Cold War, multipolar world. For all the talk of the United States as the world’s lone remaining superpower, the past decade of foreign policy stumbles have demonstrated the limits of that power.

Given the deep and historical roots of its foreign policy, Europe is extremely unlikely either to spend more of its economic wealth on increasing its military power or to take a more aggressive military posture toward Russia, Iran, China, or the Middle East, despite pressures to do so by American political leaders and critics. President Barack Obama, like the Bush administration, has stated that he wants Europe to step up and shoulder more of the responsibility for the world’s security, but that receives a head scratch from most Europeans. They believe they already are doing their fair share, as they have defined that task, and Europe is wary of joining the United States in its military misadventures. President Obama promised a new multilateralism and more consultation with allies, yet in early 2009, barely months in office, he chose to escalate the war in Afghanistan and send in more troops and to widen drone strikes inside Pakistan beyond even Bush administration targets, all without consultation. Then he was disappointed when Europe rejected his request for more troops in Afghanistan. Like President Bush, Obama apparently does not understand that Europe has a different strategic assessment of these matters. Nor does he grasp that, in the absence of a more direct and imminent threat, Europe is reluctant to spend more on its military and less on its domestic needs, lest it risk underfunding its people, its infrastructure, and its future—becoming more like the United States, in other words.

It’s not that Europe doesn’t understand what is at stake in Afghanistan, Iran or the war on terror, as some American critics have charged. But Europe is looking for a partner across the Atlantic that is willing to be a power among peers instead of a messianic hero that regards itself as the “indispensable nation,” as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called the United States. Europe has its own way of doing things, and the European approach to foreign policy has been extremely successful in the regions in which it has been applied. While it’s true that Europe’s smart power does not always achieve its desired result, at least not in the short term, neither does America’s hard power. Indeed, a September 2008 intelligence forecast written by the top analyst in the U.S. intelligence community concluded that superior U.S. military power will “be the least significant” asset in an increasingly competitive world that is being reshaped by globalization, climate change, and shortages of food, water, and energy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seconded this view when he said that the Bush administration’s foreign policy risked “creeping militarization” by focusing too many resources on the Pentagon and not enough on U.S. diplomacy and international aid.

In retrospect, then, the clash at the United Nations over the invasion of Iraq was not merely between two nations, the United States and France—it was over the direction of the geopolitical future. The world needs to invent a new security model based on open, free-trading societies that feed from economic and political webs of interconnectedness and concentric rings of partnership and development, instead of on the model that has prevailed in the postwar era, namely, the big kid on the block with massive military might policing the smaller kids. While some criticisms of Europe’s foreign policy have been valid, the value of Europe’s smart power diplomacy has been underestimated. Europe does sometimes punch below its weight, as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has said, when it comes to wielding a military threat, but that has never been the source of Europe’s power and there seems little reason to change that. Indeed, its very success with its smart power, combined with the United States’ failures with its hard power, should be a wake-up call. In light of the ineffectiveness of America’s unilateralist hammer approach, the world is looking for a different style of leadership during an era when the direction over the essential policies as well as values needed for survival in the twenty-first century seems more crucial than ever.

Steven Hill 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
July 2, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ARE EUROPEANS ANTI-RELIGIOUS? Europe is a place of soaring cathedrals, churches and religious shrines, and I always cherish those moments when I have a chance to pass beneath their magnificent doors and archways and enter into the vast, calm, meditative spaces. Westminster Abbey, Sagrada Familia, the Duomo in Firenze, Notre Dame, Chartes, Cologne and Strasbourg Cathedrals, Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, the Sistine Chapel, these are just the better known of the hundreds of uplifting architectural manifestations of divine genius that anchor the European landscape. Whether you believe in the Christian religion or not, the massive spaces inside these god-like houses contain a flickering spirit expressed through stunning craftsmanship and design.

I am always struck by the sunlight filtering through the intricate stained glass, casting kaleidoscope patterns on the massive columns; and the exquisitely carved and painted ceilings, as well as the magnificent altars, statues, tapestries, friezes and murals rendered by creative geniuses like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Gaudi, El Greco and many other painters, sculptors and architects, known and unknown. Even in smaller towns and villages, often at the center you find a church or chapel with magnificent altars carved by the likes of Riemenschneider and other sculptors. The only places in the United States I have found with comparable levels of quietude, peace and spirit are in old growth redwood forests in California, where the natural cathedral beneath the lofty redwoods’ sun-filtering canopy reminds me of these human-carved wonders.

Curiously however, despite European’s ongoing allegiance to their cathedrals and religious shrines, organized religion is barely a factor in most of their day-to-day lives. That is particularly true when compared to the United States. While six out of 10 Americans say that religion is very important to them, even in Catholic Italy and Poland only a third of the public say it is. Certainly one reason for this is the memory of the destructive role that organized religion has played in numerous past wars stretching across centuries. Religious zealots in Europe, whether the Catholic or Protestant variety, have played a role like certain fundamentalist Arab Muslims or Israelis in the Middle East today, or fundamentalist Christians in the United States. These were organized movements of intolerance and discrimination, spurred on by historical grievances and in their belief of themselves as a chosen people. Religion in Europe has been the locus of tragedy, intrigue, theft and organized thuggery, an organizational structure promoting -- in its worst excesses -- genocidal mass murder. Naturally this makes the average European very wary of religion.

But contrary to what many American journalists have written, this collective memory has led, not so much to a secularism as to a very private form of religion and spirituality. Many Europeans’ spirituality manifests in a way that is more reserved and personal, and much less a mass religion. Indeed, on the whole I have found Europeans to be quite religious. They just don't go to church very much. No, we should be glad that the Europeans largely are over their allegiances to organized religion, considering the thuggish role that religion has played, and welcome this private embrace of individual spirituality.

Steven Hill 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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