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June 6, 2004: Two Views. 1. Are we our leaders? 2. Pragmatic Friendship

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International Relations: Two Views. 

1. Are we our leaders? 

2. Pragmatic Friendship



First up?  Roger Cohen.


His contribution?


A very French idea, but it hides the truth…

Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune, Friday, June 04, 2004


This also appeared in the parent newspaper to The International Herald Tribune.  The New York Times publishes The International Herald Tribune in Paris.  They share a great deal of content.


Cohen, actually writing from Paris, says this:


An intriguing idea has been gaining ground in France on the eve of President George W. Bush's visit. It is that the much disliked president does not represent the true America, that the United States is some shining being or entity or thing to be honored on the D-Day beaches and distinguished from Bush himself.

Politicians speak of saying yes to America but no to Bush. The newspaper Libération warns Bush that he should not take President Jacques Chirac's expected expressions of gratitude as directed at him, but rather at America.  Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, says Bush is viewed "as the exact opposite of the values that make us love America."

The idea is very French.  It is conceptual.  It is subtle.  It is intellectually pleasing.  It projects the notion that France knows better than America what America really is or really should be. It harks back to the idea France shares with America: that the countries incarnate some eternal values and have a mission to export them to all mankind.


The core ideas?  The French like Americans.  They don’t like Bush.  A paradox?  Surely Bush is about as American as you could wish.  He’s from Texas.  You know, Texas, America on steroids.


The other idea, that France knows better than America what America really is or really should be, is most curious, but I suspect it is not that unusual a notion.  It’s not just the French who think this way.

Cohen goes on and rings the changes on the idea that any country is not, really, its leadership - discussing how the French do not seem to feel they are the people who spawned the “quisling, Jew-deporting Vichy government.”  Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government, was not France.  France was Jean Moulin and Charles de Gaulle.


Otherwise, what would you have?  Lots of sorrow.  Lots of pity.  And Marcel Ophuls films.

Cohen doesn’t buy it.


The truth is that Vichy was not all of France, but it was France.  The attempt to abstract a nation's essence or soul from its particular political incarnation at any one moment is dangerous.  It may involve a flight from responsibility, whose essence is honesty.

The fact is, whether France likes it or not, Bush cannot be distinguished from America.  He has the support of at least half the country.  His may not be the America of New York or San Francisco, the America of Michael Moore or Woody Allen, but it is no less real for that.


Woody Allen was the one who distributed the Marcel Ophuls’ film "The Sorrow and the Pity" in the United States.  Huh?  Somehow that fits in here.


Well, we’re not French, or even much like Woody Allen.  And Cohen says why:


This America is religious. It believes it is doing God's will in fighting for freedom. It equates pacifism with decline. It supports the death penalty and the right to bear arms and low taxation and it wants, in general, the state out its life. It is skeptical of subtle arguments, wondering what they really mean.

It holds that action is American and failure to support the president in wartime un-American. It even believes the president when he says the war in Iraq is linked to the heroism of D-Day because today's war is also a response to an attack on America and also about "the forward march of freedom."


Cohen concedes that there is another side to America – folks who loathe Bush and are “appalled” by the war in Iraq, and “shaken” by the untruths used to justify the war and “worried by a leader who so regularly invokes the will of the Almighty.”  Add that these same other Americans are “shamed by the president's stumbling locution” and of course unhappy, to say the least, with these detentions without counsel or trial in Guantánamo and elsewhere else.  In short, the French-like Americans are “aghast at the notion that the country may just face four more years with Bush.”

Two Americas then – one much like the French, one nothing like the French.


And Cohen says the French want ignore the one half in favor of the other, feigning ignorance of… the dark side?


When Fabius refers to the "values that make us love America," he is in effect referring to the values that most comfort France in its self-image.  That is to say, America as a symbol of liberty, democracy and the rule of law, America as an embodiment of the values of the Enlightenment, America as the New World's engine of ideas borne across the European continent by Napoleon's army after the Revolution of 1789.

These ideas are inspiring, it is true.  That they provoke France's love is understandable.  The only problem with love is that it can be blind.  This problem is particularly acute at a time when both France and America feel the need to proclaim their friendship anew after a nasty falling-out.


He suggests a little reality therapy for the French.


… Bush is America, just as Chirac is France. The two nations' highest offices represent every shade of opinion that makes up the two countries' democracies, and all the two nations' histories, in their darkness and their light.  No separate national essence exists.


Ah, maybe so.


But as Ric Erickson writes from Paris to Just Above Sunset


What he says about official attitudes seems correct.  I don't agree with all of his assessment though.  'Recognizing the reality' of the United States today - i.e. Bush & Co are in charge - doesn't mean the French can't honor the United States, by distinguishing between the government and the country.  There's no rule that says the French have to love every US president.  Not even all Americans do.


Everybody here who can talk is being very careful to distinguish between the United States and its WWII record, and the present government.  The 60th anniversary of the successful D-Day landings couldn't have happened at a worse time - for Bush.


US vets are slated to get French honors and a planeload of them are staying at the Ritz on the tab of the French government, including Rocco from Queens!






Second up is this Rohatyn dude who was the United States ambassador to France from 1997 to 2001 - and here he says France is one of the most beautiful countries in the world - one that is inhabited by some of the most intelligent and, yes, complicated people in the world.


The French Connection

Felix G. Rohatyn, The New York Times, June 4, 2004


His contention?


… On one subject, however, the French are united: they are consumed with anxiety (and curiosity) about the decline of the French-American relationship.  Despite the hostility generated by the war in Iraq, they wish for the relationship to be better.


On the American side of the ocean, there is no such curiosity, much less anxiety.  There is only a certain dismissiveness and this silent reproach: "They don't remember."  That is both untrue and self-defeating.  It is difficult to understate France's importance to Europe — and to us.  For both countries, a strong working relationship is a necessary and important asset.


He says, however, that the United States and France have been moving apart in fundamental ways for a long time now.


Why?  First, the Americans who the French liked are all dead and gone - those responsible for the Marshall Plan, NATO and the United Nations.  No one replaced them.  And, well, the world changed.


And the came Bush and the 9/11 stuff, and the result –


America's immediate focus became a global war on terrorism: absolute military domination was combined with the concept of pre-emptive war. Americans became more patriotic, and struggled with the reality that we were both invincible and vulnerable.


This was in stark opposition to what was going on in Europe.  Just as we were becoming more warlike and unilateral, France and Europe were working toward European integration while trying to minimize conflict wherever possible.  (It's worth remembering that France left the military command of NATO in 1966. Though it briefly considered rejoining in 1997, the idea was quickly dropped.)  What's more, as American politics became increasingly influenced by religion, France, with six million Muslims within its borders, was desperately trying to get religion out of politics.


That last observation is critical.  The separation of church and state in France, and much of Western Europe, is absolutely necessary for survival there.  Here?  No politician on this side of the pond can last a minute without proclaiming how much he or she is inspired by a quite specific god and an rigid array of proscriptions about what this god obviously sees as just plain wrong, and worthy of severe punishment, or, at best, exclusion from our life here.


Of course our economies are quite different.  Rohatyn covers that, and you can click on the link for details. 


But Rohatyn sees that this array of splits will not last.


While America's interests have changed more drastically, it is beginning to realize that solitude, even for a global superpower, may not be the best policy.  The Bush administration's request for United Nations assistance in Iraq and the recent cooperation with France in Haiti may be belated recognition of the reality that America needs the legitimacy conferred by the international community when it exercises its power.


Common sense wins out.


But as Ric Erickson in Paris wrote to me:


This isn't going to fly far.  Felix Rohatyn convinced the Germans and French to bail out New York City.  He is, you could say, not a disinterested observer.


Ah yes, Rohatyn is a wheeler-dealer of the first water.  He came from Wall Street.  He returned to Wall Street.


But then, Rohatyn knows a bad deal when he sees one.  Maybe for the United States, going it alone is just bad business.


Rohatyn is a pragmatist.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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