European Affairs

Reconcilable Differences: U.S.-French Relations in the New Era.     Print Email

By Michael Brenner and Guillaume Parmentier.
Reviewed by Reginald Dale


The often abrasive friendship between France and the United States provides one of the world's most interesting, and entertaining, diplomatic spectacles. Much has been written in recent years about the cultural and attitudinal clashes between these two proud nations, both of which regard their competing values as "universal." Many recent books, however, have been of the dinner-table variety, explaining patiently to Americans what gifts to bring the hostess at a French country weekend or how to behave at a business lunch.

Less attention has been devoted to the more serious aspects of the fraught relationship between the two countries in the fields of geopolitics, national security, diplomacy, industrial and economic policy, the terrain on which these perennial rivals compete to assert themselves internationally.

That has begun to change with the formation of two new policy centers, one at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the other at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, devoted to the study of Franco-American relations. Guillaume Parmentier, one of this book's authors, is head of the French center; the other author, Michael Brenner, is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Their book takes a solid shot at explaining the differences in the ways the two countries see themselves, and each other, as actors on the world scene, and examines whether their differences can be reconciled. As the title suggests, the two authors believe that with a bit more effort, they mostly can be.

The book examines many of the key questions, such as the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of France's European policies (the balancing act between creating a strong Europe as a multiplier of French power and preventing Europe from becoming so strong that it erodes French national identity), the limits on French in§uence in an era dominated by the United States and the viability of French hopes to challenge American primacy by working toward a "multipolar" world.

Over the longer term, the authors believe that the historical trend is indeed toward "the benign multipolar international system whose modus operandi is multilateralism, which France desires and the United States finds uncomfortable." But for now U.S. predominance in almost all spheres is so secure that "its in§uence is only marginally affected by French efforts to cut Uncle Sam down to size."

Despite the impression of some Americans to the contrary, the authors say that "the French people's instinctive distrust of American aims and methods has weakened noticeably in recent years. Anti-Americanism is now the preserve of small, marginal groups on the right and the left and a handful of maverick intellectuals from an earlier era."

But although there may be some truth to that, the Franco-American relationship is likely to continue to be marked by tension and rivalry. "Complete harmony on outlook and policy is not, therefore, the appropriate goal of efforts to improve French-American ties," the authors say.

There can be no conclusive resolution of the differences between France and the United States, "since that would mean at least one of them, probably France, relinquishing important aspects of its distinctive national identity."

The book contains some gems for connoisseurs of France's self-serving views of that identity. We are told without irony that France, the country of the French Revolution, takes great national pride in its key historical role of "helping peoples resist foreign tyranny."

There is no mention of the fact that immediately after its revolution, France tried to submit the whole of Europe to "foreign tyran-ny," or that the pre-revolutionary France that helped America gain its independence was ruled by a King with more tyrannical powers than George III.

French people also believe, according to the authors, that Britain did not do enough to help France in World War I, and that an appeasing Perfidious Albion was also heavily responsible for Hitler's vicious rampage over Western Europe in World War II, including the fall of France in 1940.

"In both instances, the inability of France to pursue a more self-reliant strategy (because it was bound by unsatisfactory alliances) led to bloodletting and, in World War II, to occupation and defeat." Left to itself, clearly, France would have prevailed against Hitler.

"The trauma caused by dependence on unreliable allies has left its mark on the national psyche. This explains in part the attitude that some Americans perceive as prickly defensiveness," the authors say.

Such illuminating passages help to explain why a France that is deeply conscious of its history still often finds it difficult to get along with Anglo-Saxon partners, and why it sometimes seems to resent the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, the book provides too few of these insights.

Much of the book staidly covers the recent history of Franco-American relations and disagreements, in such contexts as NATO, the Uruguay Round, European Economic and Monetary Union and the Transatlantic defense industry. In an important sense, that is one of the book's strengths - an understanding of the clashes between Paris and Washington over the past decade is helpful in deciphering today's differences.

But the historical narrative also highlights the main problem of a book that claims to examine U.S.-French relations "in the new era." Most of the book appears to have been written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, or at least to refer to events that took place before then, the significance of some of which now seems somewhat dated.

We are treated to far too many of the opinions of former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, presented as if they enshrine the views of virtually the entire nation, although since last June's elections, Védrine has abruptly disappeared from the seat of power.

It was unlucky for the authors that the book came out just before the dramatic Presidential and Parliamentary elections that swept away the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and left President Jacques Chirac in charge of a large new center-right parliamentary majority.

Of course, a change of government in Paris is not going to alter the fundamental cultural and historical factors that make relations with the United States so uneasy, or basically alter the tactics that the United States should employ to improve the relationship.

"A businesslike approach to dealings with France that avoids rhetorical exchanges and over-reaction to perceived provocation is both desirable and feasible. Mindful that France does not have the weight to shape the thinking of other major governments or the means to prevent the United States from achieving its most important objectives, Washington should work with Paris where practical, forbear where necessary," the authors recommend.

Both countries should try harder to understand each other. France should "pay much more attention to the complexities of the U.S. political process than it has until now." Washington is often too quick to suspect sinister ulterior motives and dismiss French initiatives, even when they appear to tally with U.S. positions.

Preoccupation with France should not be an overriding U.S. concern, but Washington should understand the power France has in in§uencing the rest of the European Union. "A vigorous and frank dialogue holds out the best hope of making compatible American and French visions of the 21st century," the book concludes. That is hardly a hugely original thought, but it is one with which it is difficult to quarrel.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.

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