WASHINGTON — Throughout the last week and in his acceptance speech Thursday night, Sen. John Kerry charged that the Bush administration should have — and could have — won greater international support before it launched military operations in Iraq. Few presidential challengers have offered such a telling and disturbing critique of an incumbent’s foreign policy — telling and disturbing not for what Kerry said about the president but for what he said about himself.
The lament of international isolation echoed the Democratic presidential nominee’s concerns about the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Then, despite backing for the United States from virtually the entire world, Kerry contended that with more time we could build more support.
This time, the coalition was again large but missing France and Germany. After Social Democratic pacifism prevailed in its last elections, Germany was not a serious prospect for participation, so the real issue was France. Kerry argued that we would have been immeasurably stronger in Iraq, and throughout the world, if President Bush had given the State Department time to move France toward our position. “We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side,” he told the delegates, adding, “that won’t happen until we have a president who restores America’s respect and leadership — so we don’t have to go it alone in the world.”
Coming in the midst of the stirring oratory of a convention, it sounded right, but the Kerry critique implicitly assumes that the only issue moving France was the issue moving us — Iraq and the war on terror — and that the only reason for French intransigence was bungled U.S. diplomacy. As anyone with Kerry’s long experience in foreign affairs should know, both assumptions are flat-out wrong. That he apparently doesn’t know it is what made his convention speech so disturbing.
The French government has made no secret of its dislike of Bush. So it is easy to forget that the current round of Franco-American tensions began not with Iraq or even with the Bush presidency, but almost a decade ago. Despite the glow that some now insist surrounded relations in the 1990s, it was during the Clinton years that France began to complain bitterly about the American cultural invasion and our emerging status as, in the coinage of then-Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a global “hyperpower.” Squabbles proliferated, including over sanctions against Cuba and Iran, Clinton’s handling of the Middle East peace process and trade matters on things like beef and bananas.
Irritations continued to pile up into the Bush presidency. Recently, France announced that it may veto a European Commission decision to put agriculture on the table at the Doha round of global trade talks, a move that could all but sink those negotiations. And in the last month, in a move reminiscent of its arms trade with Saddam Hussein, it has begun pushing the European Union to lift its ban on selling military technology to China. Predictably, the U.S. has recoiled at the specter of weaponry developed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization aimed at its forces in some future standoff in the Taiwan Strait.
Discomfort with U.S. power and seemingly capricious, even self-destructive, efforts to thwart it have been part of France’s diplomatic DNA for far longer than most Americans — although certainly not someone as schooled as Kerry — appreciate. In the mid-1960s, Charles de Gaulle, chafing at American dominance of Europe’s defense, pulled French forces from NATO. During World War I, despite years of bloody stalemate, the French government hoped to head off an American intervention. It was unhappy about the addition of this new, English-speaking power to the European equation. A century earlier, as Henry Adams detailed in his magisterial “History of the United States,” Napoleon sold Louisiana in part to prevent the emergence of an alliance between the new American republic and its old mother country.
If such consistency in a history so long and varied tells us anything, it is that a few more months of American cajoling had zero chance of turning the French government around, any more than might a change in U.S. presidents. Still, it would be wrong to think that history alone — for example, France’s long-frustrated aspirations to glory — explains the last decade’s tensions between our countries, or France’s hostility to U.S. actions in Iraq.
A huge struggle is underway in Europe. At stake is the character of the emerging continental order. Will Europe shape itself after the French model of protected markets, high levels of state support, regulation of the economy and relative stagnation? This is the Europe that failed to create a single net new job for decades, but it is also a Europe of enormous social stability, at least until changing demographics overwhelm it.
In contrast is the model of post-Thatcher Britain, Ireland, Italy under the current government and the newly admitted countries of the old Soviet bloc. This Europe looks to entrepreneurship, business and job creation and mobile labor markets to define its future. It is not right to call one Europe old and one new, but they are different.
U.S. power and culture give daily reminders of the success of the non-French model, making any American assertion of cultural, economic or military might a threat to the French model’s champions, no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Together with France’s historical aspirations, this threat pushes France to try to break up the so-called unipolar world. We must come to terms with a simple truth: France does not consider itself our ally, or our enemy, but our rival. Its policy in Iraq is just one of many examples of this rivalry.
As experienced as he is, Kerry should know all this. Maybe on Thursday night he was simply threading the political needle, finding a way to favor a war for which he had voted while joining most of his party in strongly opposing it.
But if not, he was displaying a nationalistic narcissism rarely seen in major party candidates for our highest office. And he was setting up a Kerry administration for far greater international isolation than any we have ever known.