February 5, 2003

You Don't Have To Be Brave To Be French

My goodness, but you wouldn't want to be French or German. Not, at any rate, if you read what their English speaking friends have to say about them. Popping up in The Times yesterday, Max Boot (he gets about) offered the helpful suggestion that to understand French diplomacy, what one really needed was a 'shrink'. This admirably Soviet attribution of mental illness to those one disagrees with politically was, however, surpassed by a colleague of Boot's on the Op-ed page. For it turns out that the Hun, sewers that they are, are likewise more the victims of unfortunate circumstance than conscious, responsible authors of their own fate. The thing is, you see, there's 'an historic weakness in the German character'. I'm not sure if this is intimately connected to the fact that was passed on to me at university that the Germans aren't quite like you and me. Specifically, your typical German, I was assured, has intestines some forty foot longer than yours or mine. Whether this is what causes their 'two century long' historic character flaw, one cannot say, so further research may be necessary. What this casual abuse of the continentals points up, though, is for some bizarre reason those set upon a war against Iraq just can't relax, even in the face of (by their own admission) inconsequential criticism.

I can't, in truth, explain this. If the criticism mattered, if, say, the French were likely to back their vapourings up with a veto in the Security Council (for what little worth that would be), then I would see why the neo-cons, and the rest of the war party, get so excitable by contradiction of any sort. It's part of the same habit of mind that leads to one frothing about, for example, the mild, soppy even, rhetoric of the recent German general election, whilst at the same time, week in, week out, casually referring to the 'Euro-weenies', and the cheese eating surrender monkeys, and all of the rest of it. Were Weekly Standard contributors, for instance, children, rather than chicken-hawk mavens, then we probably could essay some psychological speculation of our own about, well, why they can dole it out, but aren't so willing to take it back in return. We certainly can't, if standing up to a constant barrage of pundit-based abuse is the measure of a country, fault the French and the Germans for their courage. For no matter what lunatic explanations for their behaviour are offered up here in the bellicose, Anglophone West, it doesn't seem to be resulting in much of the way of being-despair in Paris or Berlin. The reason for this self-assurance is very simple: there ain't nothing Britain and America can do to make them 'pay'.

Before we go much further, it's worth owning up to the fact that as much garbage comes out of the French - especially the French - and German foreign policy establishments, as does anything that spews out from Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations, and all points further West, or closer to the offices of the US Leadership Project. Take only the matter of post-bellum Iraq. French diplomats are, understandably enough, those who echo the Russian line on the sanctity of contracts signed whilst Saddam's regime is in place. They make the entirely valid point that the current Government of Iraq is de jure, in that it is recognised by every other government, and that therefore French (and Russian) businesses that make contracts now are making perfectly legitimate ones. This, sadly for them, will also be the case of the next government of Iraq: that it too will inevitably be recognised by every other government (including the Russians and the French), and being just so will have the sovereign right, every bit as much as Saddam's does now, to make and break contracts as it sees fit.

That, though, brings me on to why again it is that France and Germany aren't being as obedient as Britain is. Does anyone think that the US will nakedly rewrite economic circumstances in post-war Iraq, to the exclusive benefit of her, and her lap-dogs? Of course she won't, and for so many reasons it's wearisome even to think on them. Put it this way though, were American foreign policy as plainly mecantilist as that scheme of affairs would require, it would be a lot safer, a lot more explicable, and lot more sustainable. What destabilises about American foreign policy are precisely those hegemonist leanings that many in the current administration would like to see substituted for more traditional diplomatic goals. Just as there isn't going to be any great pot of gold for Britain and America in taking part in this war (in other words, just as France and Germany know they're not going to miss out on much), so too are the penalties, other than slavering abuse from Commentary et al, absent too. Thus it is that the German Government alternates between not allowing its airspace to be used by American warplanes for the purposes of a war Berlin objects to (and gosh how this teensy-weensy exercise of German sovereignty upsets our neo-con friends), and then again, actually, maybe, now that we come to think on it, go ahead. If opposition to the war were a matter of some great import to even this SPD/Green coalition, rather than a tertiary issue of remote foreign policy, the stances taken would be a damn sight more durable.

Believing that the war matters, in the sense of having profound electoral consequences, in any democracy other than the United States, is a category error resultant from a mono-maniacal interpretation of their general election (they didn't want the CDU chancellor candidate, it really wasn't more complex than that – in Britain this is known as the 'Kinnock factor'). It is an error fans of the war, lacking all sense of perspective, repeat time after time after time. People who believe in the centrality of the coming spat with Iraq to the course of world history, are the same manner of ninny who believe Tony Blair when he 'lets it be known' that his future in office rests upon the progress of the war. Nonsense! And not just because, in military terms, the war is going to be a walk-over for the Allies. Tony Blair is no more going to be chucked out of Downing Street by enraged Labour backbenchers because of British participation in this American war, than he was ejected from the labour leadership because of, well, any number of things he did that mattered, and they really, really didn't like.

Difficult as this is for some anti-war activists to accept, replete as too many of them are with predictions of Armageddon, the war's just one political issue out of a million-billion-trillion as far as most voters are concerned. Self-evidently it hardly exercises them much at all at the moment (otherwise all those killer anti-war arguments would presumably be having an impact?), and once the war is quickly over, whatever slight prominence this achieves as a political concern will evaporate. That this is so has to be stressed over and over again because, in political systems like ours, politicians respond to whatever it is that is politically dynamic – whatever is seen to matter, matters. The war, as yet, 'matters' to precious few people, and once it's over, it will matter, in this sense, to even less. That doesn't make it one whit less dangerous, it simply, I believe, accounts for why, the big battalions of mass democracy not being about to come to our rescue, the arguments against this war have to be framed in a way that appeals to the quintessentially statist mindset of the people taking the decisions.

As I've said before, although the neo-cons, voicing, apparently, the arguments for the other side, attract our attention with their pleasing hysteria, they're not, in truth, the ones running the show. The quiet, practical men of government, the bureaucrats-in-politicians'-clothing who predominate in the pertinent countries (the United States and, much less importantly, in the United Kingdom too) are as susceptible to reasons of state as all their predecessors have been. The alarming thing is that they too have to come to a similar conclusion – namely that there is no more risk in going to war than there is staying out.

– Christopher Montgomery

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration. His column appears here on Wednesdays.

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