The View from Paris
I’m afraid I haven’t been holding up my end of this discussion very well because it turned out that I am traveling to Europe just as things got underway. I’m here in Paris for some meetings that include some very serious intellectual-activist-elites from across Europe. A very distinguished group of people, and I feel a bit of a fraud in this very intellectual company. We had an informal dinner tonight with them and some other invitees, and as a way to kick it off, I put to them the five myths post from earlier in the discussion and asked them to react. It turned out to be rather a good dinner conversation starter. From my notes:
Without exception, everyone involved agreed that American policy was characterized by deep continuity across administrations. There was also general agreement that an Obama administration would be a heartbreaker for a lot of people in the world, because people have projected so much onto its generally blank stage – and will be surprised when it turns out that American policy, while shifting at the retail and rhetorical level between American ideals and interests, is quite firm over the long term. I asked what made that so, and the answer was not what I expected – bureaucratic inertia, etc. One French friend said, here in France or Britain, the answer would be that the permanent government, the bureaucracy and officials who are really “eternal France,” would immobilize things. In America, though, continuity arises because there really is a shared sense, even a vital center, even if American elites can’t see it, can’t see the forest for the trees. It was so under Clinton and under Bush.
Everyone pretty much wants to see Obama win. But many were equally fearful of what they fear his policies might be. A core concern is the area, interestingly, in which movement is seen as possible: trade and global economic relations. My heart wants Obama, said one senior elite journalist, but my head says if there’s one thing he might really damage, it will be global trade. (And this from someone who proudly announces himself as a leftwing Gaullist, pour la France, baby!) The human rights people, for their part, hated the Iraq war, and yet fear that he will snatch defeat from victory: the Americans must stay and win (from a Nordic human rights activist) and defeat must not be the easy American option today. What does defeat mean, I asked; it means American withdrawal and civil war.
Finally, getting back to the book, the perception of the Clinton years was that it was “soft isolationism.” Clinton was perceived by this dinner table as someone with little experience or interest in all that foreign stuff. The point of international law was to provide a rhetorical vehicle by which it would sound like it was getting taken care of, but there were no actual changes or obligations. It was only when the chickens came home to roost that things changed. International law, one experienced foreign policy person from that period said, was not a way to make things happen, but a way to avoid them. This is not a new view, of course, but time has not altered their perception of those years.
And the war on terror and 9-11? A senior French journalist said, Americans who get enthusiastic about the European approach to counterterrorism often mistake strategic necessity for strategic preference; we cannot have a war on terror because, unlike America, the enemy is as much inside Europe as anywhere. If we could conduct it as a war, we would. Meanwhile, within Europe, the weak links are Britain and the Dutch; if there is ever a return to internal passports in the EU (I quote) it will be because France will have tired of paying the costs in terror of what British civil libertarian self-righteousness has wrought. France is very practical; we say one thing and do another. American policy is madness, but it a madness that can be afforded by a country in which the risks are still mostly external.
Sorry that this is not more directly about the book, but it was all the very lively consequence of a dinner discussion stimulated by posts about the book! (My dinner companions were okay about being referred to in this unnamed way.)