Politics & Policy

Getting Old

Allies? Depends!.

PARIS — At a recent dinner party held at a friend’s country house here, I was seated next to a charming young Cambridge thing, an anthropologist doing the European lecture circuit. Not counting my wife, she was definitely the table’s beauty-on-duty, and with a huge roast beef in front of me, wine to the right and her to the left, I was a happy Yankee in the land of King Jack. We discussed weather and earthquakes, Italian cars, and African history. I told jokes; she laughed! Finally, she leaned closer, looked me in the eye and asked, “So what does it feel like to be from the most hated nation on earth?”

I used to be more successful with women. And America used to be more successful with Europeans. So what’s changed?

Well, I was younger then — and Europeans were, too. When Rumsfeld talked about “old” Europe, my young table companion was exactly who he had in mind. It’s tempting to think that 50 years of close familiarity is what moved the transatlantic marriage from Ozzie and Harriet to Bill and Hilary, but that would miss the point. Old Europe isn’t about geriatric alliances. In fact, it’s only nominally about Europe. Instead, it’s about pessimism and its faithful sidekick, cynicism. Old Europe is a state of mind; it’s that left-wing rustbelt of worn-out ersatz-intellectuality that stretches from the 200 block of West 43rd Street past the Quai d’Orsay and on to the liberal establishment currently entrenching itself deeply in Brussels.

Most journalists, pundits, movie stars, and Cambridge anthropologists are Old Europeans. They embrace as a matter of faith the old, tired, trite notion that the U.S. in the hands of Republicans is a rogue nation “intoxicated with notions of American omnipotence and unaccountability,” as William Pfaff wrote in last Friday’s IHT. It’s a point of view echoed everywhere in the Press Sinister, European and otherwise. You can get it in a sneering editorial in the New York Times reminding Bush that despite the aircraft-carrier speech, he hasn’t won a thing, or in Liberation’s arch little “gallery,” showing “Top Gun Bush” and other administration officials in full-hawk get-ups. (Go ahead. Click on it. Condi Rice disguised as Michael Dukakis is really something.) Le Monde’s Friday editorial explained that nothing the U.S. does will matter until Bush manufactures peace between Israel and the rest of the world. That’s the oldest Old-Europe gambit in the book. You can bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians, then Old Europeans will remind you that you have not yet cured the common cold.

American determination and clarity of purpose are seen by Old Euros as “arrogance” — and it causes the old dears to feel nervous, even scared. The result of that kind of high anxiety was the low hilarity of a summit of the Antiwar Four — the Monkees of Old Europe, who, in case you’ve been on the moon, is France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. By now, all the jokes there are to tell about Luxo-Belge military muscle have been told. But there was a reason for including the two dwarves: it got the number from two to four. It’s hard to call a meeting between Chirac and Schroeder a “summit” and not a “consolation”. Besides, it allowed France to find a military use for Belgium at last: guarding the northern flank of its diplomatic Maginot line.

The meeting fascinated the Euro-press for much of the week. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warned in advance that the meeting represented a break between the EU and NATO. The BBC saw the meeting as an example of the “diplomatic warfare” that, following the conflict in Iraq, has broken out in NATO and now threatens to include Russia, where Putin met with Blair and publicly ridiculed him. The Times carried a commentary by Bronwen Maddox that made the Old European point clearly: “Call it payback, if you like, for the famous ‘Letter of Eight’, a testament of support for US military action by European leaders, which deliberately excluded France and Germany.” The whole thing left Le Monde to consider the profound difference between Chirac’s Old Europe and Blair’s new model. The paper applauded the fact that Blair, like de Gaulle before him, had a “certain idea” about Europe. “The problem for French diplomacy,” the paper said, is that Blair’s idea of Europe is nothing like Chirac’s.

By week’s end, the parade had passed and the Euro-press was left with all those same, old, Old-European problems: In Germany, according to Die Welt, May Day demonstrations went on while crowds booed Schroeder’s lame calls for reforms. In France, according to Le Figaro, May Day demonstrations went on while crowds booed Chirac’s lame calls for reforms. Meanwhile, Parisian lit-types were gearing up for an auction of some of Proust’s early paperwork.

In Britain, a comfy, insular insanity reemerged. Local elections were held and analyzed, by the Independent and others, into meaninglessness. But a typically Brit science item reminded me of a small essay I wrote long ago for Esquire’s 60th-anniversary issue, and since apparently appropriated by some pretty odd websites. Various writers were asked to write pieces celebrating manly virtues. My topic: “Work Well with Others”. Since I spent all my time sitting alone in my office, I really couldn’t type many credible words on that subject, so instead of my customary dose of cheap moralization, I gave instructions on how to build an airplane using a matchstick, some glue and some frozen flies. When the flies were thawed and the plane lifted off, the little critters learned teamwork. I thought I was being kind to flies, but the magazine got a swarm of angry letters from PETA. I was reminded of the piece — well, the flies, anyway — when I saw an article in the Guardian claiming that fish feel pain; animal-rights types were irate. Here’s hoping they don’t read Suddeutsche Zeitung’s awkward call for Bush and Schroeder to just patch things up and become fishing buddies again, the way they were back when they were both younger.

Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


The Latest