Perhaps, as Barack Obama’s apologists insisted, there was some adequate security reason why our global visionary of a president did not attend the Paris memorial march that brought world leaders together to decry the jihadist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. But the president sent no one in his stead — not even Joe Biden, who would have relished the opportunity on any number of levels. The inattention was not just a slight or an oversight. Instead, it was symptomatic of the administration’s failure to come to grips with the geopolitical significance of France. Unfortunately, in this, President Obama is hardly alone. And the clock is ticking. It is long past time to correct America’s vision of France. Without a swift, decisive reappraisal, our strategic fortunes will continue to wane in the Old World.
We begin, fittingly enough, with caricatures. From the outset, France has been anything but a nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. In 732, the Frankish hero Charles Martel rebuffed Islam on the march at Tours; his grandson, Charlemagne, returned to Europe a measure of its lost Roman unity. France’s kings sustained lineages that controlled and defined the continental political order for centuries, achieving a degree of cultural, diplomatic, and military domination that only Russia’s winter brought to an end during Napoleon Bonaparte’s one irredeemable error. Even France’s humiliation in 1815 was short-lived. The collapse of the aristocracy only increased the importance of Paris to Western civilization, a hard lesson for American and British enthusiasts of German political science. By the time they caught on, it was too late: The reactionary, totalitarian potential brewing east of the Rhine unloaded on France with a kinetic energy never before directed against a liberal democracy. Charles de Gaulle, providentially, prevailed, but France’s reputation did not.
The generation of 1968, the rise of the modern socialist establishment, and the untoward post-9/11 posturing of the likes of Dominique de Villepin combined to ensure that Americans who took global leadership seriously took a dim view of the country. Not only had France fallen off the charts of world-historical significance, Americans reasoned, it was not getting back on. During George W. Bush’s administration, the same dismissive judgment — not a holiday from history, but a disqualification — was directed at the rest of continental Europe’s once-great powers.
But the 2008 financial crisis changed all that. Suddenly, Germany was the indispensable nation, the only power that stood between European order and chaos. The old German talent for ruthless bureaucratic efficiency took on a heroic cast. Frustrated Americans who despised the French habit of alternating between strikes and vacations saw in the Germans a willingness to bone up fast on history’s demands. Humbly, wisely, Germany toiled away at redemption — becoming a champion of democracy while keeping its books balanced. Here was a responsible leader for a new Europe badly in need of lessons in responsibility.
Alas, Angela Merkel’s flinty diligence notwithstanding, German stewardship of Europe has been a failure. However much Europe longed for the economic force of history to do the work of unification that it wouldn’t trust to any political actor, Europeans revolted — not just against the austerity-lite handed down from Berlin, but against the notion that anything uncomfortable handed down from Berlin ought to be treated with deferential respect. Not only have the latest Greek elections underscored that fact. The course of things in France has done so as well. Instead of the milquetoast François Hollande, the French now look to Marine Le Pen or Nicolas Sarkozy for the political cues of the future. Everywhere in France, the only viable alternative to corporatist socialism is a more muscular, prouder, more assertive, and more activist regime.
And nowhere is the new French attitude — or, we should say, the old French attitude, regaining its natural pride of place — more on display than in foreign affairs. As Yaroslav Trofimov reports in the Wall Street Journal, the French foreign-policy establishment (rather like certain American conservatives in good standing) still sees the 2003 invasion of Iraq as “a major blunder that set off a disastrous chain reaction of Islamist radicalism across the region.” But the same establishment has utterly lost patience with President Obama and his nonexistent grand strategy. “In analyzing the causes of Islamic State’s rise and the peril of European terrorism it has spawned,” Trofimov writes, “French officials now place as much, if not more, blame on Mr. Obama’s decision in August 2013 not to launch military action in retaliation for suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
While Hillary Clinton guided the U.S. into an unplanned and half-cocked Libyan intervention, France’s foreign-policy hands pushed independently for a mission well defined by the French national interest — and well in keeping with decisive French operations in Western and Central Africa. While British global influence has been battered by internal division and diminished budgets, French influence, at a critical moment, has waxed.
It is not finished waxing, not by a long shot. As America fumbles aimlessly forward, Russian meddling ratchets upward, and German initiative falters, French observers have every reason to comprehend the strategic importance of their own newly recovered assertiveness. Alone, neither American might nor German discipline is enough to right the course of the West. Without a bold and inspiring European ally capable of projecting power in its near abroad, the U.S. is at sea — an awful place to be under any circumstances, and a disastrous one under present conditions.
Not that French imperatives will always align with American ones. Paris, for instance, has never worried as much as Germany or the U.S. about the problem of precisely where Russia’s geographic ambitions in Europe end. Then again, Germany’s solution to the problem has been a deal with the devil — cozying up so close to Moscow that the authority of its vaunted economic liberalism is systematically undercut. A resurgent French Right, without such gauzy and guilty commitments to the performance art of European financial unity, would help disentangle Europe from that schizoid psychological subtext.
Indeed, ultimately, only France can furnish a political credo as universally human and as particularly cultural as Europe requires to resolve its deepest uncertainty over its identity. Rather than virtuoso banking or a latticework of bureaucracies, it is the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the motto of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, that can orient Europe toward a future whole and free. To be sure, secularism as vengeful as that of the Revolution cannot lift France, rescue Europe, or lighten America’s load. Yet, relative to the religious wastelands spread across the continent, France’s role as a spiritual anchor is equally certain. Even Napoleon acquiesced to it.
Executing U.S. foreign policy is a demanding job, made more demanding in the absence of a clear vision of America’s strategic trajectory and goals. It may be too late for the current administration to recognize France’s centrality to those goals. But for those who would seek to replace that administration, the time to reflect on France’s return to a central global position is now.
― James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Beast. He writes for The Week, The Federalist, and other publications, and tweets at @jamespoulos.