Man Without Qualities

Friday, March 14, 2003

Grand Rentier

Writing for MSNBC, Dan Goure points out:

So it is fair to ask, even with some sense of exasperation, what does France want? The answer is straightforward. France wants influence and power. It wants influence over the international security order that is developing in the aftermath of the Cold War. France is no longer a great power; its influence will not come as a result of the size of its military or the robustness of its economy. It will come from imposing on the international system a system of procedures, rules and regulations that will constrain the ability of more powerful states, and particularly the United States, to act without France’s assent.

This is a rather grand way of saying that France wants the United States to pay for and maintain the world's only meaningful military - whose use will be subject to the will of France. The "superstate" of treaties and international institutions desired by Mr. Chirac is therefore a refinement of the observations of nineteenth-century French journalist Frederic Bastiat that "The State is that great fiction whereby everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else." The effects of the superstate desired by Mr. Chirac would be simpler: France and Europe would simply live at the expense of the United States. An aging France and Europe will be rentiers - but without ever having made an investment.

Britain and the other European counties supporting the United States seem to understand what the French do not: the French scheme cannot possibly work because the United States is not willing to work for France, even if the whole scheme is made very complicated. If the French and like-minded nations want to play in the big military leagues, there is no substitute for actually maintaining a substantial military - and that costs money, which requires increasing economic efficiency and overall wealth. The French and their followers don't want to pay the bills or make the economic adjustments needed to generate the wealth that would allow them to pay the bills.

Various questions arose with the demise of the Soviet Union that have never been answered. Why are there United States troops in Germany, for example? There are many others. Resolution of these questions has been sluggish, perhaps because once one really attempts to answer them one begins to realize they lead to very much more profound considerations. Why does NATO exist? Why does the United Nations exist? What the Iraq crisis is demonstrating is that to some Europeans - and especially the French - the answers to both of these questions is the same: to subject the United States military apparatus to European control. There will be no real multilateral reciprocity.

But if the world is reconstituted along the French lines, the United States gets little out of it. If the United Nations, for example, did not exist the United States would not have to be concerned with the argument that it cannot "legitimately" use its military without UN approval. Indeed, the existence of the UN appears to be stunting the development of international law - and is certainly restraining its recognition of the centrality of genuine electoral democracy as a necessary underpinning for the legitimacy of any state. Without the UN, the votes and positions of, say, Syria or Pakistan (current highly undemocratic members of the Security Council) would not be relevant - and that would probably be a good thing. Further, if the American military were subjected to the kind of foreign control that the French seem to envision, there would be a greatly reduced incentive for the United States to maintain its substantial military. That certainly would be to the liking of some American politicians. Perhaps that is why Mr. Clinton is arguing: "We need to be creating a world that we would like to live in when we're not the biggest power on the block." But in such a world as Mr. Clinton advocates, just who will be the biggest power on the block? Somebody should pointedly ask him - and his wife.

But to borrow a bit from Mr. Clinton's first Presidential campaign: the above considerations seem to be an argument for ending NATO and the United Nations as we know them. Or maybe its all a reason to seriously think about other uses for the land in Turtle Bay.

Or just maybe something will happen pretty soon that will make the preposterousness of the French scheme apparent to everyone, and we'll all wake up from it as from a fever dream. Then the games on the East River can continue as irrelevantly as before, with the biggest questions concerning the UN centering on what to do with all those constantly illegally parked diplomatic limousines.

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