TCS Daily

Chirac's Folly

By Dale Franks - May 12, 2003 12:00 AM

In her book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman defined "folly" as the knowing pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. By that definition, it is difficult to describe France's policy choices over the past several months as anything but folly.

With the announcement of a new "European" defense planning cell comprised of France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium, France's folly continues. It has set off yet another round of disagreement within the European Union. Britain, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands have been highly critical of the new venture, and are opposed to any such defense planning that operates outside of-or duplicates-the existing structure within NATO. Spain's Foreign Minister, Ana Palacios, rather sharply asserted the obvious, which is that an organization composed of only four EU member states has no right to call itself "European."

For any nation, the chief interest of the government is the maintenance of national security. For half a century, France's chief foreign policy objective in this sphere has been to build an integrated Europe. For most of the modern era, France has either been at war or preparing for war against one or the other of its two Great Power neighbors, Britain and Germany. But the construction of the European Union has replaced these traditional national rivalries with a unified, pan-European political organization created through the sharing of national sovereignty. As a result, France has been made both more secure through the elimination of traditional European military threats, and more prosperous through the creation of a single European market for goods and services.

At the same time, France has also pursued a policy of serving as a counterweight to American power and influence, both in Europe and in the world at large.

In many ways, these two policies have been inextricably linked. One of France's visions for the EU has always been that a unified Europe would serve as an equally powerful player on the world stage, and one whose population and economic strength would be on a par with the United States.

But while France has pursued both of these goals with equal alacrity, it is important to remember that they are not equally important in terms of France's interests. French security is a vital interest, because it concerns the nation's survival. Serving as a counterweight to American power is not, because it concern's the nation's prestige. It is utter folly to pursue national prestige at the expense of national security, yet that is precisely the course the government of Jacques Chirac appears to have taken in recent months.

By actively sending French ambassadors throughout the world to encourage UN Security Council members to vote against an Anglo-American resolution on disarming Iraq through military force if necessary, France has alienated not only its most powerful ally, the United States, but fellow EU allies Britain, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands as well. Jacques Chirac's blunt warning to prospective EU member states in Eastern Europe that opposition to French policy might cost them their chance to join the EU touched off condemnation all across Europe. Similar protests have followed the latest announcement of the four-nation defense planning cell.

If America were a threat to France in a military sense, then perhaps recent French policy might be more understandable. But there is literally no prospect of American tanks rumbling up the Champs d'Elysée at any time in the conceivable future. Despite America's benign intentions towards France, however, the government of Jacques Chirac appears perfectly willing to damage France's primary trans-Atlantic relationship, as well as the unity of the EU itself, in order to pursue his policies. Moreover, he seems essentially uninterested in listening to criticisms by his fellow EU members despite the obvious damage his political maneuverings have done to France's relationships with them.

France's preoccupation with its own prestige goes farther than simply a reflexive anti-Americanism, however. It goes to the heart of EU leadership as well. Since the very beginning of the European project, France's suggestions have tended to become EU policy. This is not a situation that Chirac wishes to see changed. One of the primary reasons for Chirac's reluctance about EU enlargement in Eastern Europe has been the inevitable dilution of France's leadership of the EU as it expands to include new members who do not have the decades-long experience of bending to French wishes in European matters. This, as much as anything, accounts for Chirac's blunt warning to prospective EU members to toe the French line if they expect inclusion.

In this light, the announcement of the new defense planning cell looks suspiciously like an attempt to create a mini-EU for defense matters within the EU, and one in which French leadership will be essentially unquestioned. France spends substantially more than Germany on defense, and, unlike Germany's conscript-heavy armed forces, France has a professional, volunteer force. The inclusion of Belgium commandos and the tiny forces available to Luxembourg are hardly worth commenting on, except that these countries appear willing to follow France's leadership with appropriate servility.

For a policy to truly be considered folly, Tuchman tells us, feasible alternatives must be available to the policymaker. In Chirac's case, France could simply have exercised its veto power in the UN, rather than actively using its diplomatic corps to lobby against its allies in foreign capitals. Chirac could have refrained from antagonizing prospective EU members, which served merely to inflame their resentments, invoke criticism from full EU members, and further jeopardize French leadership of the EU. Chirac could have increased support for the European Quick Reaction Force, rather than antagonizing the NATO member nations by creating a new defense planning cell. Yet, at every junction, Chirac has chosen a course of action that has harmed France's interests in an attempt to bolster its prestige, only to have that prestige dented as well.

As the French historian M. H. Forneron wrote of Phillip II of Spain, "No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence." A similar epitaph may be appropriate for Mr. Chirac's presidency.

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