Under the Surface, by Thomas Chatterton Williams

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[Easy Chair]

Under the Surface

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One morning in September, a dapper Frenchman seated next to me in the garden of the Château de Tocqueville gestured solemnly at the front page of Le Monde, the house journal of the French elite. “We have to talk about the submarine,” he whispered, so gravely that I initially thought there had been an attack at sea. He was, of course, referring to the just scuttled deal that the Australian government had made with the French to purchase $66 billion worth of submarines. The revelation that the American and British governments had conspired to snatch the contract away, and thereby shut out America’s oldest ally, cut deep.

It was sheer coincidence that I was not far from Cherbourg, the idyllic shipbuilding town in Normandy that is home to an outpost of Naval Group, the four-century-old French defense contractor involved in the deal. And it was a further bit of chance that I was at the ancestral home of Alexis de Tocqueville, the aristocratic author of Democracy in America, perhaps the most perspicacious survey of the United States ever set down in print. I had been invited there for a conference by Jean-Guillaume de Tocqueville, a fifth-generation descendant. The Tocqueville clan is a living embodiment of the inextricable bonds between France and the Anglo-Saxon world. Jean-Guillaume himself is a partner at the U.S. law firm Jones Day. The family, his brother told me as we examined the various crests adorning the foyer, can trace its lineage to the eleventh-century Norman invasion and occupation of England, when one ancestor accompanied William the Conqueror on his fateful trip across the English Channel.

Late in Democracy in America, in a chapter lavishly titled “Why the National Vanity of the Americans is More Restless and Quarrelsome than That of the English,” Tocqueville observes that national pride in public affairs takes on the social character of the upper classes:

In aristocratic countries, great men possess extensive privileges to sustain their pride without any need to rely upon those smaller advantages which accrue to them. Those privileges, having reached them through inheritance, are regarded to some extent as a part of themselves or, at least, as a natural and inherent right. They have, therefore, a quiet sense of their own superiority; they have no thought of boasting about privileges obvious to everyone and denied by no one.

On the other hand, in more democratic states, “when class distinctions are not very great, the smallest advantages gain in importance,” he continues. “Pride becomes demanding and jealous; it latches on to wretched details and guards them stubbornly.” A quarter century before the birth of Freud, Tocqueville identified the narcissism of small differences.

From an American perspective, it has been surprising to witness the genuine outrage that French elites, from Emmanuel Macron down to the gentleman with the newspaper, have evinced over what can seem like a forgettable spat regarding a comparatively minor power in the Pacific Ocean. But it has been several generations since France (or Britain, for that matter) had the geopolitical weight to match its ruling-class bearing. Despite growing threats from even newer powers to the East, the United States still holds the reins. And if the U.S. attitude on the world stage has manifested lately less as lordly confidence than blithe indifference (or perhaps sporadic attentiveness), the French have been reduced to pique, shame, and other less lofty emotional registers.

As Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the United Nations, told me recently over omelets and salad at the Café de Flore, France has found itself in something like the unfortunate position of “a cuckold.” The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, sounded similarly stung in a TV interview, accusing the Anglophone trio of “duplicity” and even “contempt” for France. “They didn’t believe that the Americans would lie so flatly,” Guéhenno explained, and the realization has been shattering. It is further evidence that Europe—which was, if not a central actor, at least the central theater of action during the Cold War—is now undeniably at the margins of America’s contest with China. The AUKUS security pact and submarine deal, Guéhenno ventured, might have lasting consequences in a way the Iraq War has not. “Over time a lot of Americans came to see that the French were not so wrong about the invasion,” he said. “But this is about the betrayal of a deeper trust, which is not so easily repaired.”

A month after the hasty evacuation of Kabul, French people surveyed by the international think tank More in Common mentioned the combination of the Afghan pullout and the submarine deal as signs of an increasingly hostile world. For Macron, the opportunity to exploit such fear and outrage domestically will be hard to resist. They provide an opening for him to signal strong leadership and authority tinged with nationalism—terrain traditionally occupied by his 2022 rival Marine Le Pen, and now by Éric Zemmour, France’s Tucker Carlson, who sold a hundred thousand copies of his latest book in one week and is teasing a presidential run. Meanwhile, other polling suggests half of French people think their government’s reaction to the submarine deal—which included the unprecedented step of recalling the ambassador from Washington—has been too weak. It’s a sentiment that is particularly present on the right. “Something has shifted, not just in think tanks in Paris or Washington,” Mathieu Lefèvre, the CEO of More in Common, told me. “Will it be a wake-up call for Europe? There have been dozens of those. But something feels broken.”

Not everyone perceives such a mask-off moment negatively, however. “Both the exit from Afghanistan and AUKUS were useful for Europeans,” Thorsten Benner, the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute, wrote me from Berlin. “Those who had illusions about a return to some sort of transatlantic dreamworld of the past had a rude awakening. And for everyone, both situations signal that the United States is done with nation-building and serious about great power competition with China.” With the United States focused on Asia, it is dawning on many Europeans that Americans like them fine as allies but do not feel constrained by their sensitivities. If the Afghan pullout and the AUKUS deal make Europeans see the United States’ views of them “for what they are,” he added, “and not what Europeans would like them to be, that would be a positive side effect of the whole affair.” Europe needs to develop its own defense capabilities, Benner said, as well as ask tough questions about its remaining state-building exercises—in Mali, for example, where the French have been embroiled in yearslong operations against Islamist terror networks. It also needs to develop an independent approach to Indo-Pacific affairs and figure out how to continue cooperating with the United States wherever possible. “Most of all,” he stressed, “it’s important for Europeans to go about this with realism and in an unemotional way.”

In Athens a week later, at a conference organized by Monocle magazine, the mood felt decidedly less forlorn. The city’s young mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, hailed a new day for a capital and a country that nearly imploded less than a decade ago, crushed by debt that made it a symbol of intracontinental tension and even the fundamental unfeasibility of the European project. Tyler Brûlé, the founder of Monocle, has long advocated for a shift away from Anglocentric soft-power dominance, and the guests and speakers exuded this sentiment in between sun-drenched coffee breaks and lunches of skewered meats and crisp white wine from Santorini. As if to underscore this change, the selection of newspapers on offer prioritized German, French, and Greek publications over their Anglophone counterparts.

On the hard-power front, even as Boris Johnson provoked eye rolls with his grade-school pleas for the French to “donnez-moiun break,” Macron made a swift pivot from sentimentality to realpolitik as France and Greece unveiled a major defense deal, a sign that he is serious about solidifying military ties within Europe. As Politico reported, the new partnership will include commitments from Greece to purchase at least three billion euros’ worth of French warships, as well as a clause on mutual defense assistance.

At dinner one night, however, Stathis Kalyvas, a Greek political scientist at Oxford who was one of the sharpest speakers at the conference, was skeptical. When I asked him whether there was any reason for optimism, he demurred, calling the announcement a “diversionary move” with local importance that ultimately wouldn’t amount to much. “Europeans, and especially the French, tend to have more of a bark than bite,” he said. It is a state of affairs he attributes to an unwillingness to invest in a common defense capability, ad hoc deals notwithstanding. In Kalyvas’s view, the main takeaway—and as things stand, an unsettling one—is that Europeans, “like everyone else who values the good side of American hegemony,” were genuinely appalled by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “On top of the humanitarian disaster, the humiliation suffered by the U.S. is in no one’s interest and everyone knows it.”

At the Tocqueville conference, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut railed against American-style identity politics and other forms of cultural hegemony that he saw as undermining local traditions in France. (It runs both ways, of course. Not long ago, France was seen as the source of pernicious intellectual and social trends flooding American campuses in the age of theory. Today, progressives in the United States look to Paris less as a model of social enlightenment and sexual liberation than as a retrograde bastion of white privilege, systemic racism, and misogyny.) While the rest of the world may have lamented the decline of American stewardship, prestige, and status under the Trump Administration, and is rapidly losing hope of increased stability under Joe Biden, the social-media-driven spread of “le wokisme” only underscores the extent to which U.S. cultural imperialism—real or perceived—remains an authentically destabilizing force, even for our oldest and closest friends. In this realm of the conflict, the United States has no genuine rivals.

Yet culture is also the predominant force, far more so than musty appeals to the days of Lafayette and Eiffel, that holds our contemporary alliances together. The Parisians I know have an outsize affinity for America—both as a geographic destination they have sorely missed during the pandemic, and as an enormous presence in their daily lives. French people stream American shows on Netflix, follow the NBA, debate the merits of Kanye West’s Donda, and dream of posting Instagram stories from Joshua Tree. As it was a century ago, to be an American in Paris now—at least most of the time—is to bask in an ambience of unearned warmth and goodwill. Many Americans outside Europe, for whom the phrase “freedom fries” still resonates, may not realize this. The United States and France, after all, have always had a complex relationship, one that mixes fondness, suspicion, and condescension. Even though the immediate rupture with France will likely heal quickly enough, the United States shouldn’t take that as license for future callousness. It would be a tragedy to squander the enduring fraternity between the world’s two self-proclaimed “universal” societies. We are alike and connected in deeper ways than we care to admit, or even know.


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