"Freedom Fries: A Conference on the French-American Rift Over Iraq" attracted a prestigious audience of European studies specialists, diplomats, non-governmental organization heads and graduate students to Faculty House on May 22. The luncheon, which focused on recent transatlantic strains, also welcomed an impressive array of senior reporters, foreign correspondents, managing editors, and one magazine publisher.
Indeed, the goal of this gathering -- sponsored by Columbia's Institute for the Study of Europe and History Department, the French-American Foundation, and the Sterling Currier Fund -- was to bring together a unique mix of players from government, academia and the media for a frank discussion of U.S.-France relations. Underlining themes included the historic conflicts of interest, long-term effects of the current diplomatic impasse, and future bilateral collaboration in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Panelists Robert Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia; Stanley Hoffmann, Buttenwieser University Professor at Harvard; David Calleo, Dean Acheson Professor and director of European Studies at John Hopkins University; and Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, all brought a different perspective to the table.
Paxton, the moderator, provided a brief introduction. As author of "Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order," a seminal work written in the 1970s challenging the myth of French resistance under Nazi occupation, Paxton noted the U.S.-France relationship over the past two centuries has often been stained. Still when France confirmed it was "unwilling to support the second resolution," for military action in Iraq, it sparked fury among average Americans.
"There was an astonishing degree of anger, visceral anger that lapped over beyond the political class into the general public, among people who hardly ever think about Europe or France," said Paxton, who questioned why the U.S. public and policymakers focused so strongly on France's opposition to the war in exclusion of like-minded nations. "Why so much more emotion when we have a division with France, than when we have quarrels with the Russians, Germans, Chinese or Turks," he asked.
Hoffmann, who holds dual citizenship in France and the U.S., said "an enormous amount of secrecy" surrounded the American negotiations in the U.N. Security Council last winter. He believed France's "stiffening" position at the U.N. came only after diplomats from the U.S. told their French counterparts that war in Iraq was inevitable. Hoffmann strongly criticized the U.S. government's treatment of France pre and post action in the Gulf.
"Allies, especially as old as France are not kids to be punished when they disobey the master," said Hoffmann, who also discussed the questions of rebuilding Iraq as well as managing weapons of mass destruction in other volatile areas of the world. "Even the U.S. can not handle all of world affairs by itself," he said. "It will take alliances and international institutions."
Believing the U.S. had strong and legitimate reasons for action in Iraq, Caldwell discussed what he called "good faith on both sides, as seen by the symmetry of accusations that went in both directions." He suggested Europe's division on the Iraq issue was the underlining cause of friction itself, with the major independent powers in the European Union -- France and Britain -- going in opposite directions.
"Only France and Britain retain enough of an idea of nationhood to act in a forceful American-style way," said Caldwell. "The European project has quite consciously thrown out the baby of the nation with the bathwater of nationalism."
According to Caldwell, France was playing a global leadership role. "[The Chirac government] was not simply taking a position against the United States; it had ambitions for the world order itself," he added.
Calleo, who believes the French "are remarkably capable of looking after their own national interests," focused his remarks on shifting new geopolitical realities. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, he surmised, there were no longer two superpowers vying for influence. There was nothing to "restrain [the United States] except our own temerity." Yet in our own "unipolar fantasy," Calleo added, the United States "is more dependent than ever on our European allies."
"America's role is not to set itself against the rise of everybody else," said Calleo, "but to use our predominance to coax others into a genuine concert of reasonable powers, to manage together the tremendous problems that the new century will face."
At the end of the discussion, there seemed to be a consensus of opinion on one point. Even if, as some at the conference suggested, this is one of the most serious diplomatic rifts in our 250-year relationship, there is still much more that unites the U.S. and France than divides them.
The French Consultate's Consul General, Richard Duque, noted that the U.S. and France do currently collaborate closely on critical international issues -- including the fight against terrorism -- and have stood side-by-side in other areas of the world, from the Balkans to Afghanistan.
"I am confident that the path to cooperation will be taken," said Duque.