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France, the Alternative That Isn?t

France believes the Europeans have found a better way to run the world than the Americans. But it is based in part on a historical experience that India and Pakistan may never replicate.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST

France believes the Europeans have found a better way to run the world than the Americans. But it is based in part on a historical experience that India and Pakistan may never replicate.

France feels it is a necessary part of its national identity to provide an alternative position to what Frenchmen like to term the “Anglo-American” worldview. Much of this is in the way of rhetoric rather than tangible policy. But it works. Most Indians see France as the West’s odd man out, the Group of Eight member which can be counted to dissent when Washington guns for some lesser nation.

But France does not differ much from the United States in its larger foreign policy goals. It was as horrified when India and Pakistan held nuclear tests in 1998, fearing the consequences to the multilateral nuclear nonproliferation regime and that there would be nuclear shootout in South Asia.

Like other Western capitals, Paris sees its primary concern regarding the subcontinent, as Professor Jean-Luc Racine of the Maison des Sciences de L’Homme told me last week, as being “how to prevent India and Pakistan from going to the brink of war every two years.”

And like pretty much everyone else, France sees India as a big emerging market and, as its foreign ministry officials grumbled, it doesn’t get much of the Indian trade pie.

So what then is the French difference? The difference lies in the ways and means rather than the goals. This has been brought out starkly by the sharp edge that both September 11 and the present furor over Iraq has added to US foreign policy. Paris believes it has found a better way. Officials, academics and other members of the French establishment were quite clear on this. Europeans, after centuries of warfare and worse, have learnt to settle their differences by talking, by setting up multilateral bodies and by developing a new postnational identity. “We nearly committed suicide,” said one French academic.

This is all the more remarkable given the Gaullist legacy of we’ll do it our way and only our way. Scarred by the failure of the US or the UK to come to the rescue until it was too late in both world wars, France insisted on a nuclear arsenal whose launch buttons were firmly under Gallic and not American forefingers. France was famously prone to being the lone wolf within the Western pack. It would break arms sanctions to South Africa. It would strike deals with West Asian terrorists behind everyone else’s back.

Then the Cold War ended, Germany reunified and – for fear of that a reunited Germany might rediscover its historical demons – the unification of Europe accelerated from a slow canter to lightspeed. The French were at the forefront of this shift. And there can be no doubt that while the process has seemed deliberately labyrinthine the European Union is a political success.

The new French difference

The French have taken this accomplishment to heart. From being advocates of the grand national interest, French officials now can’t stop stressing multilateralism and international law. They shake their heads at the idea of confrontation, insisting that any problem can be handled by diplomacy, by reconciliation and by international law.

This explains, to a certain extent, the French policy after India’s Pokhran nuclear test. “We wanted to avoid a policy of fingerpointing, sanctions and so on. We preferred to hold talks – this led to the Indo-French strategic dialogue – to try and manage the problem and bring India back into the international framework,” said a French diplomat.

It also leads to curious position on the UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir. While the US and even the present UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, have publicly stated that the resolutions are more or less dead issues, French officials demur. “ We are not in a position to dismiss UN resolutions altogether. We never say any resolution can ever be put in a drawer and forgotten,” said a French Foreign Ministry official dealing with South Asia.

It is not that they believe in a plebiscite. After all, Paris insists Kashmir is something India and Pakistan should handle bilaterally. But France has now become the most fervent guardian of the UN’s role in world affairs and will not risk the principle involved being diluted in any way.

As an analyst for the Centre for Analysis and Forecasting, a quasi-independent think tank within the French Foreign Ministry, explained, “There is a strong European way of doing things. India and the US are still married to a confrontational way of foreign policy. Europe has gone beyond the confrontational stage, beyond the nation-state. Asian nations have not gone beyond this stage, nor has the US.”

Pascal Boniface, director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques, went further. He argued that the European experience of working among themselves, of convincing and shaping each other’s behaviour through negotiations, is now irrevocably imbedded in the continent’s mindset. “Even if we become militarily powerful in the future, we will still be multilateral.”

This view was echoed by Dominic Moisi, deputy director of the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales. He said, “The goal of French foreign policy is not to find an alternative. It is to emphasize the importance of international regulation and law, of the UN, of order beyond empire. If the French difference is to have meaning, it has to be based on this.”

During the Peloponnesian War, mighty Athens laid siege to the small Spartan colony of Melos. The Melians told the Athenians that they should set an example for an international system based on laws rather than might. The Melian dialogue is part of international relations textbooks today. The lesson students draw: weak countries preach multilateral law, strong countries preach realpolitik. Most Frenchmen admit they push for international law in part because they are weak. Moisi laughs, “The more impotent we are, the moral we become.”

Jaw-jaw, not war-war

However, the legacy of Verdun and Vichy have played a role in French thinking. Today, the French and most Europeans, look across their blood soaked continent and marvel at the fact that for once they can talk of never having to mobilize armies or pay money to war widows. The success of the European Union has persuaded them to put aside their traditional Gaullist suspicion. “Even if you include the Balkans,” says one French academic, “Almost no one has died of political violence in Europe since 1999.”

It is understandable that the French are reluctant to break this pacific mood. And if anything the Germans are further down the path of post-militarism. Hence their curious ostrich-in-the-sand reaction to September 11, as if denying its importance will make it become irrelevant. Boniface, for example, is quite adamant that the World Trade Center’s fiery end “has not changed international relations.” It is also reflected in their fears about a US attack on Iraq. French officials seem to have an endless list of nightmare scenarios of what can go wrong if Saddam Hussein is overthrown. The contrast to senior US diplomats who muse about the possibility of democratizing Iraq or remodeling the Persian Gulf is striking.

Travelling through France this fear of the return of war, of ethnic and political violence, is quite palpable. “Emotionally the Americans are at war. The Europeans are not – for now,” says Moisi. And the view is that they would like very much not to have to make the transition.

The French are also insistent that the European model is applicable to India and Pakistan. “The South Asian rivalry reminds us of the old European rivalries,” said a French strategic analyst. French diplomats can’t stop urging Indians to talk, to negotiate, to hold a dialogue with Pakistan. “To ostracize a country is not the way to get it to reform, to carry out change in the country,” said one. “You must be benevolent,” says Boniface.

If one considers the origins of the European way, one has to wonder. The centuries long Franco-German dispute over the coal-and-steel rich region of Alsace-Lorraine does have echoes of the present Kashmir imbroglio. But how was it resolved? Basically, Germany was defeated in two successive world wars by a huge international coalition. A new Germany, disarmed and then integrated into a new Europe, was then put together. It succeeded in large part because Germans had suffered so grievously that they were prepared to try something, anything new.

It’s hard to see this parallel in South Asia. India is arguably further up the learning curve than Pakistan is if only because its democratically elected leadership is more sensitive to the dangers that a major war or military adventure can have on India’s fragile social fabric. In addition, India is the status quo power, it is happy with the present partition of Kashmir. Pakistan uses terrorism and, during the Kargil conflict, invasion by stealth to try and change the status quo. It is a low-level conflict that can go on forever. It is hard to see how it will ever produce the wrenching trauma of Germany’s post-World War II defeat on either India or Pakistan.

Henry Kissinger once noted that India lives in a “tough neighbourhood.” This makes it natural for New Delhi to think in terms of hard military solutions, as opposed to Europe where talk of threats is largely about too many McDonald’s branches or Steven Spielberg films. Moisi admitted this. “India has a security problem that makes its attraction to Washington natural.” But he added, taking in the broad expanse of continental Europe’s general social tranquility and mature civil society, “For threats from outside, the US model is best. But for the threat from inside, the European model is best.”

(Pramit Pal Chaudhuri was in France as a guest of the French government last week)

First Published: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST