December 29, 2005

France vs. America

The Economist, in a fascinating article on French anti-Americanism, argues that France (or, to be precise, the French government and intelligentsia) fights American influence when it can not because France and America are so different but because they are so similar. To be precise, both France and America are cultural imperialists of a sort, seeking to export their ideals throughout the known universe (unlike, the claim is, the British). The French cultural ideal is that of civilization, the American cultural ideal that of freedom. Given the inroads of Americanism even in France and the lack of French cultural inroads in America, one wonders about the long-term viability of French cultural ideals in the face of the ever-expanding influence of the Anglosphere (and especially American) social model.

I'm reminded of a thought-provoking article by French Canadian writer Pierre Lemieux, entitled Of French Caryatids and American Rednecks. Lemiuex, who knows both France and America, notes that there are two basic types of individualism: the rugged American variety (typified by rednecks who carry weapons and show little respect for established authority) and the refined French variety (typified by Epicures who enjoy fine art, fine wine, and intellectual conversation). Are the two varieties mutually exclusive? Is rapprochement possible between rugged individualism and refined individualism, between freedom and civilization? I have my own ideas in the matter, but I ask mainly to evoke an interesting thread in the comments section. ;-)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at December 29, 2005 10:10 PM

Ah, anybody who thinks that people "who carry weapons and show little respect for established authority" and "Epicures who enjoy fine art, fine wine, and intellectual conversation" are mutually exclusive has never dined with the Samizdata crowd in London!

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 29, 2005 11:26 PM

Apart from the racist name-calling ['red neck' is a colour reference, surely?] the idea that US rugged individualism is defineed by this type of hickville dweller is so out of date - say 100 years - as to be ridiculous.
As someone who has lived a bit in the US and studied it for four decades, what is striking about the mentality of many Americans is their can-do spirit, a positive attitude to challenges, personal, local and national.
With this is a willingness to accept criticism from anyone as long as it is constructive, and an impatience with mere talking. No wonder they hate the EU and the UN.
None of these traits are part of the French stereotype, unfortunately - the most introverted bunch outside of the Albanians, who had a good excuse.

Posted by: Barri at December 30, 2005 04:12 AM

No, Barri. 'Redneck' refers to the red collars worn by Scottish Presbyterian ministers. Redneck was first used in Scotland, and was emmigrated to the back country of Appalachia along with the Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants.

It's Microsociology vs. Macrosociology. The American model dictates means and leaves the results to be decided "emergently", and the French model dictates the results.

I believe the French and American models are incompatible. The French model of 'civilization' requires a central authority to define what 'civilization' is and is not. Lousis XIV did this very, very well, and the French government continues in this role by subsidizing French movies and television. The American model of course rebeles against this central, cultural authority.

Posted by: Brock at December 30, 2005 07:58 AM

I think obvious explanation is that the French are engaged in basic balance of power politics. The US is strong, so the French try to organize a coalition against it. They have been doing this for hundreds of years, it is just business, not personal. The US just has to realize they are not an ally right now. It is nothing personal, just business.

Posted by: andrewdb at December 30, 2005 09:26 AM

"Is rapprochement possible between rugged individualism and refined individualism, between freedom and civilization?" This is a bogus distinction. However, the question of whether there will be a reproachment between France and the US depends on whehter France finds itself threatened and needs protection from Uncle Sam.

Posted by: ksr;lkdbfj33; at December 30, 2005 11:40 AM

The answer is yes of course. The solution is to bypass the clercs and work with the ordinary French. Both types of individualist are compatible and each one influences teh other for better or worse :)
So I disgree with the facile dismissal thatthe French and American can't work together

Posted by: xavier at December 30, 2005 12:46 PM

The necessarily brief blog context does not excuse this sort of false dichotomy. It adds nothing to the discussion. Perhaps this is more obvious to me ... a gun-toting, authority-hating, fine art appreciating, wine lover ... than it is to those of the chattering class. Down here in Texas, our innerlekshul conversations tend to be more nuanced than the subject post.

Posted by: UncleKenny at December 30, 2005 01:41 PM

Mr. Lemieux's caricatures make for fun contrast but don't square with the careful historical record described by Fischer in "Albion's Seed" ... from which this blog draws its name. The High Scots/Scots-Irish who formed a frontier tribal society and ethos in America were but *one* of several pre-1850 "white Protestant" social groups, joined in the late 19th century by the Irish Catholics, and later still by Eastern Europeans. That "Red State" values have now become the bedrock of the US military reflects perhaps on general southern/mid-western economic exurban reality -- you can see those values now held by people of all ethnic origins -- a long way from the geographic and cultural origins in northern England. America's amalgamated stance to the world is much more confused. Robert Kaplan (Imperial Grunts) is great on the modern ethos and demography of NCOs in the American military. Robert Kagan (Of Paradise and Power) is better, I feel, on Euro-American contrasts ... and Walter Mead (Special Providence) brings Fischer up to date in terms of modern American diplomacy and its derivation from American cultural "nations." I agree with an earlier commenter - real reconciliation between France and the US will come, yet again, when the French are terrified of something. Til then, it may be "business" to the French, but to Red State Americans it's always "personal." Watching the banlieus burn will be a cherished American pastime in coming decades.

Posted by: James McCormick at December 30, 2005 05:02 PM

Jim, as someone who has spent time with the Samizdata crowd I'd say of the five items in the two lists, two are accurate - one from each list. Maybe.

But I would question the individualism of the epicure. It is, on the whole, a crowd mentality.

Posted by: Helen at December 30, 2005 05:03 PM

And which ones are those, Helen?

Posted by: Perry de Havilland at January 2, 2006 06:07 AM

Some backcountry values are prominent within the U.S. military but I think Red State values in general and military values in particular reflect a broad amalgam of American traditions. Although patriotism is the reason people serve, the military also reflects the ethos of the public universities (for officers) and the community colleges (for enlisted people). These institutions reflect some Scotch-Irish egalitarianism but their roots are really in the Puritan tradition. When not on patrol in places like Afghanistan, U.S. troops can be observed with their laptops taking distance courses, and when asked about their missions in far-away places the troops speak of helping people to build orderly democratic communities with schools for everyone.

Posted by: David Billington at January 2, 2006 10:40 AM

The French, along with many others, talk a whole lot about balancing American power and have tinkered here and there with trying to maybe embarass or obstruct the US geopolitical agenda. Even so, there is no real evidence that they are trying to "balance" us. If there was any seriousness on the part of the French, any hard-nosed dose of reality, then they would be quite aware (as I am sure they are) that military dwarfism isn't the way towards balancing anyone. In the last issue of International Security, there were actually some really great articles about just that - how there is really no evidence that anyone, save maybe China, is actually actively trying to balance the United States.

I think there is good reason for this - right now there exists a stable, though perhaps imperfect, power system. The US ensures the efficacy of the modern global economy - though maintaining the safety of the major sea lanes, pursuing the unenviable task of fighting a hot war against terror, and delivering tremendous resources towards nation building in many countries. This is augmented, in some degree or another, by the other great powers - the EU (including France and Germany), Japan, India and even Russia and China. Whatever seems to be an act of obstruction in many cases is just an instance of political expediency (read schroeder's antiwar stance and campaigning) or hard-headed economic interests (China, Russia).

In the end, it's pretty clear that if a few of these powers felt it necessary to "balance" the US - either through soft or hard mechanisms - the US would hardly be in a position to maintain its primacy indefinitely.

France is a willing participant in this game. The question is whether or not she is interested in continuing to play by the rules. If it becomes advantageous to actively balance the US, of which there is no real evidence, there is certainly reason - by the rhetoric of French leadership - to believe this may happen. However, as it stands, I can hardly believe that they are doing anything of the sort.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at January 2, 2006 06:22 PM

I think the Chinese do a little scheming with other potential adversaries of the US, but on the whole they have little interest in directly opposing the US, especially on behalf of the Europeans who are substantially less open to Chinese goods than is the US. One of the great European illusions of the current period is that the Chinese are dumb enough to be suckered into doing France's heavy lifting in an anti-US coalition. Brussels may think it's playing the China card, but in actuality it's the Chinese playing the European card, stringing them along in order to get their military and space technologies (cf Galileo).

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 2, 2006 11:20 PM

France enhances its position in Europe through anti-Americanism. It is good politics. The redneck stereotype of America sells well in the media, even American journalists believe it. The French have always been the world's primary mercantilists. They and other Europeans, including you English, are happy to have the US play the bad cop around the world, dragging suspects into back alleys and knocking them around. The Europeans believe that they can win commercial friends around the world by displays of "soft power" and they may be right.

Posted by: jimbo at January 3, 2006 03:56 AM

Jim -

I agree with you that the Chinese are dragging the Europeans along as their "useful idiots" - I think time will also prove that Russia's recent honeymoon with Germany will be categorized similarly. Still, I think it's a fairly safe bet to think that the Chinese are looking to at least become a theatre peer of the US, and probably more than that in the future. The question isn't whether or not China is rising - but whether or not they will do it as a cooperative partner of the US or a strategic competitor. China doctrinally seeks to balance US power, and is the only polity in existence that stands any chance of doing so in the medium term. She is the only country that also seems to be accomodating itself in that direction - through building a variety of relationships around the world (from Latin America to Central Asia to Europe), to developing a blue-water capable navy, to being the brainchild of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is arguably the only multilateral institution on the planet whose raison d'etre is to balance US power.

This doesn't mean I think the Chinese are being particularly aggressive in trying to balance the United States. I think that the Chinese are pretty hard-headed about the reality of US primacy and their own slice of the geopolitical pie. The best strategy for them is not to supplant the US in a 1991 type of scenario (which is unlikely anyway), but to gradually assume superpowerdom at the eventual expense of US influence and power.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at January 3, 2006 09:09 PM

I just realized I used brainchild incorrectly. Please disregard my stupidity! I'm sick right now and this damn thing won't let me edit my post :)


I respectfully disagree with your final statement about winning friends with 'soft power.' I think that while there are countries that feel better about working with the EU as opposed to the US because of their more soft-handed approach to diplomacy (read Iran), I think that is pretty clear to most policymakers around the globe that the EU isn't the diplomatic behemoth that they would like to think they are. Even if the EU does gain a few contracts in Iran, Sudan, and Burma, it doesn't make them any closer to achieving any kind of realistic parity with the US, or India (IMHO) for that matter. Frankly, I sometimes believe that Europe has a grossly inflated diplomatic role in the world, given its lack of regional strength (Kosovo, anyone?) - save maybe Great Britain.

Posted by: Anton Traversa at January 3, 2006 09:20 PM
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