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What a Difference 10 Years Can Make

French foreign policy has not changed that much in the last decade, but some prominent US opinions about Paris have.

I am surprised to read the headline "Can the E.U. become the world's policeman?" in the Washington Post. Anne Applebaum's latest op-ed about French policy in Mali concludes that Americans should "stop giggling about cheese-eating surrender monkeys and start offering logistical and moral support. Europe may not be the best superpower. But it's the only one we've got."

Wow. Thanks. But that's too much praise. Of course, the EU will not, cannot and does not even want to become the world's policeman or a superpower in the foreseeble future.

Still it's nice to read this as we approach the 10th anniversary of the transatlantic quarrels over the Iraq war. On January 24, 2003 the NY Post published the “Axis of Weasel” cover story about France and Germany and a play on George W. Bush’s denunciation of the “axis of evil”. And then there were the Subway ads, which SuperFrenchie campaigned against.

Anne Applebaum assumes that Europe has changed so much since the Libya operation and makes a big deal out of the French intervention in Mali and its context. I think she exaggerates, but she also makes important observations, which will change American perceptions of France:

In other words, the French are in Mali fighting an international terrorist organization with the potential to inflict damage across North Africa and perhaps beyond. Not long ago, this sort of international terrorist organization used to inspire emergency planning sessions at the Pentagon. Now the French have had trouble getting Washington to pay attention at all. Some U.S. transport planes recently helped ferry French soldiers to the region but, according to Le Figaro, the Americans at first asked the French to pay for the service - "a demand without precedent" - before wearily agreeing to help.

Ten years ago, on February 5, 2003, Applebaum exaggerated into the other direction in the Washington Post:

For different reasons, there is no need to pay close attention to the French reaction either. If, after Powell voices an opinion, the French argue the opposite, that will be no surprise. That's more or less what the French have been doing since the 1950s, opposing not only American foreign policy but American-style economics ("le capitalisme sauvage"), and Hollywood movies too - and sometimes quietly changing their minds later on. The earth will not move if they do it again.

In other columns, like the one from May 28, 2003, she criticized French bashing: "Even Colin Powell has talked publicly about punishing France, as if France were not a longtime political ally that has become temporarily hostile but a recalcitrant teenager", while at the same time making slightly condescending statements:

Yes, the war did prove, as everyone knew it would, that we no longer need military allies - and in that sense, Europe is irrelevant. But the war also proved we do need allies for other things: to help in the nation-building we have such a national allergy to, and to help fight our battles in the multilateral institutions we so loathe.

Sounds a bit like Europe's role is to provide diplomatic cover and clean up after America's fighting. SuperFrenchie had a similar perception from a column in 2006 and blogged about it in Old Europe: how come you're not cleaning up our mess? (Anyway, it turned out Europe tried much less nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan than the US.)

Conclusion: This blog post's intention is not to criticize Applebaum's op-eds from ten or seven years ago, but to caution against exaggerations in general. France/Europe did not deserve the criticism so many US pundits had during the height of the Iraq war, and we don't deserve the praise (for Mali and Libya) and positive speculation ("Can the E.U. become the world's policeman?") right now either. What a contrast to the NY Post's "Axis of Weasels". (The inventor of the term did not live to see the change, but died in 2011 at 43 and his obituary celebrates his headlines.)

Endnote: Similarly, I am surprised how many pundits exaggerate Germany's economic power these days. Not so long ago we were "the sick man of Europe". And in a year or so we could be considered sclerotic and in decline again as herd instincts will lead pundits and markets full swing in the other direction. The markets could change their assessments of Germany's innovative edge, export potential, creditworthiness, and value demographic decline. Moreover, the euro crisis could come back with a vengeance and then it gets scary. I think this August 2012 op-ed by Christian Fahrholz and Gernot Pehnelt is still worth reading because it goes against the mainstream:

The more open Germany is with its wallet full of euros, the faster its creditworthiness will deteriorate. We expect that foreign financial investors will make up their mind in due time and conserve their capital. In doing so, foreign investors would rather stay on the sidelines and wait for an extraordinary German recovery at the commencement of a new currency. Most notably, dismantling the euro in this way, i.e. the core leaving the periphery, may represent the cheapest way of ruling out the debt-deflation spiral, revamping European economies, and preserving the European integration process.

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