As we consider France’s latest effort
to get back in America’s good graces, I think it’s worth examining the very nature of history’s alliances to see what they can teach us about where to take the trans-Atlantic Entente.
For most of human history alliances have been collaborations of mutual interest. Two nations, facing a common adversary, would combine forces in an attempt to defeat the opposition. Usually these opponents were other states, but we’ve also seen alliances based on shared domestic troubles – the Congress of Vienna and ensuing efforts to suppress French Revolution style fun being the clearest example. Alliances based on common identity have been attempted – Catholic Leagues or the Crusader Alliances of the Middle Ages, for instance – but when national interest diverged from shared identity, these collaborative efforts proved fragile. During the 30 Years War, for example, Catholic France eventually teamed with the Protestant combatants against Hapsburg Austria despite their shared faith. This betrayal, if you will, marked a turning point in Europe’s last great Reformation Era war.
Even Muslim powers have not been immune to the pull of national interest. While their armies were advancing from victory to victory, the Ottomans found the notion of alliances with nations of the infidel west repugnant. Yet as their fortunes waned, they realized the necessity of allying either unofficially or officially first with Britain or France against the Austrians, and later with the Germans during the First World War.
The post-WWII world, however, saw the renewed emergence of the idea that two nations could be natural allies – that their common identities would bind them beyond immediate shared interest. Although the great democracies of the West certainly did have a strategic need in banding together – the Soviet threat – the end of the Cold War renewed the idea that these democracies would stick together in the UN and other forums to advance a global order beyond short-term natural interest.
The current war in Iraq has, in many ways, shattered that ideal. The very concept of a “coalition of the willing” is a direct return to the old nature of alliances. We accept the help of repressive regimes in formerly Soviet central in the fight against terror and Saddam Hussein while “natural” allies like France and Germany, due to domestic politics and economic self interest – the exact ratio depends on your level of cynicism – decline to join our alliance in any meaningful capacity. This is clearly a return to pre-WWII style alliance building as nations form and break alliances on a case-by-case basis with decisions decided by sovereign national interest.
The idea of the “Anglosphere” has been advanced as an alternative to either the post-Soviet utopian order based on shared democracy and an old-fashioned alliance system built on national interest. James C. Bennett, in his excellent “Anglosphere Primer
,” writes, “To be part of the Anglosphere requires adherence to the fundamental customs and values that form the core of English-speaking cultures. These include individualism, rule of law, honoring contracts and covenants, and the elevation of freedom to the first rank of political and cultural values.”
Certainly an interesting concept, and one that keeps alive the notion that nations can be bound by more than simply self-interest. It also explains why Britain and Australia, and not Germany and France, joined with us in Iraq despite having similar cultural ties to America as well as a seemingly shared strategic interest in eliminating Iraq’s WMD.
I’m not going to analyze here whether this is a correct new paradigm of international relations although I do think there is certainly something to the ties that bind the Anglosphere together. The question I’m asking is whether America’s post-9/11 alliance structure should be based on national interest or on an attempt to keep alive the vision of a world where international institutions can exist independent of strategic considerations. Choosing the former does not invalidate the Anglosphere concept – we have great strategic and political interest in maintaining close ties to Britain, Australia, and Eastern Europe. But what about democracies France and Germany? Do we want to keep alive the postwar dream that our ties will forever supercede our differences? We need to bring France and Germany into postwar Iraq if this is the case. Similarly, what about the thugocracies of Central Asia and the Middle East? If we decide to continue our return to an 18th century style of alliance building, we can keep our new ties with these dictators, but such an alliance structure would certainly hurt any moral claim we’d make of building a new world order based on a shared vision of natural and civil rights.
My prediction? Human nature really doesn’t change, and nations will always put their strategic interest first. Bush, thankfully, understands this reality.