Learning to Appreciate France

By Saunders, Paul J. | The National Interest, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning to Appreciate France


Saunders, Paul J., The National Interest


AMERICA DEFINES itself as the leader of the free world, and there is much truth in that idea. But leadership requires having followers who are prepared to move in the same general direction. And walking a path without followers, allies or partners can quickly become self-isolation--even for the sole superpower.

The fact is, being the sole superpower does not always mean being the sole decider. Allies who are ready to make substantive contributions expect to be consulted seriously; not in a pro forma manner, but in a way that allows them to have real influence in shaping joint policies. Countries that do not have these expectations and are willing in advance to accept whatever choice Washington may make usually have their own reasons for doing so. Some may act out of a strong sense of loyalty to the United States for its values or for past assistance, but most probably hope for something major in return or, alternatively, don't expect to pay a particular price for their support because it is minimal or symbolic.

But many on both ends of the political spectrum seem captivated by a potentially dangerous and flawed assumption: that other democratic countries will, by virtue of shared values, bring their foreign policies into alignment with the American agenda. The trouble is that notwithstanding their common values, democracies--like all other states--have different interests. No one would expect Finland, Australia and Botswana to have identical foreign policies simply because each enjoys a representative form of government. And even when democracies share both values and interests, they often have different priorities. Without understanding these realities and developing strategies to manage them, the United States cannot maintain a position of real leadership, even within the "free world."

Take India. The Bush Administration often touts the new strategic partnership between "the oldest democracy and the largest democracy." But India has been a democracy for decades and, at the height of the ideological struggle between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union, often tilted towards Moscow. Even in the late 1990s, the relationship was a complex one, partly because successive democratically-elected Indian governments have seen an Indian nuclear deterrent as a clear national interest-even over the objections of the United States. It was only after the September 11 attacks, when the two countries re-evaluated their individual and mutual interests--and the United States was prepared to accept India as a de facto nuclear weapons state and to downgrade somewhat its alliance with Pakistan--that U.S.-India ties took off. India's relations with Iran could still sorely test U.S.-Indian bonds.

Germany is another example of why a neat division of the world into democracies and non-democracies doesn't hold water. Democratic Germany's citizens and leaders were adamantly opposed to the American invasion of Iraq and acted accordingly, in the United Nations and elsewhere. They were clearly concerned about Saddam Hussein's regime, but did not see their interests as identical to America's or believe that the U.S. approach was the right way to advance the interests we did have in common. One should also consider Germany's role in the European Union. Despite shared values and a common commitment to democracy, EU members often still have a very difficult time defining a common foreign policy--because even they continue to have different interests. This has recently been very clear in Germany's expanding energy cooperation with Russia, which contrasts with the visible skepticism of some other EU members--especially former Soviet republics or Soviet bloc states. Europe's common values do lead to common assessments of Russia's domestic shortcomings--but the differing individual interests and circumstances of particular European countries are what shapes their policies and explains the variation among them. …

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