Charles Cogan's well-informed, beautifully researched, and elegantly written account of a number of contests between France and the United States has two great merits. The first is that he emphasizes what lies behind many of these clashes: the confrontation of two universalisms, of two remarkably similar convictions that the values one's nation stands for are universal values; and the belief that there can therefore be no difference between the pursuit of the national interest and the quest of what is good for all. As Cogan points out, in the United States that belief dates to the American Revolution, that is, to the birth of the United States. In France, this belief begins with the French Revolution-- late in France's long life--but it had, so to speak, been incubated throughout the eighteenth century by the various philosophes of the Enlightenment; in the nineteenth century French historians, especially Jules Michelet, often interpreted earlier French history as if it all had been meant to culminate in French universalism. The trouble lies, of course, in the difficulty that each of these universalisms has in accepting and acknowledging the other one. The United States, long a negligible player in the field of international relations, behaved, when it became a major actor, as if its benevolence and moral superiority were beyond doubt and challenge, and as if all other players were too selfish, small, or evil to be on the same ethical level with the United States. The French, while acknowledging the similarity of goals of the two revolutions and of their respective proclamations of human rights, have often suspected American behavior in world affairs of self-serving hypocrisy. They have sharply distinguished between universal values common to the two nations, on the one hand, and on the other, a cultural and political way of life that they accuse the Americans of wanting to spread universally and that contains many aspects that the French dislike.
Behind many of the misunderstandings and collisions Cogan analyzes, we