Richard Reeves

Can the Only Superpower Hold Off the World Forever?

PARIS -- The cover of Le Point last week was a squinty photograph of President Bush under the headline: "Cet homme est-il dangereux?" Is this man dangerous?

Inside the newsmagazine there were a dozen pages on whether the American leader was trying to drag the rest of the world into some kind of perpetual war, beginning in Iraq and then moving on to Iran, Syria and North Korea. In case anyone missed Le Point's point, the first headline inside read: "Doctrinaire cynique, vissionaire lucide ou Doctor Folamour?"

"Folamour," of course, translates as "Strangelove." The lead photograph across two pages was the president of the United States standing between two generals looking across the South Korea-North Korea border. Bush's binoculars still had caps on over the lenses.

American policy, Le Point reported, was being set by an "ultraminoritaire" of the "ultradroite" (extreme right) -- and the world better watch out for those folks. Well, I happen to agree with that last part: Watch these guys!

The article and a lot of things said around here by politicians and "intellectuals," a word with great weight in France, could be written off as reflexive French anti-Americanism. Or envy. Or it could be taken as justification of the country's determination to use its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council to block the Bush administration's simplistic unilateralism -- or save the United States from itself.

But there is more to it than that. Intellectuals can say whatever they want about us, but I've always had the impression that the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen and women not only like Americans, they also are grateful to us for saving them from themselves in two world wars. I think much of the criticism published here (and more in Germany) is part of the obvious and very tricky imbalance of world affairs at the beginning of this one-superpower era. In one way or another, balancing forces are sure to emerge in the coming years.

What France is doing, and has been doing for almost a century, is living as much as possible in the past, at least geopolitically. Its permanent Security Council seat, which is what gives it the leverage to challenge the United States politically these days, is a vestige of being, barely, on the winning side in World War II. Even that power, however, is quite limited, particularly when you remember that the last time France voted against the United States on a major council issue was in 1956.

In a way, at least on the debates leading up to the vote on what to do about Iraq, France represents both itself and Germany, a more important and more anti-American country right now that has no permanent seat because it lost World War II. The current French-German alliance surfaced here last week in an amazing public argument between President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair over European Union agricultural policy.

Chirac, in fact, canceled the next scheduled Anglo-French summit, telling Blair: "You have been very rude, and I have never been spoken to like this before." The issue that led to the Frenchman's tantrum was Blair's accusations of secret French-German agreements against Britain. In centuries past, such plots have led to war. This time national interests and heated words led only to hurt feelings at the highest levels, but the Anglo-French-German regional balance focuses attention on the fact that one day Great Britain will have to choose whether it is part of Europe or the 51st state of the United States. Russia, too, a winner in World War II but loser of the Cold War, is going to have to make choices like that one of these days.

Over time, the same kinds of disputes and choices will challenge the world standing of China and Japan. Long after Saddam Hussein is gone, the United States is going to have to face up to the implications of having more power than it can use effectively and our predilection for dismissing the rituals of diplomacy. We can get away with telling other nations in our way that they have to choose whether they're for us or against us -- but sooner or later they will be tempted to try to gang up on us.

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