The good, the bad and the better

When the U.S. began fighting in Iraq in March 2003 and France refused to engage troops in the ground war, our onetime ally became a lightning rod for Americans critical of dissenters. Some responded by dumping French wine down the drain, while a handful of members of Congress went so far as to rename the french fries served in their cafeteria, “freedom fries.”

Two years later, U.S.-French relations look a bit different, despite the fact that neither French President Jacques Chirac nor President Bush have altered their stances on the war in Iraq. But according to His Excellency Jean-David Levitte, French ambassador to the United States and onetime representative of France to the United Nations, “If the substance has not changed, certainly the style has changed.”

During his recent European trip, Bush extended an olive branch to Europe and Levitte believes that’s the result of an important lesson the Bush administration learned in its first term.
“America can win alone all the wars,” Levitte said. “But America cannot build peace alone. For that, you need allies.”

Speaking to a nearly full Huntsman Hall auditorium on April 14, in a lecture co-sponsored by Wharton’s Department of Business and Public Policy and the French Institute, Levitte said America’s other allies in the war—including Russia, Israel, China and India—have turned out to be less promising than its European allies.

Israel, for example, is a country preoccupied with its own complicated and often-violent peace process. “So, we are back to the Atlantic alliances,” he said.

Circumstances, too, have helped repair the U.S.-French alliance. The death of Yasser Arafat, the Iraqi election—which Levitte said was “successful beyond the dreams of the leaders in Washington”—and the Lebanese people’s will to get Syria out of their country have all aided in this recharged atmosphere. Middle East relations are extremely important to France, partly because the country saw its share of Islamic terrorism in the 1980s and ’90s, but also because about 5 million people of Muslim faith live in France today. “What is happening in the Middle East has direct consequences in Europe and especially in France,” he said.

Taking questions from the audience, Levitte spoke about the importance of the U.N., despite the recent oil-for-food controversy and in light of Bush’s nomination of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador. “We live, certainly, in a global world,” said Levitte. “Either we have rules … or we have the law of the jungle.”

Levitte noted that this institution was created by America at the end of the Second World War and said that those who want to dismantle the U.N. are in the minority, albeit a vocal one. He observed that America does not like to share sovereignty, while for Europe to work at the U.N. is similar to the European Union, only on a global level.

On that point, Levitte—a career diplomat who has worked in Hong Kong and Beijing and was a former diplomatic advisor to Chirac from 1995 to March of 2000—said he would like to see passage of the constitution currently being debated in the EU, as it would clarify the institution’s leadership.

To the only contentious question, about a movement afoot in France to teach the positive side of the story about French colonialism, Levitte deferred to historians, but emphasized the importance of learning the lessons of a bitter past. “We are a country with a past,” he said, adding that the future is in building relationships “not only with neighbors, but the whole world.”

Originally published on April 28, 2005