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Charles de Gaulle: America’s Best Ally

Unlike America's current global cheerleaders, the French president rendered loyalty when it was due and honesty when it was required.

French general and president Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). (Natata/Shutterstock)

Charles de Gaulle: A Thorn in the Side of Six American Presidents by William R. Keylor (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 2020), 376 pages.

The signs are everywhere you look: A multipolar world is coming, whether America likes it or not.

For proof, consider the following events, which all took place in June: On June 17, the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters that “We have to tell those who try every means to drive a wedge between China and Russia that any attempt to undermine China-Russia relations is doomed to fail.” Ten days later, a laboriously titled bilateral treaty between Russia and China, the so-called Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, was renewed by the presidents of those two countries. Days earlier, June 23, saw the leaders of the two leading European powers, France and Germany, issue a call for the European Union to hold a summit meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Unipolar fantasies of American hegemony such as those harbored by an influential claque of neoconservative and liberal interventionists continue to cloud the judgement of most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Leading scholars, think tank fixtures and perennial political appointees have been chasing the illusion of a U.S.-led liberal international rules-based order since the 1990s. The self-serving delusions that the U.S. can and should act in the manner of a global policeman are viewed as ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world (with a few exceptions, including our proxies in the U.K., Poland, Australia and the Baltic states).

The question that we must address if we are not ultimately to come to grief is this: How can we make sense of this new, emerging multipolar world that is not of our making?

This reviewer has long held that we should start with a rediscovery of French president Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy. And I can think of no better way to do that than to turn to William Keylor’s Charles de Gaulle: A Thorn in the Side of Six American Presidents, an invaluable examination of de Gaulle from which our own foreign policy establishment could learn much.

De Gaulle’s personal relations with his American counterparts ran the spectrum from virtually non-existent (Johnson) t0 disdain and distrust (FDR) to exceedingly cordial (Nixon). This aspect of the book provides a fascinating window into the history of the time, but is perhaps of limited applicability to today’s foreign policy analyst or practitioner. Yet Keylor’s story becomes both interesting and potentially quite useful when he describes how de Gaulle deftly navigated, and in other respects shaped, the postwar European landscape.

Eastern Policy

Keylor’s offering is especially timely at a moment when the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, has been busy prompting the very Gaullist idea of European “strategic autonomy.” To de Gaulle, neither American nor Soviet hegemony over Europe was desirable, and Macron and outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel both seem to realize that the American mania for a cold war that pits “democracies vs. authoritarians” will do nothing to further the peace, stability and prosperity of the continent. Hence, their joint effort to pursue a program of dialogue and diplomacy with the Kremlin (a plan that was blocked at a contentious meeting of the European Council in late June).

De Gaulle was, of course, the father of detente and it was his example that inspired the similar ‘eastern policies’ that were pursued by U.S. president Richard Nixon and German chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Yet de Gaulle was not reflexively dovish, nor was he pro-Soviet. Indeed, when French security interests were at stake he was uncompromising. He was the West’s most vigorous opponent of the proposal (or threat) by East German Communist leader Walter Ulbricht and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, made in 1958, to transform Berlin into a “free city” and hand over access to it to the East Germans. This would deprive the three allied powers (France, U.S., U.K.) access to their military forces that were stationed there. De Gaulle’s response at the time was, “If Russia issues a threat of war, we must face the threat, even if that means war.” As the Berlin crisis came to a head in 1961 with the construction of the Berlin Wall, de Gaulle, according to Keylor, “was furious that the three Western allies with occupation rights in Berlin did nothing in response to this action.” Months later, de Gaulle remarked that “we should have destroyed this barbed wire with tanks.”

By 1966, de Gaulle’s policy of pursuing strategic autonomy was in full swing. Having removed NATO forces from French soil the previous year, he was now making an opening toward Moscow. Critics in Washington, not least among them President Johnson, harbored suspicion that his trip to Moscow in 1966 was a prelude to a Franco-Soviet alliance. But these fears were overblown. As de Gaulle put it: “How ridiculous! To see me associating with these oligarchs who succeed one another from revolution to revolution by [threat of] bullets.”

In the end, his approach toward the communist East (to say nothing of the American-led West) was not ideological; it was based on a realistic assessment of French national security interests. And on this, our own policymakers might take a cue from de Gaulle. American policy might find more success if it were based not on some warmed-over “End of History” ideology but rather on a hardheaded assessment of how to narrow the gap, as Walter Lippmann recommended, between our commitments and our capabilities.

The Problem of Overextension

If de Gaulle’s approach toward the eastern communist powers remains relevant, so too do his efforts at ending France’s own ‘forever war’ in Algeria.

Like our own civilian leaders who for the past decade-plus have tried to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan and Iraq, de Gaulle faced opposition from his military establishment. However, the extent of the opposition he faced was rather more extreme than that faced by presidents Obama and Trump: de Gaulle was the target of no fewer than nine assassination attempts by the Secret Army Organization (OAS), which sought to keep French control over Algeria. Still more, in the spring of 1961, de Gaulle faced a full-blown coup attempt by a clique of mutinous generals. Yet, as Keylor points out, “the unrest did not deflect de Gaulle from his overriding objective to find a peaceful solution to the Algerian problem.”

De Gaulle described the Algeria conflict as “a thorn in the foot of France,” and a waste of “substance, money and energy abroad.” He saw too that the U.S. was in the process of getting itself unnecessarily bogged down in Vietnam, and he repeatedly and publicly attempted to warn presidents Kennedy and Johnson to unwind the American position there.

In a conversation with Kennedy in 1961, de Gaulle predicted, “you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money.”

He dismissed the domino theory that obtuse American officials such as MacGeorge Bundy and Dean Rusk made into a cornerstone of American policy in the 1960s. In a meeting with Johnson’s ambassador to France, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, de Gaulle warned that the U.S. was only going to “repeat the experience the French had earlier” in Indochina.

And quite unlike our own establishment, which cannot comprehend how NATO expansion actually undermines rather than enhances American and European security, De Gaulle had a sophisticated, nuanced understanding of alliance dynamics. He knew that alliances have drawbacks and understood the risks they posed. His opposition to NATO was based on his not unreasonable view that a) a conflict having nothing to do with France—for example, between the U.S. and China over Taiwan—would unnecessarily drag it into a war with China and b) it was unlikely in the extreme, despite promises and the best of intentions, that the U.S. would ever trade New York for Paris in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. As he told Bohlen, “no one could expect the U.S. to risk its cities for the defense of Europe.”

Indeed, de Gaulle clearly saw the problem of overextension, and not just with regard to American power. As the European Community eyed expanding from its original six members (Benelux, France, Italy, West Germany) he took a stand against Britain’s accession to the club. As he somewhat haughtily observed “England was not cut from the same wood as France and Germany.”

Brexit, then, would not have come as a surprise to le general. And, given his well known views on NATO and his understanding of alliance dynamics, he surely would have never countenanced the North Atlantic Treaty’s expansion to include the former states of the USSR or former members of the Warsaw Pact.

De Gaulle’s wish for Europe to stand on its own militarily (a wish that was wholeheartedly shared by President Eisenhower) likely would have spared it from the delusions of Anglo-American NATO expansionists once the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact dissolved. It is these delusions that are, and remain, at the root of the current crisis between Russia and the West.

De Gaulle and America

At the heart of de Gaulle’s politics was a vision of one people; he saw it as the state’s role to pursue policies that cultivate the common good. His approach stands in stark contrast to that of our own cruel and avaricious neoliberal elites. Domestically, de Gaulle was quite forward-looking; to him neoliberal dreams of outsourcing the role of the state to the highest bidder would have held no charm.

Even before the Second World War was over, de Gaulle was laying out his vision of a postwar French society, pledging to abolish “the coalitions of interest which have so weighed on the life of ordinary people.” De Gaulle’s ambitious postwar program included a “sweeping set of social reforms that included a vastly expanded old age and retirement system, family allowances to encourage more births, unemployment insurance and a national health care system,” according to Keylor. “French democracy,” de Gaulle said in a speech in March 1944, “must be a social democracy.” His politics were a combination that is common on the continent—economically liberal, socially conservative—but which sadly holds little purchase among America political and media elites today.

De Gaulle has frequently been portrayed as being anti-American. Yet it would be hard to look at the record that Keylor lays out and come to that conclusion. Anti-American? Not really: Just a jealous guardian of French sovereignty.

Indeed, he was an ally in the truest sense of the word: loyalty when it was due, honesty when it was required.

At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy sent former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson to inform de Gaulle of what was unfolding. As Acheson was laying out the photographic evidence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, de Gaulle interrupted him and said, “a great nation like yours would not act if there were any doubt about the evidence.” Acheson left Paris with de Gaulle’s unconditional support.

One must ask: Could any world leader truthfully say such a thing to an American envoy today, in light of the mendacity our government has repeatedly shown in incidents ranging from the illegal bombing of Belgrade, to the wars waged under false pretenses in Iraq, Syria and Libya?

But by even the mid-1960s, the U.S. was exhibiting signs that its military and national-security establishment were out of control. Observing the American interventions in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Vietnam, de Gaulle worried that the U.S. “was coming to believe that force will solve everything.” He viewed these developments, as he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with “sadness.”

Unlike so many of our so-called allies who have repeatedly indulged our worst instincts and hegemonic ambitions, de Gaulle refused to do so. What Keylor’s history ultimately shows us is that de Gaulle was perhaps the best friend we never knew we had.

James W. Carden is a former advisor at the State Department who has written for numerous publications including the National Interest, the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, and American Affairs.

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