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Europe’s Gaullist Revival

Europe is coming back around to the great French statesman's point of view. But American policymakers have been slow to recognize this.

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

The nation state is making a comeback. 

Despite decades of pronouncements from Brussels and Strasbourg on the primacy of pan-European solidarity and cross-border cooperation, the European Union’s uneven response to the coronavirus pandemic has only strengthened a trend already well under way in Italy, Hungary, and elsewhere, toward a renewal of national sovereignty on the continent.

In Europe, reassertions of national prerogatives over trade, immigration, and foreign and defense policy have periodically risen to the surface since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but have only come into their own in recent years. During the 2000s, referendums on whether to further empower the EU via the Lisbon Treaty were rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands. In 2008, Irish voters turned down the treaty, before reversing course in a second vote held the following year.

The decade following the 2008 financial crisis saw a redoubling of efforts by European voters to reassert their sovereignty, the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU being the most prominent example. Euroskeptic political parties in Hungary (Fidesz), Poland (Law and Justice), Italy (Five Star Movement and The League), and the Netherlands (Forum for Democracy) have also achieved success at the ballot box.

The EU’s Coronavirus Crack Up

The EU’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated such trends, and has turned former supporters into skeptics. Prominent among them is Dr. Mauro Ferrari, who in April resigned his post as the EU’s chief scientist, telling the Financial Times that though he had been a “fervent supporter” of the EU, the COVID-19 crisis “completely changed” his views. As of this writing, EU member states including Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, and Sweden have recorded higher death rates per million than the United States, which, it hardly needs pointing out, has not exactly handled the crisis in a particularly efficient or effective way.

EU member states were left to their own devices early on, and, not surprisingly, they reacted by turning inward. Hungary has been widely criticized for passing emergency legislation that allowed prime minister Viktor Orban to sidestep parliament and rule by decree. Hungary unilaterally shut its border on March 16.

But it is worth noting that European states long committed to the integrationist project put their own interests ahead of the needs of other EU members during the early days of the crisis. On March 11, Germany reimposed border controls and shut its borders with Austria, Denmark, France, and Luxembourg, putting an end to the practice of free movement in the 26-nation Schengen zone. Germany also banned the export of protective medical equipment, including masks, a decision that was met with indignation from its neighbors. Italy, which was left to fend for itself, had to rely on China, Russia, and Cuba for emergency supplies and medical assistance. Still worse, it has taken the EU months to come to an agreement on a union-wide stimulus package.

European elites are well aware of the threat the pandemic poses to the project of European integration. A former aide to French president Emmanuel Macron told Politico Europe that Macron “is very focused on making sure that the French people don’t reject Europe as an entity that wasn’t able to protect them and the Europeans.” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen seems equally aware of the potential for the EU to come unglued. In early April she published an open letter to Italy, apologizing for the Union’s slow response and announcing the allocation of 100 billion euros to the hardest hit countries, starting with Italy. But Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, was having none of it, saying that von der Leyen “could have thought of this sooner. From Europe, all we are getting are words and smoke: zero substance.” That sentiment is shared by a majority of Italians, 59 percent of whom now believe that the EU no longer makes sense.

Yet critics of the nationalist response to the pandemic see darker forces at play, particularly when it comes to Hungary. Writing in The Atlantic, the neoconservative journalist Anne Applebaum claims that Orban is using the crisis to push through illiberal policies on everything from transgender rights to government oversight. The liberal American Prospectsays that “Viktor Orban has long been Europe’s leading authoritarian entrepreneur, and his new dictatorial powers are the culmination of a decade of increasingly strong-armed rule.” But overwrought pronouncements such as these only prove the truth of the late journalist Alexander Cockburn’s observation that “American discussions of Europe swivel between rationality and hysteria.” This very much remains the case today: in recent years, Orban has emerged alongside Russia’s Vladimir Putin as one of the apex-villains of American neocons and liberal interventionists for his tough line on immigration and his conservative social policies.

But concerns over mass migration and the toll it inevitably takes on national cohesiveness have not been the sole province of conservatives like Orban. On the European left, the social democratic prime minister of Denmark, Matte Frederiksen, campaigned and won on a platform calling for stricter immigration laws. As Matthew Dal Santo noted in a piece for The American Conservative, Frederiksen “is one of the few leaders from Europe’s left that has spoken out against mass migration and the European Union’s freedom of movement on the grounds of both the deleterious effect on working class jobs and the cultural solidarity of the nation.” 

Views such as these were commonly held by European social democrats as recently as a generation ago. Today they seem poised to make a comeback. Indeed, what we are currently witnessing in Europe is really more of a revival of Gaullism than a revival of authoritarianism, as pundits like Applebaum would have us believe.

Mistaking Gaullism for authoritarianism will only midwife bad policy. Debunking the idea that European leaders like Orban represent a revival of authoritarianism on the continent will allow American policymakers to see things more clearly, and free them from the alarm and hostility which marks much of our elite discourse regarding governments that are socially conservative and mindful of their sovereignty.

If, as I believe, the direction Europe is taking is toward Gaullism, it might be helpful to outline, in broad strokes, what is meant by the term and why it describes what is happening better than the pejorative “authoritarianism,” which neoconservative and liberal critics frequently deploy to shut down discussion and debate.

We should start by acknowledging that Gaullism is not without its critics. Andrew Hussey of the University of London recently dismissed Gaullism as “whatever de Gaulle decided it was at any given moment.” The late historian Stanley Hoffmann derided “the ideological emptiness” of Gaullism, which he claimed was “a stance not a doctrine; an attitude not a coherent set of dogmas; a style without much substance.” 

But a close look at the policies and public statements issued by Charles de Gaulle, particularly during the years 1958–1969, during which he served as president of the Fifth Republic, reveals Gaullism as a governing philosophy based on the primacy of national sovereignty and the nation state; on skepticism of Atlanticism and America’s imperial pretensions; on respect for national traditions; and on the value of East-West relations as exemplified by German chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and U.S. president Richard Nixon’s détente.

Recalling de Gaulle

In early 1943, a report written for the Free French forces headquartered in London sought to sketch out a philosophical basis on which to base postwar France. Included among the many topics covered by the report was a discussion as to why “human collectivities” such as “country, family, or any other” have intrinsic value.

The degree of respect owing to human collectivities is a very high one, for several reasons. To start with, each is unique and if destroyed, cannot be replaced… It constitutes the sole agency for preserving the spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead, the sole transmitting agency by means of which the dead can speak to the living.

The report’s author, Simone Weil, would die later that year at the age of 34. De Gaulle, for whom, after all, the report was written, made the primacy of the collectivity (i.e. the nation state) in international relations key to his worldview. As the general himself eloquently put it in 1962, “The nation is a human and a sentimental element…there cannot be any Europe other than that of the states, apart from in myths, fiction, and parades.” 

As leader of the Free French, and later as president of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle was a tireless champion of French sovereignty. De Gaulle’s views are partly owed to his wartime encounters with U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dismissed the general as a “prima donna” and “fanatic.” France’s exclusion from the Allied war council at Potsdam resulted in de Gaulle’s lifelong suspicion of American and British motives. De Gaulle’s wartime experiences led him to conclude that “in foreign affairs, logic and sentiment do not weigh heavily in comparison with the realities of power; that what matters is what one takes and what one can hold onto; that to regain her place, France must count only on herself.” 

Two decades after suffering the slight at Potsdam, de Gaulle would have a revenge of sorts. In March 1966, de Gaulle announced that he was removing France from NATO’s integrated command structure. All NATO bases were to be closed and all U.S. forces were to be removed from French soil by April of the following year. His reason for withdrawing was clear to the U.S. ambassador to France, Charles Bohlen, who observed that after the Cuban Missile Crisis, de Gaulle realized that a war between the U.S. and USSR could “break out over an issue which had no relation whatsoever to European security or interests. In such an event Western Europe, under the integrated structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would be sucked into the vortex.”

This was not the first time the general had scuttled American and British plans for increased military cooperation. In 1963, de Gaulle put a stop to plans for a multilateral nuclear force, which De Gaulle rejected on the grounds that participation in such a force would impinge on French sovereignty. In his memoirs, Bohlen noted that he became “convinced, from a dozen or so conversations with him that to de Gaulle the only entity in the international field with a continuing vitality was the état-nation, the nation-state.”

A second element of Gaullism is its skepticism of Atlanticism and of America’s imperial pretensions. Once again, de Gaulle’s views were colored by his wartime experience. As the Second World War unfolded, he began to perceive a “messianic impulse” on the part of the U.S. which moved it “toward vast undertakings.” Its desire to “help those who were in misery or bondage the world over, yielded in her turn to that taste for interventions in which the instinct for domination cloaked itself.” The Johns Hopkins scholar Dana Allin observes that when he became president in 1958, de Gaulle’s policies became “a catalogue of resistance to the logic of American hegemony.” 

This resistance manifested itself through de Gaulle’s staunch opposition to what he felt were unwarranted American encroachments on the political and economic life of the continent. His rejection of Britain’s application to the Common Market was based on his view that the UK served as a stalking horse for American interests. Likewise, his Euroskepticism was fueled by his view that “a supranational Europe is a Europe under American command.”

In the end, de Gaulle felt that America had more power than was good for it. “We lacked,” wrote Bohlen, “most of the attributes which de Gaulle felt were essential for a stable country… He felt we were materialistic without the solid, civilizing tradition of, say, France.”

From the Atlantic to the Urals

Milan Kundera has written that while a man knows that he is mortal, “he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life.” That was surely de Gaulle’s view as well, and itwas for that reason he believed that communism’s hold on the East would prove temporary. This insight led de Gaulle to pursue a policy of Ostpolitik. His diplomatic overtures to both Beijing and Moscow were informed by his view that ideologies were temporary, but nations were “eternal.” As such, de Gaulle felt that Russia’s true place was in Europe. A 10-day visit to France by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 left de Gaulle with the feeling that the Russians were not looking for war and that “one day they will line up again with Europe.”

In 2014, speaker of the Russian Duma Sergei Naryshkin remembered “General de Gaulle as the author of an idea of unified Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.” “His scenario of providing a safe future for Europe,” said Naryshkin, “is relevant in our days and does not have an alternative.” 

Critics have suggested such an endgame is unrealistic. William J. Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the second Bush administration and later as deputy secretary of state under President Obama, is of the opinion that “Russia is too big, too proud, and too self-conscious of its own history to fit neatly into a ‘Europe whole and free.’” No doubt part of the reason for the alarm expressed by neoconservative critics such as Applebaum is that the more Gaullist Europe becomes, the more conducive it will be for better relations with Russia. This is what the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment fears most, not, as they would have us believe, Orban’s illiberalism or Salvini’s Euro-skepticism. But U.S. interests would certainly benefit from a Europe at peace with itself, and a Europe unable to coexist with Russia is likely to suffer from a surfeit of economic and political instability.

Astute observers without an ideological axe to grind have remarked upon the similarities between the foreign policies pursued by both Putin and de Gaulle. Professor Marlene Laurelle notes that “de Gaulle promoted a Europe of nations, relatively friendly toward the Soviet Union, in which he saw a new kind of eternal Russia.” According to Laurelle, “The parallel with the Russian state’s vision of the world today is striking, in particular the insistence on a Europe of nations that would interact closely with Russia and distance itself from both the ‘Atlanticist’ world and its institutions, such as NATO, and from Brussels-based European institutions.” 

To George Ball, who encountered de Gaulle numerous times as U.S. under secretary of state during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, de Gaulle’s “whole life was dedicated to prove…that he could somehow make France a superpower in spite of itself.” In Ball’s unfavorable estimation, de Gaulle’s “great weakness” was that he habitually faced “backwards, seeing the centuries that are past, not the future that is to come..” A critical article in The Atlantic in November 1960 ridiculed de Gaulle’s great power pretensions as “a case of national megalomania, a pathetic effort to emulate the frog which, in La Fontaine’s fable, wanted to blow itself up to the size of a bull.” 

Fast forward to 2014 and a story in The Atlantic informs us that “Putin may or may not be a clinical narcissist, but it may be wise just to treat him like one either way.” Some of the criticism leveled at de Gaulle in his day is similar to that directed at the current Russian president, particularly when it comes to his pursuit of derzhavnost, great power status. 

But the quest for respect on the international stage is driven by more than narcissism and megalomania. Putin and de Gaulle’s yearnings for great power status are rooted in memories of national humiliation. For de Gaulle it was France’s defeat at the hand of the Germans in June 1940; for Putin it is the collapse of the Soviet empire and the catastrophic economic and demographic collapse that followed. 

In a recent and controversial essay on the origins of the Second World War in The National Interest, Putin observed that “even the most insurmountable contradictions—geopolitical, ideological, economic—do not prevent us from finding forms of peaceful coexistence and interaction, if there is the desire and will to do so.” Such sentiments, if sincere, hold out the possibility of a new era of cooperation between Russia and Europe.

An Opportunity for the US?

French president Emmanuel Macron signaled that he intended to pursue a Gaullist foreign policy even before he was elected. During the 2017 campaign, he said he fully embraced the “Gaullo-Mitterandist” approach to foreign affairs, that is, an approach that values sovereignty, independence, and strategic autonomy. After assuming office, Macron pledged to “bring an end to the form of neoconservatism that has been imported to France over the past 10 years.” Macron’s Gaullism is also apparent in his criticism of NATO, which not long ago he criticized as “experiencing brain death.” 

It is not surprising then that Macron has signaled his growing impatience with the new cold war with Russia. In April, he chose Hubert Védrine to fill France’s seat on a NATO commission set up to consider the alliance’s future. Védrine, perhaps best known as the man who coined the term “hyperpower” to describe U.S. foreign policy, has stated that France “must reinvent our relations with Russia without waiting for Trump, who, if he is re-elected, will relaunch a dynamic between the United States and Russia without taking into account the interests of Europe.” In 2019, Macron voiced support for Russia’s return to the Council of Europe and backed Trump’s push to invite Putin to the next meeting of the G7, a move opposed by the UK and Canada. 

The EU may become one of the pandemic’s most prominent victims. Yet the disintegration of the EU should not be met with too much consternation by American policymakers: Europe’s future is, after all, a matter for Europeans to decide. Instead, the U.S. should see in the current moment an opportunity to replace decaying, increasingly irrelevant Atlanticist institutions and begin work on a new security architecture that takes into account the interests of the whole continent. Gaullism, not unaccountable supranational institutions, represents the best chance for a Europe at peace with its neighbors—and with itself.

So how might American policymakers respond to an increasingly Gaullist Europe? 

A good starting point would be to take the advice offered to the Kennedy White House by Charles Bohlen. In a memo prepared for Kennedy’s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bohlen expressed his doubt that much could be done to improve Franco-American relations at that time. Bohlen’s advice was simply to realize the futility of fighting with de Gaulle and to “go on with day to day questions as they come up.” 

This suggests dealing with allies and others with whom we disagree in a pragmatic, non-ideological way. This is an approach that could be especially useful today, particularly when “democratic backsliding” in Eastern Europe is receiving perhaps more attention than it deserves due to the posturing of cosseted think tankoperatives in Washington. U.S. foreign policy would find more success if it, like de Gaulle’s, was premised on pluralism, on an acceptance of the richness and diversity of other systems, which themselves are the product of disparate histories, cultures, geographies, economies, and religious traditions. 

De Gaulle knew that power cannot solve everything; and it was his view that the U.S. had too much power than was good for it or the world. And this remains the case today. De Gaulle also rejected the bipolarity that marked the Cold War, just as today’s Gaullists reject American pretensions of unipolarity. A Europe no longer in thrall to Atlanticist nostalgia or, as Macron has put it, imported neoconservatism, would be better placed to find a modus vivendi with its restive neighbor to the east, Russia. Such a development would in turn free the U.S. to focus on its economic and racial crises at home.

The multipolar era, while perhaps not quite here, is busy being born, but American policymakers have been slow to realize it. This new world presents the U.S. with an opportunity to reassess its global commitments and attend to its own economic and political problems instead of continuing in its endless pursuit of hegemony for hegemony’s sake. 

James W. Carden is contributing writer for foreign affairs at The Nation magazine. A former advisor at the US State Department, he has written for numerous publications including The National Interest, The Los Angeles Times,Quartz, and American Affairs.

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