U.S.-France Rift Spawns an Industry With la Vie

Times Staff Writer

With the U.N. Security Council in wrenching disagreement over the issue of war with Iraq, this has not been an easy time for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair isn't having a great month, either, what with a top minister threatening to resign and British soldiers complaining that American GIs have better food and equipment.

But to be an expert on Franco-American relations these days ... ah, c'est la vie.

Since January, when the French started talking about vetoing a United Nations resolution on war, a virtual cottage industry has sprung up -- spawning seminars, conferences, media appearances, papers and, yes, even a best-seller.

Scholars and policy wonks usually labor in relative obscurity. Their respectable monographs are passed around like the underground literature, the samizdat, of Eastern Europe -- appreciated in some circles, but not that widely read. Suddenly, these students of transatlantic relations are in demand.

Three and a half years ago, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution created a Center on the United States and France. Funded by the German Marshall Fund, the center spent its first three-plus years on such issues as globalization, NATO and politics. But for the last three months, said center director Philip H. Gordon, "it's been all Iraq, all the time."

Gordon, who directed the National Security Council's European staff during the Clinton administration, marveled at all the attention. His callback list these days usually includes dozens of names; on occasion, the number climbs to 100. Gordon, who speaks Spanish, French, German and Italian, said, "It is impossible to do all of that."

The French ambassador to the U.S. has been busy too, fielding dozens of requests to speak at think tanks, policy forums and civic group gatherings -- not to mention media appearances. Jean-David Levitte took up his duties only in December and has been busy ever since, trying to explain that France agrees with the goal of disarming Iraq but takes issue with the timing and the method.

"We receive a countless number of e-mails from ordinary Americans, thanking us," said embassy press secretary Nathalie Loiseau. "People send flowers, Valentines, saying a good ally is one that tells you when they disagree." The sweetest of all, she said, is "people trying to speak in French."

Stanley Hoffmann, a professor at Harvard's Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies and perhaps America's preeminent scholar on France, has been deluged too. Gretchen R. Bouliane, his assistant, said Hoffmann, who is working on a book about French nationalism, has a busy workload -- and the flu. "The requests for interviews and appearances have been endless, and he has had to turn down many more than he has been able to accept," she said.

Robert Kagan, meanwhile, has been watching the debate from Brussels, where he maintains a long-distance affiliation as a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and as a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, both in Washington. He has been blessed with what every author craves: the gift of timing.

Last year, Kagan wrote an essay, titled "Power and Weakness," on the growing rift between Europe and the United States about the essential question of when to use military power. It appeared last summer in the bimonthly Policy Review, circulation 10,000, published by Stanford's Hoover Institute -- and immediately created a mini-bombshell in intellectual circles.

"The most controversial big-think article of the season," said U.S. News & World Report. Francis Fukuyama, author of the "The End of History?", an influential 1989 essay about the Cold War's end, called Kagan's commentary "brilliant." Many compared it with "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," George F. Kennan's watershed article for Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947 that provided the intellectual framework for the U.S. policy of containment toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

So it wasn't surprising when Alfred A. Knopf published Kagan's essay in book form. Although just over 100 pages and only slightly bigger than large Post-it Notes, the volume is now on best-seller lists. It is titled "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order," but most in Washington know it by the shorthand phrase "Americans are from Mars, the French are from Venus."

The book, which came out in January, has already been reprinted five times, said Katy Barrett, Kagan's publicist at Knopf. It has been published in Germany and France. Tod Lindberg, editor of the Policy Review, is planning to reprint the essay and some of the responses it provoked.

At Brookings' Center for the U.S. and France, Gordon described Kagan's work as "a brilliant piece, and he deserves to be famous for it." But he parts company on tone, arguing that the rift is not an inevitable result of the imbalance in military spending Kagan cites.

The U.S. spends about 4% of its gross national product on the military, Kagan says, while Europeans spend very little, tending to look to America when threats, such as Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, darken their region.

Gordon is eager to mend the rift, perhaps with a book of his own. He's thinking of calling it "What Went Wrong," an exposition of the disharmony that followed the unity on Sept. 12, 2001, when the Paris newspaper Le Monde headlined, "We are all Americans now."

"We believe that whoever was to blame, the relationship is important," he said. "That's where I disagree with the Kagans: this notion that it doesn't really matter because we're so powerful."

Kagan pointed out that he is not an expert on Franco-American relations, just a foreign policy scholar who -- because he lives in Europe with his wife, a U.S. diplomat assigned to NATO headquarters in Brussels -- saw the transatlantic fissures early.

"The sales of the book surprised me, but that I owe to Jacques Chirac and Dominque de Villepin," he said, referring to France's president and foreign minister, respectively. "I will have to send them each a fine bottle of wine, after doing a lot of research. I think Villepin in particular has a fine, discerning palate."

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