We yearn mightily to learn from the past, but often history does not oblige us. As sure as we can be of superior American firepower, we cannot know where, in the next years or decades, the Iraqi crisis will take us. Still, one must sometimes act from uncertainty. It is, at such times, especially important not to act from ignorance.
The so-called "lessons of history" are modest. They concern nothing but homely facts about our human nature. In burgeoning countries on this shrinking planet, we must live together every day. The world will not end tomorrow. It is better to act together than alone. It is better to speak than to fight. These truths are often disappointed. But they must not be ignored. Democracy is never built on such ignorance. It is America’s current disgrace to try.
The Foreign Minister of France, Dominique de Villepin, offered us a corrective lesson on February 14th. Americans should pay attention. The force of the French position is not just the eloquence with which it was stated. Nor is it just a respect for these truths. It is what brought forth applause at the United Nations and, the next day, millions into streets around the world. It is the desire to exhaust the political option before recourse to war.
The French are not angels. Perhaps they, too, want control of Iraqi oil. Perhaps they just want to stick it to us. It does not matter. Just as the motives — good or bad — of the Bush administration will not determine where history takes us.
What counts is that de Villepin found words which at once express the particular interests of France and appeal to the common sense of the world. The political option corresponds to the kind of world democrats want. What counts is that the Bush administration has been unable to find such words. The reason is simple. Pure ambition cannot be disguised as the common good.
Only in public debate do such differences come to life. It is a sometimes unwieldy but still formidable machine. In the forum of the United Nations, the need to negotiate is a demand for reasons. It is a force without arms. France is winning the argument because everyone knows — indeed, everyone admits — that it would be better to talk than to fight. Better not to act alone. Thus, unwavering "unilateralism" leaves the Bush administration with nothing to say to those whose future it aims to control. For this war concerns the whole world.
The American President has said that if the United Nations does not follow his program, it will "fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society." The opposite is true. The Bush administration made a cynical bet. They sought U.N. support while believing it unnecessary. In so doing, they made it necessary. Their hubris made de Villepin’s words ring out. Nothing shows more clearly the power of the U.N. than George W. Bush’s losing bet. This will be true even — especially — if America goes it alone.
Perhaps you think de Villepin’s speech was just words. Think again. Every power of every State comes down to the human energies which execute it: someone must build the buildings, collect the taxes, teach the children, carry the guns. These energies are directed more by beliefs than by commands. Governments stand on opinion. This, finally, is the winning force of France’s position. It is spoken in words that even Americans can believe. If only we have the courage to do so.
Amended English version of "Lezioni Francesi," Written from Paris, February 27, 2003