It might not be the obvious comparison, but Scott’s ponderings about the state of transatlantic breast relations and the state of French feminism made me remember another Franco-analogy that recently crossed my mind: I believe the current relationship between many countries, certainly in Old Europe, and the US of A has a lot in common with the relationship between the Third Estate (aka “the people”) and Louis XVI in the time immediately preceding July 14th 1789, the date usually considered to mark the beginning of the French Revolution. And no, I am not attempting to compliment President Bush for his fashion sense…
Of all the European absolute monarchies, the French is probably known best. After all, it was Louis XIV who famously claimed not simply to represent the concept of sovereignty but to literally incorporate it – “L’?tat, c’est moi!”. Believe it or not, it took legal scholars and political philosophers a good deal of time to come to the conclusion that he was probably exaggerating. And the same is true with respect to absolute power – it’s basically an oxymoron. The ability to govern depends on what the British legal philosopher HLA (Herbert) Hart once called the “rules of recognition”. No one can exercise power without the recognition of at least those within his gang – even a totalitarian system needs to be recognised by those who have invested in the common venture by enforcing it (whatever their reasons may have been).
To misconstrue these origins of power can have dire consequences, as Thomas Sargent and Francois Velde found out for the case of the Bourbons whose family enterprise ran into a vicious circle of eventually fatal financial troubles [ Sargent, Thomas J., Velde Francois R. (1995) Macroeconomic Features of The French Revolution, in Journal of Political Economy, Vol 103, No. 3, 1995. S.474-518 ]. Their problem was that their seeming absolute power could not control the interest rates which people would charge for lending to the French King. As there was nothing in the French legal system keeping an absolute King from fighting wars and later defaulting on his debt, his access to the financial market was significantly limited and credit was more expensive than that of Britain, whose “cost of capital” was lower because the British Kings had to deal with a powerful Parliament after the glorious revolution of 1688 and therefore had established a credible commitment mechanism, the Bank of England, to enhance their credit rating and handle Crown lending.
When something becomes unsustainable, it usually stops. So in 1788 Louis XIV needed fresh taxes to avoid another state bankruptcy and called the Estates General – but when he tried to extract even more from the third estate, “the people” could not agree to this without significant changes to the ancien r?gime. Changes that would give at least their social and economic elites some say in how the state was run. Changes that would legally limit absolutism in a credible way. These changes weren’t planned in the way things eventually developed. In 1789 very few will have imagined the bloodshed that lay before Paris.
We might not remember this particularly well given our media adjusted shortened attention spans. But earlier this year, there was a smug superpower that believed it could convene “allies” at will because they weren’t really necessary, just good PR. There was a superpower whose government believed that mere determination were a sufficient substitute for long term strategy, and that winning a battle equalled winning a war.
Obviously, America has established facts in Iraq. That’s a superpower’s prerogative. As it was the Louis’ prerogative to send their soldiers fight against the British. While establishing facts is certainly an important power, it is by no means absolute – and as we have seen, it is usually temporary, if the intention is to pay with the money of people not asked beforehand
As weird as it may seem to children on a playground, their behaviour is probably a good proxy for that of state actors. Thus, while it is certainly impossible to ignore the facts that have been established, it is also impossible to ignore the way in which this has been done (and while I agree that there is some responsibility on the part of European leaders, it was predominantly the American administration’s condescending attitude and unwillingness to listen that caused the trouble). If the rest of the world, and Old Europe in particular, would just say “fine, just don’t do it again without even listening to anyone” that would actually amount to saying “fine, do whatever you want, despise us on the way, and be sure to count on us when things don’t quite work out.” This is obviously impossible. So Old Europe in particular is finding itself in the position of the Third Estate: Somehow still believing in absolute monarchy, weak, but forced to legally bind the monarch for the common good.
Thus, in my opinion, the future of transatlantic relations will be about credible commitments. More than anything, the United States need to convince their refound allies that they are willing not establish facts without consulting first; that they have understood they overstepped the rules of recognition for their power. It is difficult to say which institutional form this commitment will take. Maybe this could be the new job for NATO. But whichever form it will take, I hope they will be doing a better job at it than Louis XVI did. I might like talking about the French Revolution. I would not like living through one.