Dreams of Empires Past

Katrin Bennhold at the International Herald Tribune writes about Europe's reactions to Dr. Rice's visit. The headline seems neutral enough: "In Europe, some optimism on Rice". Indeed, the article lays out facts in a fairly professional manner. But read carefully, and see what the French are really saying:

"There is a change of tone toward Europe and that is new," said Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a former French president, who watched Rice from a packed amphitheater at the Institut d'Études Politiques, an elite university in Paris. "It suggests that the United States is looking for a partnership, and this approach is shared here."
Now, from what I'm aware, France and Germany, and much of the Fair Weather Alliance of Europe, having seen the undeniably moving elections in Iraq, had already begun reconsidering their opposition to American leadership. And the Bush Administration, probably with an eye on the potential benefits of a renewed amicability with Old Europe, has taken the initiative to start visiting Foreing Ministers, by sending Dr. Rice to Europe. You would think that France's reaction would be relief at getting over a strained period in Franco-American relations. Instead, what we hear, at least unofficially (M. d'Estaing is, after all, a former president of la République), is basically, Look, America is crawling back to us!

The passage reminds me of some themes brought up in Ross Terrill's excellent The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States. The theme is that the Chinese civilization-state is very prideful, and has never ceased to think of itself as the Middle Kingdom, to whom all must pay tribute. Mr. Terrill recalls anecdotes of reporting differences regarding President Clinton's 1998 trip to China. While Western outfits such as Time covered the event from a variety of angles, the Chines angle pretty much came down to a subtle implication that Clinton wanted the trip more than China wanted, as is consistent with a visit from the leader of a tributary state, or a barbarian state seeking to do business with the celestial empire. As the BBC notes:

The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, quoted the deputy trade minister Sun Zhenyu, as asking the USA to come to the "correct conclusion" in not delaying China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and describing as "unfair" the USA's classification of China as a non-market economy.

However, by June 25, USA-China trade reports were focused on achievements and co-operation and Xinhua reported on the growing business opportunities between the two countries.

It said: "At present there are 22 Shanghai-funded enterprises in the US, and more than 30 Shanghai firms have gone to the US to hold trade fairs over the past three years; while some 500,000 American business people visited Shanghai in the five years from 1993-1997."

Xinhua highlighted US trade deals in the Guangxi autonomous region, which will be visited by President Clinton at the end of his trip, mentioning the region's vice-chairman's remark that "trade and economic exchanges between Guangxi and the US have seen outstanding achievements in the past decade and have a bright future".

Now, in all fairness, in any case such as either of these two, there is a domestic audience to be played to. But at least the Chinese are being a little more subtle about it, while one imagines Miss Bennhold attempting to neutralize M. d'Estaing's sense of national self-importance. One wonders if the French aren't simply nostalgic for their old empire. You know, the one that started crashing down around them when the Vietnamese won at Ðiên Biên Phú. Then they entangled the United States in this conflict. Well, at least we fought hard, and won militarily. And above all, the United States was able to get over its political defeat in Southeast Asia. Maybe it's a good thing we didn't bring the French along this time around.

[Cross posted at Between Worlds]

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