By Leonidas Donskis
Raison ou trahison? Reason or treason? What happened to France? Did we witness one more time the art of maneuvering of the Gaullist France that will never confine herself to the role of a midwife of American politics?
Or was it merely a regrettable instance of what political commentators take as a rapid “Schröderization” of the European political class, that is, a sheer act of economic pragmatism tinged with corruption, albeit wrapped in the colorful paper of sugary lip service about international cooperation and solidarity?
Needless to say, when France recently decided to sell to Russia the warship Mistral, a powerful strategic weapon for a potential full-scale attack from the Baltic Sea, the Baltic countries could barely welcome such a move from a NATO ally and an EU friend. Quite a few politicians in the Baltics made themselves clear that this was nothing less than a treacherous act of a supposed friend and ally. Others suggested not to jump to conclusions and to await more information.
The easiest way to explain the whole affair would be to rely on the economic logic behind this controversy. France badly needs Russian markets, to say nothing about its gas and oil. Germany is far ahead of France at this point, which sheds more light on why the aforementioned stratagem may have been regarded as a turning point in the two countries’ economic cooperation. As regards the political aspect of this story, we all know the beautiful, albeit empty, phrasing trying to apply such pearls of conventional political wisdom as “cooperation prior to isolation,” etc.
Of course, we can easily credit the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner for reminding Europe, the UK, and the U.S. that France has its historically formed political sensibilities and priorities. Russia is a difficult partner, rather than a foe. C’est vrai. Vous avez raison. Yet when it comes to the credibility of France among her smaller partners and friends in Eastern Europe, the Mistral deal dealt a hardly ever repairable blow to the reputation of France as a moral and political leader of the EU.
After Jacques Chirac’s (in)famous reminder that Poland and the Baltic States missed a good opportunity to remain silent, the Mistral deal is the second overt and public act of the extending of the middle finger to the small allies in the EU and NATO. Whatever kind of political vocabulary or perspective we apply, this is so. We can take it one way or another, the outcome remains the same. Nobody benefited from this except Russia. In fact, nobody ever will as far as the future of the EU is concerned. The political credibility of the major forces of the EU as a security-generating entity will be undermined for a long time.
And the reason for it lies not in the faults of French policy-makers’ political reasoning, but in their lack of political imagination and historical sensitivity. Eastern European historians of political ideas remember quite well how the French philosopher Alain Besancon described the source of the strength of Communism. According to Besancon, the failure of the West to understand the nature of Communism is the source of its success.
Curiously enough, Besancon’s disciple Francoise Thom, a history professor at Sorbonne, added recently that never before has the misunderstanding of Russia in Western Europe been as great as it is now. A sort of self-inflicted blindness fuelled by sweet lies and charms of self-deception, it results in shutting the eyes before the fact that Russia provoked the war against the sovereign state of Georgia, and then occupied and annexed parts of Georgia’s territory. No matter how strongly we agree on Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili as hardly a raw model democrat, the fact remains that the West has swallowed this déjà vu episode that was straight from the geopolitical repertoire of the twentieth century.
We believe that Russia is on the way to reforming its economic and political systems. Yet we tend to forget, as Thom points out, that all the waves of modernization of Russia came out as a reaction to its defeats and losses. Peter the Great undertook his reforms after the defeat of Russia by Sweden near Narva, Alexander II after the painful loss of the Crimean War, Nicholas II after the disastrous defeat of Russia by Japan. Let me add Mikhail Gorbachev to this chain: he had good reason to make a desperate attempt to modernize the military and economic potential of the Soviet Union after its disgraceful failure in Afghanistan.
Why don’t we then have a closer look at what motivates Russia concerning her modernizing efforts now? Is it a sincere wish to make the country a trustworthy partner and a reliable neighbor, instead of a constant existential threat and foe of the Baltic States and other neighboring countries? A clear conclusion that Russia, in the face of the dangerous growth of China’s power and prestige, has no other historical option than to take on the path leading to a strategic partnership with the U.S. and the EU? Or bitterness and anger about the greatest geopolitical catastrophe, as Vladimir Putin named the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It is high time to answer these questions. Last but not least, it is pivotal for the EU to start speaking with one voice regarding the safety and security of every European nation. Otherwise, the major powers of Europe will fail the European project, eventually sliding into the sinister logic of the twentieth century. We should not allow this happen. For the sake of the Baltic States. And for the sake of Europe.
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