Thursday, March 08, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

This is why I have no love for foreign policies shaped by "national interest." Former French Prime Minister Raymon Barre, who seems like a rather unlikable fellow overall, defends a Vichy official who collaborated in the Holocaust on the grounds that he was following orders, and legitimately, since France had no compelling national interest to justify his doing otherwise.

“Opposing the deportation of Jews had not been a matter of major national interest.”

And so, perhaps, it wasn't. Unless you build humanitarianism and virtue into the fabric of what it means to be you, national interest is amoral at best. And it seems to me France has been admirably consistent over the years in pursuing policies based principally, if not solely, on national interest. I admire the consistency; I don't typically admire the results. I think it rather betrays the French revolutionary ideal and the better nature of the French people, but that was betrayed already, and long ago, and more than once.

Is America any different? There may be a discernible direct self-interest angle in most of what we undertake. As big as the U.S. is, you don't need a lot of imagination to find it even in the most altruistic acts. We have perceived interests everywhere, in everything. If America were to give $1,000 to each and every man, woman, and child in the poorest nation on earth tomorrow, someone would quickly point out the percent of goods sold in that country made by U.S.-financed corporations and call it all a big showroom stunt.

And if you never really know anything about America or Americans, you probably will do that: Find the self-interest thread, and dismiss everything else as pious nonsense. But that seriously misreads us, and the same people who wish to see us as a selfish nation smirking behind a hypocritical creed also enjoy mocking the earnestness with which we Americans cherish outmoded ideas like spreading freedom and encouraging democracy, and the alleged naivete of our belief that we have a special national obligation to oppose tyrants and fight against what is wrong or evil.

You can have us as just Frenchmen in sheep's clothing, or as a bunch of starry-eyed do-gooder fools. But you can't have both. But they do try.

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