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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2006

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This commentary by Dr. Rockwell might well be read along with Andrew O'Meara's “The Permanent Crisis” found elsewhere in this journal. The author takes issue with the statement therein that the time perhaps has come to mark the U. S. debt to Lafayette paid. —Ed.

France and the United States: A Response

Like most people in the United States, I hope, I have been shocked by the response of France to the problem of Iraq. Whether they or we seek to explain, or apologize for, their behavior, I believe many French people would agree.

How could such change occur? Of course, one is immediately confronted by the major factors, and their current interactions, that underwrite any identifiable political entity. This complexity suggests that any significant change will be slow. Otherwise, one encounters the paradox that a major factor in France's misfortunes during and since its Revolution of 1789 has been too much change too fast.

In medieval Europe man's basic nature was held to be immutable and of such characteristics as to doom him irrevocably to perdition, a formulation that retains considerable currency. Enlightenment ideas took on different casts in England and France, but there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization, as is natural between favorite antagonists. The idea of progressive betterment of man's nature took root in both cultures, but in France in 1789 the concept of revolutionary change based upon unlimited faith in the perfectibility of man was the possession of a few, and at most, a wisp permeating the general culture. Actions were guided chiefly by other beliefs and motives, except perhaps for a brief period of mass faith-based hysteria. Aftershocks of the initial uproar have never totally subsided, with French governments lurching from one form and crisis to another, never with time sufficient to begin an experiment in democracy, as we know it in the United States, based on belief in the betterment of mankind through gradual progress, even if they wanted to go at it in this way.

Anyone who can explain in detail the derivatives of the phrase “muddling through” should be in a position to comment on how Britain and America have come to provide better examples than does France of liberty and equality in action. Again, time was extremely important. The more gradual change that took place in England allowed for interaction between beliefs and practices at a pace more compatible with human capacity. Did the British plan this, or did they trip on it?

In any case, France remains shaken. The difficulty is that we cannot “save” it, even if it or we so wished. On balance, though, I believe we have a positive history with the French, with much of mutual benefit yet to be attained. So we would do well to maintain such slippery holds as we may.

As to General Lafayette, paying off debts to him, as person or metaphor, is problematic. A foreigner, he arrived in our shores voluntarily and expressed his belief in what we were trying to do in our Revolution for liberty and the rights of man. He signed up, took a leg wound for his pains, and fought at Yorktown, among other things. During the process he helped us know that in a major nation of our acquaintance many people shared our ideals, and he gave us a glimpse, at least, of how a long-term alliance with such a nation could be of mutual benefit. Given subsequent events it all seems somewhat fanciful now. Nevertheless, that was a lot for one man to do, and it evokes the need for some sort of response. Irrespective of the fact that a tangible response would be incalculable, I believe the word “debt” is better rendered as what the French might call “lien,” in the sense of “link.” Such a link between the United States and France simply exists and is ineradicable.

Meantime, I suspect that General Lafayette felt fully requited for his efforts anyway, if only by virtue of his relationship with one of the greatest men whoever lived.


W. J. K. Rockwell, a retired physician and U. S. Navy veteran, was born in France of an American father. He lives in North Carolina, but spends some weeks in France each year.

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