How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
FRANCE ceased to be a free agent in international affairs on May 10, 1940. On that fateful day, her armies under Gamelin crossed the Belgian frontier and rushed northeast to meet the Nazi attack. Since then France has not regained a position of even relative steadiness and power. Today her national production has probably regained more than 80 percent of the 1938 level, but this result has been mainly achieved by the scattered efforts of individuals. Solid monetary and financial foundations have not yet been laid and organic reconstruction is still to come. The moral scars left by the invasion are perhaps even more terrible than the physical wounds. The élites which guided the French nation ten years ago are gone, discredited beyond hope of rehabilitation. One result is that too often mere amateurs are trying their hands at the helm.
The French Navy now consists of 300,000 tons, about half the total before her best warships were sunk in the port of Toulon or lost in the criminal defense of North Africa against the American forces. The bulk of the French Army is formed by the divisions equipped on Lend-Lease which are keeping watch over the Empire overseas or garrisoning the French zones in Germany and Austria. Whether in an emergency the 70 or 80 divisions that France is supposed to be able to assemble could be provided with enough weapons to make them effective is problematical. French factories will start producing material for an air force in 1950 or 1951, not before.
As a factor in power politics, then, France counts for very little; and power is the determining factor in international relations. League of Nations or United Nations notwithstanding, the influence which any nation commands is in relation to the amount of physical force it can gather. France's weakness offers a danger not only to the French people but to the world at large. Perhaps I might even say that when France is prostrate the spiritual patrimony of many men beyond the French borders is impaired accordingly.
But I had better keep to urgent practical matters. French power has been useful. The history of the 40 very full years prior to the French disaster can be cited to prove that French diplomacy, despite some glaring defects, has on the whole been more farseeing and better able to perceive the trend of European events than the British and the American. Today, most French diplomats and politicians openly disagree with the conclusions reached by their British and American colleagues on the subject of Germany and Russia. To cite a concrete instance, they are very critical of the American-British leadership to which Foreign Minister Georges Bidault had to submit all through the conference at Moscow last March and April. I do not mean to suggest that French diplomats were then always in the right and their British and American friends invariably in the wrong. But I feel strongly that, on one or two fundamental points which will be discussed later, they had a better understanding of what could be achieved in the Russian capital. The writer hopes that the Russian proverb, "Every devil praises the marshes where he was born," will never apply to him. He is quite willing to recognize the shortsightedness of his countrymen in the past in some fields -- the economic one, for example. But it is permissible, and I think necessary, to note that in our time the mechanism of European politics has been better understood in France than in England or America. And to the writer it is a matter of growing concern that in Continental affairs, French realism is not even as much of a counterpoise to Anglo-Saxon ideology as it was in the decades before the second German war.
The impotence of French diplomacy was strikingly shown shortly after Liberation. Hardly had General de Gaulle set up his régime on metropolitan territory than he decided to sign a treaty of alliance with Russia. Today we know more about General de Gaulle then we did in 1944. His personal hostility to Communism in all its aspects has become patent. The fact that the treaty of alliance with Soviet Russia took precedence in his mind over the treaty of alliance with England (which, in practice, would have involved a bond of alliance with the United States) can be accounted for only by the very vivid memory he kept of the high-handed treatment which both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill meted out to him time after time. General de Gaulle went to Moscow in December 1944, and there put his signature to the Franco-Soviet pact in the belief that through Russian support France would quickly get a position of something like equality in the councils of the great coalition. His expectations might have been fulfilled and diplomatic solidarity between the two allies, Russia and France, might have come to be practised had the head of the French Government showed greater pliancy in his dealings with Marshal Stalin and Mr. Molotov. It is well known that the French guest and his Russian hosts disagreed on the merits of the Polish Lublin Committee, that de Gaulle refused to extend provisional recognition to it and thus marred Russian calculations. The Russian rulers wanted their Polish friends installed, on very short probation, as the de jure Government of Poland. They had carefully planned a diplomatic action to that end to which de Gaulle was expected to give momentum. Polish affairs much more than the contemplated treaty of alliance kept the French and Russians busy in Moscow during the five or six days the visit lasted.
The General stood by his refusal. But within a few weeks he paid a heavy penalty. In February, on his Soviet ally's pressing demand, he was left outside the Yalta Conference. This was a precedent: France also did not enter the Potsdam Conference which met five months later. With a single stone the Russians thus killed two birds. They not only taught de Gaulle a lesson on the necessity of displaying flexibility; by keeping him away they also made it much easier to achieve their own and Poland's desires in the location of Germany's eastern frontier.
If General de Gaulle or a representative of French interests had shared in the territorial discussions at Yalta and at Potsdam, the problem of the Ruhr would not have been deliberately ignored for so long. And pointed objections would certainly have been raised against the inordinate transfer of territories and populations in the east, which have the effect of shifting westward towards France the center of gravity of German power, German nationalism and German plans for revenge -- wherever they happen to take shape. Of course it would be foolish to imagine that France could have made an impression at Yalta or Potsdam on British and American statesmen comparable to that which Russia's material power enabled Stalin to make. Indeed, when French diplomats first attempted, two years ago, to present to the United States and British Governments a documented argument on German matters most likely to persuade Americans, they did not meet with success. Nonetheless, the ideas entertained in Washington as to Germany in 1945 were far more plastic than they are today, and the British monopoly in the Ruhr had not yet been consolidated. Furthermore, it would at the least have been impossible for the State Department and the Foreign Office then to throw out the French scheme of international control and Allied management of the Ruhr industries on the pretext later offered, i.e. that the amputations suffered by Germany in the east were so drastic as to forbid the Allies from introducing far-reaching changes in the configuration of her western frontier. (The pretext seems the ultimate in inverted logic, for once the Allied Powers allowed Russians and Poles to push back Germany's frontiers to the very door of Berlin and Dresden, German irredentism was sure to rage in German hearts and the single question to be faced was how to dominate that potentially furious movement.) At any rate, Frenchmen would have been spared the sight of their diplomats knocking at doors in London, Washington and Moscow, and unable to get any real hearing. How many times did French diplomacy endeavor to have the whole question of the Ruhr put on the agenda of a four-Power meeting! How many times was it rebuked or cajoled into accepting postponement!
Some 18 months ago, Mr. Ernest Bevin seemed within an ace of endorsing the French thesis, judging from the public speeches he delivered between February and May 1946. Then, all of a sudden, he turned to the view of the Treasury. We have still to learn that the memoranda drafted in the Quai d'Orsay on German affairs and duly handed over in Washington, London and Moscow, at the beginning of this year, have elicited from any quarter as much as a written refutation. The position taken by France was simply by-passed, in the expectation that France would have to bow more or less gracefully before the accomplished fact and that the best course was to refrain from formally rejecting her demand. Revelatory of that unuttered negative was the visit paid to General Lucius D. Clay by Hervé Alphand, Director of the Economic Department at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in December 1945. M. Alphand, who was on his way to Moscow, was hardly allowed to speak; instead his interlocutor treated him to an exposition of his own ideas on German democracy and similar subjects.
German coal is the mainspring of French reconstruction, but all redress of our grievances in this respect was denied us until the British failure to increase the productivity of German coal fields to anything like a decent percentage of the prewar figures aroused American attention. Such technical conferences as the one which took place at Essen in April 1946 between British and French experts bristled with heated words. All through 1945 and 1946, and so far in 1947, it seems true that not a single international discussion on German affairs has led to the adoption of a French proposal of importance. M. Bidault has kept on enunciating French policy in a somewhat professorial tone, above the din of controversies. Seldom has anyone found it worth while to return a full answer.
This painful state of affairs is resented by any French minister awake to the contrast with a past not so remote. But it is when the ominous signs of an eventual conflict between the United States and Britain on one side, and Russia on the other, become unmistakable that France's inability to assert herself becomes tragic. Every informed person is aware that there exists in Washington an Anglo-American Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee which, so long as the Military Committee assisting the Security Council of the United Nations remains embryonic and tentative, deserves to be considered the nucleus of whatever collective action may be available for the defense of peace. It is as clear as daylight that the actual business of the above-mentioned committee is to investigate the strategic problems which a war with Russia would bring. France is vitally concerned in those problems. If the worst came to the worst, would American and British forces find it practicable to wage a battle on the Elbe River, to erect defensive lines beyond the boundaries of French and Belgian territories? Or would the Americans and British think it safer to group their armies on a line loosely drawn along Portugal, Spain and North Africa? The French Government and the French General Staff are entirely ignorant of the decisions reached in Washington or, at best, get their clues indirectly and casually.
A feeling of uneasiness amounting sometimes to discouragement may be noticed in the men responsible for France's destiny. Russia may be a big question-mark to them, but nonetheless, they consider that all the possibilities of arriving at compromises are not being methodically exploited. They see Americans and Britons err consistently in their judgment on French and German affairs. They are afraid lest the problems of Russian affairs do not find the Anglo-Saxon leaders sufficiently experienced and surefooted. It is natural that Frenchmen should have to play second fiddle to the great virtuosi of the day; the trouble is that they can hardly follow the virtuosi's reading of the score.
In Moscow, it was the considered opinion of Bidault and the men around him (and no Communist leanings were ever detected in any of them) that an agreement with Russia could be reached on reparations. The French reasoning came to this: Since German industrial production will not be left very long at the level fixed by the Berlin Control Commission on March 26, 1946, let us try to find out the higher level at which Germany would be in a position to: 1, purchase abroad all needed foodstuffs and raw materials; 2, repay the sums spent by British and Americans in occupation expenses; 3, turn part of the industrial output to reparation deliveries. Assuredly, there is a level where the fulfillment of such a program would not be called chimerical. Were German industry somehow to recover the productive capacity it had ten years ago, a plan combining those various objectives could be devised. The Russians, it is true, claimed a very big amount: $20 billion, half of it for themselves. But in the midst of the Moscow Conference, they suggested that payment should be spread over 20 years. Why not tentatively build up an equation setting a correct relationship between the goods Germany will be able to deliver, on the one hand, and Russian requests, British-American counter-demands and French security claims on the other? The French proposal was summarily set aside. Frenchmen could not help observing that, to all appearances, their great allies were not very anxious to explore the path to some practical understanding with Russia.
This was the time when Bidault tried hard to start direct negotiations with Bevin on the Ruhr and cognate problems. He failed. He invited Bevin to dinner, and, shortly afterward, had another meal with him at the British Embassy. The talk between the two men was sterile. "He might as well have sat at the table of Gaudissart," one of Bidault's friends exclaimed, referring to a Balzacian character, a commercial traveller with a ready chain of stories. Obviously, Bevin took care not to utter a single word which might make it harder for him later on to defend the British monopoly of the Ruhr. What could Bidault do to make things move on? Little, very little. French industry is threatened with a shortage of coal. He had to go to Marshall and Bevin as a suppliant and beg for more coal from the German collieries. He had to fight very hard to get the promise embodied in the Anglo-American-French agreement of April 19, 1947. For the sake of getting coal or, more accurately, some form of promissory note, the long-term interest -- the supreme interest of the French nation -- had to be left in the background.
At the time of writing, the occupying Powers are moving toward a final solution of their two-year controversy on the German problem. Whether the critical moment will come soon or be deferred until the Council of Foreign Ministers meets again late in the year is still uncertain. On July 17, Bidault raised a vehement protest against the draft Anglo-American agreement of which he had heard a few hours before, and the publication of the agreement was withheld. It was only a procedural gain, but a gain not to be despised: Bidault succeeded in keeping things fluid for a while and the statesmen of the western hemisphere benefit by a short breathing space in which to explore all the avenues toward a possible modus vivendi with the great empire to the east.
As made known to Bidault about the middle of July, the draft Anglo-American agreement consists of four main clauses: 1, steel production will be set at 10,700,000 tons, which means an over-all capacity of 14,000,000 tons or more; 2, a German manager of the mines will be appointed; 3, the question of ownership of mines and factories in the Ruhr will be shelved for five years, ownership, meanwhile, to be vested in German trustees appointed by the two Powers; 4, an Anglo-American board of control will replace the exclusively British North German Coal Control now in existence. Other articles may have been agreed to by the Washington and London Governments: if so, they have not been brought to the knowledge of the Quai d'Orsay.
The fate of France, and in the judgment of competent Frenchmen, the fate of Europe, is largely contingent on what becomes of the above set of proposals. Should they materialize, the odds are that France will be left without any serious chance to revive as a substantial Power.
The days are past when the martial valor of France depended on the strength of her peasants and the maintenance of her tradition of handicraft. In World War I (at least until armored tanks made their appearance) it could still be argued with some plausibility that a sturdy infantry rooted in the soil was an ingredient of military power which could counterbalance superior armament. Now such notions have vanished. France must adapt herself to the industrial age more thoroughly and resolutely than she ever dreamed of doing before. A first opportunity was wasted, a quarter of a century ago, when the Pan German adventure of the Hohenzollerns ended in abject disaster. A second opportunity is at hand today, the outcome of the Nazi failure to rule the world. Soon we shall know whether France will have to suffer the same frustration she suffered 25 years ago, whether the symbolic figure of General Lucius D. Clay will have to be given a niche by the side of Lord D'Abernon in French history.
The setting up of an international control over the Ruhr area is the chief item in the program of German reconstruction which France presses upon her great Allies. For a long time the error of French diplomacy was an attempt to cram into that program schemes which were either of secondary importance or mere shibboleths. Efforts of the Allies to exploit the so-called "German particularism," as in the building up of the Rhineland as a distinct political entity, fall into that category, as does the complicated constitutional scheme intended to starve the future central government of Germany of most functions which normally ought to be within its scope. Today, all adventitious issues have been weeded out. The plan for the international control of the Ruhr, as detailed in the memorandum forwarded to Washington, London and Moscow at the end of January, is the goal of French policy.
Frenchmen are more and more convinced that this is the only means of barring a recurrence of the German danger. The term "international control" is often loosely used by British and Americans. It is, therefore, necessary to emphasize the characteristic feature of international control as the French understand it: the direct management by the Allies of the key industries in the Ruhr. It does not mean that a huge bureaucracy would be gathered and set to the task. No. Some 200 Allied officials, backed by a small permanent occupation force, would do the job. (By the way, it is worth noticing that when our American friends undertook to outline a system of atomic control, they were impelled by the logic of experience to put forward as an uncontrovertible principle that the controlling body could be expected to perform its task efficiently only if invested with all rights of ownership and powers of management. Whenever Americans are seriously concerned in international control, they are apt to use the same reasoning as the French.)
To quote as an alternative to international control the four-Power treaty of guarantee offered by Mr. Byrnes last year is to shirk the real issue. The solution of the German problem as it stands before us is not to organize resistance to the aggressor. The solution of the problem is to see to it that the spirit of aggression in Germany will not have weapons at its disposal with which it might precipitate a war -- even a war which, once again, it might lose! The aim is not to win our salvation in the style of 1939-45 or even of 1914-18. The aim is to spare the world a third crisis, which might bring us all very close to Judgment Day. The aim is not belated repression but early control, so that there will not even be a case for repression. The four-Power treaty does not offer such control.
But the international control of the Ruhr calls for a complementary measure: the decentralization of the pig-iron and steel industry now too exclusively localized in the Rheno-West-phalian area. Why should Lorraine iron ore continue to be brought to the Ruhr to be worked there by German coal in German plants, rather than that Ruhr coal shall be taken to Lorraine to work ore in French plants? Rheno-Westphalia, French Lorraine, Luxembourg and southeastern Belgium form one of the four world units endowed with all the components of a great iron and steel industry. (The other three are found in the United States, in England and in Russia.) The contributions of iron-producing Lorraine and of coal-producing Germany are of comparable importance to this unit. But in the past Germany had the lion's share of the product. In fact, as a result of the enterprising spirit of her industrial magnates and of their intimate connection with the German Government, she controlled the whole industry and French Lorraine became an appendage. It was the possession of this power which twice carried Germany to political and military supremacy over Europe -- a supremacy which was broken only at the price of a terrible convulsion of the world. America, Britain, Russia had to be mobilized to the utmost to wrest from German heavy industry the instruments of universal domination.
To halt that sequence of events once for all, is it so extraordinary to recommend what can be described as the establishment of a balance of power inside the coal-iron-steel area of western Europe? The practical solution is to distribute the coal and the iron between Germany, on the one side, and France, Luxembourg and Belgium on the other, in such a way as to endow those three nations with a greater capacity of production than the former monopolist. This does not mean that German industry would be less active than it was in the years before the war. French diplomacy was wrong to leave this point obscure for so many months or even to insist on schemes amounting to a de-industrialization of Germany. Germany would, indeed, lose a number of blast furnaces and steel mills. But she would not lose the plants which put the iron into finished or semi-finished forms. And the steel she would need, in addition to the output from her own mills, would come to her from France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The tap might be loosened or tightened at will. It would be the business of the international controllers to find out to what use the steel from the Ruhr was being put and to dole out the additional supply from abroad. The innovation would not require long-extended efforts which might be antagonistic to the natural channels of trade and industry. Once it was established in a peaceful Europe, the new dispensation would become as natural as the one it replaced. And France would be immensely strengthened in the process; in an economic sense and, perhaps, in a wider sense, she would be a rejuvenated nation.
There is no need to enter into details here. However, a few figures can be quoted to show that the argument does not move in the realm of illusions. An output of 10,400,000 tons of ingot steel could be got from the French mills as they are today. (The present output is around 6,000,000 tons.) To achieve that bigger output there would be no necessity to invest fresh capital, import new tools, or enlist and train additional labor. At the present time, 70 out of 140 blast furnaces in France are idle. The essential requirement is an increase in our coal supply by 1,000,000 tons yearly, if not more.
The output of German steel mills in 1946 was 2,500,000 tons, and this year it has not risen above 3,000,000 tons, compared to the limit of 5,800,000 (with a total capacity of 7,000,000) permitted by the Allied Control Commission in March last year. The problem is to enable France, through deliveries of German coal which at the beginning would be statutory, to retain at least part of her present margin of superiority in steel production as the output of German steel is allowed to increase. Besides, through the modernization of the plants (which, of course, has a direct incidence on production costs) the relative capacity of French and German mills can be changed without any abrupt break. What ought never to be seen again is a Germany lifting her consumption of rolled steel from 8,000,000 tons (1930) to 14,000,000 (1937), to 16,000,000 (1939), and then to 19,000,000. The comparative (1938) figures were: 7,900,000 for France, 13,400,000 for England, 4,100,000 for Belgium and 2,700,000 for Luxembourg.
Will it be contended that this line of argument may soon become obsolete, since in the atomic age industrial power may take on new forms? The answer is that statesmen and diplomats have to plan for the visible future: ten, fifteen, twenty years at the most. The worst error of politics is to obliterate the distinctions between what is real and what is merely possible. This can only lead to political agnosticism and deadly passivity. In the atomic age, for that matter, Germany more than any other country will need to be supervised in the deepest recesses of her economy.
The Ruhr policy defined above is being opposed mainly on two grounds. In the first place, so the criticism goes, the easiest line of approach to the reconstruction of Europe should be followed. It would be hazardous to build an economic structure of Europe at variance with the old pattern. Though the old pattern may have given rise to international danger, economically speaking it was very efficient. Let first things come first. The deficit in the German balance of payment is an intolerable burden on British and American shoulders. There will be ample time later to provide against all possible return of the German war spirit. Moreover, the planners and executants of the Marshall program must perform their task at the earliest date. Let us not complicate their task.
Lloyd George addressed the conference of Genoa in not dissimilar terms 25 years ago, alleging as an excuse afterward that the Lord Chancellor, Birkenhead, had remonstrated with him every morning over his excessive deference toward French policy. France was strong at that time, and ten months later, Raymond Poincaré ordered the French troops into the Ruhr. To maintain that subsequent occurrences have confirmed rather than disproved the soundness of the French policy of the period will not, I think, be deemed a rash assertion. Possession of military power is not likely to be separated very long from the possession of economic power. The balancing of German payments with the outside world does not necessarily imply the reëstablishment of the former economic power of Germany.
But the opposition to French policy is sometimes rooted in deeper motives which, although not openly professed, carry great weight with some in Washington and London. On the assumption that a world conflict with Russia will not be avoided, the view is held that the western Powers need the help of a fully reconstructed Germany. The people who profess such ideas are prone to explain that Germany, as a world Power, is finished, and that the German danger exists principally in the French mind.
That such naïve conceptions can find currency is bewildering. The whole trend of German-Russian relations in the past points to the probability of Germany and Russia being brought into a new association (with Russia of course playing the part of the overlord) if Germany is allowed to recruit her economic strength. The way would then be opened to Soviet Russia, powerfully installed in central Europe as she is now, quickly to seize western Germany -- the very territory which some Americans and British want to build up as a weapon against her. Nor, moreover, would the realistic Soviet Government be likely to have much difficulty in coming to an understanding with German leaders. Russia is in position to give away so many prizes which German patriotism covets! If huge British-American armies were to hold Germany in their grip for one or two generations, things might follow a different course. But local military preponderance doubtless belongs to Russia. This alone ought to dissipate the dream into which Russophobes so easily fall.
In the meantime, the French Government and French opinion are deeply disturbed. They are fearful of the premiums which the exponents of the policy of strengthening Germany are only too willing to bestow on the Germans in order to curry their favor. And the French are likewise compelled to put on record their impression that, directly they take a step away from Russia and in the direction of the western Powers, the manners of the western Powers toward them become blunter. In Moscow, Bidault did not accept the offer of a separate negotiation which Generalissimo Stalin tendered to him. In subsequent negotiations with England and America this seems to have placed him at a disadvantage.