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AFTER many years of frustration and cynicism there is hope again in France. The first 120 days of government by Pierre Mendès-France have produced a new climate and sweeping changes. A great part of French public opinion, including especially very many young Frenchmen, support the new Premier and take a more active interest in the nation's affairs than at any moment since the Liberation. The purpose of this writer, an ordinary young French citizen who holds no official or unofficial position of any kind, is to try to show how deeply every essential aspect of French politics has been changed by Mendès-France and why so many of us believe that these changes are the best that can be hoped for in the interest of France and of her allies.
In 1944 it seemed that France stood united and purified by the ordeal of defeat and occupation. Dozens of reforms were undertaken by her new leaders. But none was carried out. The outcome of confusion was immobility. Endless quarrels split the French people into numerous clans, united only by their common inability to escape from the old dilemmas. In the spring of 1954 our economy was stagnant; our European policy was in deadlock; disaster impended in Indo-China, in the North African protectorates, and, less apparently but just as surely, in our domestic social situation.
Why had so many roadblocks everywhere stopped advance? First, because no government had applied a global and coherent policy: each problem might be dealt with brilliantly for a while, since some of the statesmen in power were able and dedicated men, but the failure to find a general constructive approach wrecked the efforts undertaken at any single point. Secondly, because this fundamental deficiency was perpetuated--some say caused, but that is an oversimplification--by the constitutional régime and party system, which subordinated the executive to a timid legislature that was sovereign yet divided. It was a vicious circle. The merit of Mendès-France is to have broken it. He believes that all important French problems form a whole and that there is a single answer. And, in order to produce that answer, he has performed a revolution in the French political system. On both counts he has proved, as he wrote a few months ago, that "salvation lies only in a march forward."[i] The great expectations of 1944 are alive again.
The single answer being given by Mendès-France stems from his whole approach to politics: the approach of an economist to French and world affairs. It may not sound very original in America; it does in France, where the teaching of economics is poor and where no such approach ever secured precedence in government. The fundamental reason for France's decline, he believes, is her economic inefficiency. French capitalism has refused to obey the imperatives of expansion and has generally preferred security to risks. Competition and the other "automatic mechanisms" of a laissez-faire economy have been discarded in favor of restrictive cartel agreements and protection by the state. But the postwar attempt to create a state-run economy was not a success either. The state tried to do too much: to pay for reconstruction and rearmament, to run useful but unprofitable nationalized enterprises or social schemes, to develop large investments. We had the worst of both systems: slack Socialism and unreformed capitalism. When the conservative governments of 1951-3 finally made a choice, they made the wrong one: they cut investments. As a result, the French economy could be defined as a paradox--the coexistence of persistent inflationary trends and of an incipient depression; and as a vicious circle--high prices, low productivity, general rigidity, a mediocre standard of living and class antagonisms.
That this failure dominated the entire French policy was not unnoticed by many American observers. The whole mental outlook of the French had become defensive, unable to break away from now unjustified traditions and hierarchies. French economic policy remained torn between the beliefs of narrow conservatives and doctrinaire Socialists. French foreign policy was paralyzed by fear of the economic superiority and greater dynamism of other nations. Obviously a weak and declining nation does not count in international affairs, and no ideal can be realized, no interest preserved, if the man who is trying to promote them does not have material strength with which to fight. Why was not Robert Schuman's ideal of a united Europe implemented between 1950 and 1954, if not because France's weakness made her wary of ambitious and risky moves? There is no doubt about the rightness of Mendès-France's answer, that France can overcome her contradictions only if she becomes a modern economic Power. The keyword is expansion. In France, it should open up new opportunities for the young generation. It also determines a new policy in the French Union: "If we want to preserve our standard of life, our independence, our special forms of civilization, metropolitan France is not a sufficient basis."[ii] French industry and agriculture could not prosper if the resources and the markets of French Africa were lost, and a close economic union and joint expansion are indispensable. Finally, as "there will be no diplomatic recovery . . . as long as our internal affairs are unsettled," "the foreign policy of France is, first of all, her economic recovery."[iii]
Now, if economic recovery commands everything, there was one problem which commanded economic recovery: Indo-China. Americans who have been precipitated from their hopes in the Navarre plan into the distress of the Geneva Agreement should understand that the political and military disintegration before and after Dien Bien Phu forced France to choose between disaster and a truce. If she had decided to go on fighting and had not taken massive military measures, all would have been lost. If she had chosen to send the rest of her army, including draftees, she would have been able to hold what was left of free Indo-China only at the cost of further economic and financial trouble at home and in North Africa, and of more political indecision in Europe. The fear of German domination on a continent where the French Army would have been reduced to symbolic garrisons would have become overwhelming.
What was of most vital interest for the Western alliance? Was it the prospect of an inconclusive fight in Asia which would weaken the West more than the Communists and could provoke political convulsions that would throw France into the Soviet arms? Or was it an agreement on about the best terms that could be hoped for, followed, possibly, by a quick French recovery? The great majority of Frenchmen had already given the answer. The merit of Mendès-France was to draw from it the logical consequence, i.e. to try to get the inevitable truce at once, instead of dragging out the negotiations, which might have assuaged allied feelings but would have risked getting even worse terms.
It has thus become possible to work on economic recovery, which is the fundamental problem of France's future. Mendès-France has found a way out of his predecessors' dilemmas. As French capitalism suffers from anemia, state intervention is necessary, but it should be fruitful and efficient instead of paralyzing and financially disastrous. This is the purpose of his two golden rules: to insure full employment (which must be preserved by heavy investments: Mendès-France is a disciple of Lord Keynes) and to make sure that in all sectors of the French economy the more useful activities are preferred to those that are less useful. His policy is as incompatible with laissez-faire liberalism, which does not survive anywhere anyhow, as with the welfare state. He has declared that the state should never make gifts to anybody, and he wants to use state power in order to enable French businessmen and farmers to stand on their feet again.[iv]
His policy implies a series of vital and long-delayed economic reforms. In the private sector of the economy, all obstacles to free enterprise are to be removed in so far as a restoration of the "automatic mechanisms," i.e. the search for maximum profits, would be socially useful. The tax system is to be overhauled; free trade will be reëstablished gradually, in order to reintroduce competition on a large scale, and state-financed funds have been created in order to help those enterprises (especially marginal ones) that may wish to leave productive fields for more profitable and useful ones, as well as to help their workers. But whenever these mechanisms do not have the required results the state must drive private enterprises into usefulness. Selective credit, a systematic policy of state orders and price support, fiscal incentives, etc., should make businessmen see the light. Economic and social mobility should follow.
In the public sector of the economy, on the contrary, the state-owned enterprises should be made more independent of the government. Instead of controlling them to death, it should build "mecanismes réfléchis," artificial mechanisms in imitation of those which rule in competitive enterprises. The state should devote bigger sums to such vitally needed investments as housing projects and education. Mendès-France has emphasized that such an increase would lead to inflation if no economies were realized. For that reason the reform of state-owned enterprises and social security and the modernization, simplification and decentralization of bureaucracy are being undertaken.
Nor should the political implications of these measures be underrated. The end of the dilemma of "free enterprise or Socialism" makes meaningless the fight between those who claimed that the state itself should give the workers a bigger share of the national income (but who did not search for methods to increase the national income), and those who considered that the employers should handle the matter themselves and need not share purely nominal advantages which were unjustified by the level of production. Mendès-France establishes a firm link between production and wages; the workers are thereby interested in expansion and cannot complain that they alone are the victims of a productivity drive; the new policy forces sacrifices on the employers too. The government sets the minimum wage and for the rest leaves the wage scale to privately negotiated collective agreements. If the consequence of economic expansion is the more active participation of the workers in national affairs, a decline of Communist strength can be expected to follow. The Communist vote in France is largely a vote of despair.
Now does not such a policy try to achieve exactly what the Marshall Plan was aiming at?
With economic recovery under way, it becomes possible for France to break the deadlock in her foreign policy and make the choice too long postponed. It definitely is not a choice between the Atlantic alliance and neutralism. Mendès-France has proclaimed that the Atlantic alliance is the cornerstone of French policy. He has been much more cautious in advocating negotiations with the East than many French deputies; he has always referred to "carefully prepared negotiations at the right moment," exactly as Sir Winston Churchill has. He does not intend to subordinate ratification of the recent Paris agreements to new talks with the East. The misgivings which have been expressed about him in this connection can spring only from his statements on the nature of the Communist threat. He believes that it is not purely or even mainly military; that in Europe and in Asia the Communists could win without firing a shot if the standard of living should remain stationary while that in the Soviet Union increased. The Western World, whose defenses must of course be solidly organized, has an interest in concluding such economic agreements with the East as would bring more advantages to the West than to the East and could weaken Russia's hold on her allies or satellites by establishing Western relations with them. The West has also an interest in discussing Russia's eventual disarmament proposals as long as they do not serve pure propaganda purposes, if for no other reason than because the main Soviet challenge is economic and social and increasing expenditures on rearmament could bring about a Communist victory on the main nonmilitary front.
This is not neutralism: it is common sense. It was one of the fundamental ideas of the Marshall and Point Four programs, and Great Britain's present government has acted on it consistently. Indeed, Mendès-France has dealt a strong blow to neutralism. Many liberals have moved away from it because they trust him; they now agree to military schemes which formerly they had refused. He thus has brought back to reality some very influential and useful men. There is hope for a lessening of East-West tension. But no one really expects the cold war to end.
The real choice which had to be made at last was inside the framework of the Atlantic alliance and concerned European unity. Mendès-France has definitely not repudiated European integration; his recent actions and proposals in Strasbourg, London and Paris show that he never thought that it should be abandoned or postponed until France had fully recovered. His decision was only regarding method. There seem to be only two logical methods, the federal solution and a step-by-step process. Previous cabinets had selected the first. If they were unable to put it into effect mainly because of French fears, would it not be normal to try to realize the federalist ideal once the recovery program was under way? Did not that ideal have the advantage of offering a good framework for European defense and for the reconciliation of France and Germany?
In the past, it is true, many Frenchmen, including especially many of the younger generation like this writer, preferred the federal method. They were impatient--with Europe's feuds, which have been responsible for so many disasters; with the first attempts at gradual construction, which ended in weakness and failure; above all, with France's capacity for autonomous recovery. Anything seemed better than the status quo. The Europe they heralded was romantic; for many of them it became a way out of despair. But one should not forget that the establishment of federal institutions does not in itself abolish the wide economic, social and psychological differences between the member states. It does not mean a common market for all products immediately, or an effective equalization of the social burdens added to production costs. A complete merger of sovereignties therefore can be only a lie or a grave danger. A lie, if the underlying realities remain unchanged or if the changes are to be carried through gradually, with complicated institutional safeguards, built-in-brakes and vetoes for each member. A danger, if the supranational authorities could at once and freely unify the structure of the various nations. Such action would inevitably lead to a further weakening of the weaker partners and give hegemony to the member least handicapped at the outset by its own social legislation and its own political and economic conditions.
Since no policy should be built around a lie, the real choice lay between full integration at once and gradual construction. But recently more thought had been given to the practical effects of full integration; although limited in scope and containing safeguards for its members, the Steel and Coal Community has had some dangerous results for French industry. A European federation should not involve the ruin of some of its members. The first step is to create conditions which will later make possible the establishment of a federation that will not lead either to a French collapse or a French withdrawal. Only in those terms will it be acceptable to the French parliament. For the first time since 1950, a real alternative to immediate integration is offered. We no longer have to choose between federation now and full sovereignties forever.
In the first place, Mendès-France wants France to undertake the step-by-step construction under conditions which will make sure that during the next phases her weakness will not force her to wreck the whole project, exactly as she has paralyzed it in the past years. Hence not only the internal recovery policy but also the arrangement on the Saar, which should give France basic resources fairly equal to those which Germany brings into the new partnership. Franco-German coöperation should not be exposed to the risks of French recoil or German domination.
Secondly, he proposes that on this basis the pre-federal conditions be established at once. Hence his proposals for economic and social equalization--an armaments pool, unification of social laws, and free trade. These preserve the main idea of the "Europeans," namely, that Europe will become a reality only if common tasks are accomplished, and that Franco-German reconciliation must take the form of positive and active coöperation. The settlement of the Saar question will open the way to this sort of coöperation. The future of France and Germany lies in joint economic and cultural enterprises of the ambitious nature described by Mendès-France.
His decision to break the deadlock has also improved the prospects for European defense. From a military point of view, E.D.C. was such a complicated and heavy organization that the majority of military commanders expressed (or concealed) strong doubts about it. From a political point of view, it was a mistake to make E.D.C. synonymous with European unity. Even in the federalist perspective it was absurd to create such thorough military integration before the establishment of federal political institutions. Nor did E.D.C. fit with gradualism; it was far too sweeping. Some of the E.D.C. provisions were incompatible with a principle common to both methods, that of confident coöperation; instead, it seemed that the drafters hoped to strangle Germany with oppressive controls and legal guarantees. The anti-German arguments used by many E.D.C. partisans ever since the treaty was rejected seem to confirm that analysis. The new scheme has the merits of military efficiency and political consistency. It is less sweeping but better defined. It provides a technical method for European defense--one element, among others, of the pre-federal construction. It includes both Great Britain and elements of supranationality, which Mendès-France considers indispensable even in the pre-federal phase.
Mendès-France's internal and foreign policies have thus removed the biggest obstacles to European unity: the E.D.C. abscess and French defeatism. Either European unity is to be workable or it is to remain a dream. In France, at least, the European idea has not withered: it has matured.
Her policy for the French Union also brings a new contribution to a problem which is vital for the future of France and has been agonizing the conscience of every Frenchman. The new policy points toward gradual autonomy in internal affairs for French overseas areas, with close association in economic affairs. It repudiates, cautiously but unmistakably, the principle of political domination which has for so long been applied under the guise of the generous but equivocal ideal of assimilation. This ideal will now be tested in a field where its dangers are few, its benefits maximum. Mendès-France intends to apply his economic doctrine to the development of French Africa--to promote mining and industrial expansion by private enterprises, and to develop public investments. To increase demand as well as supply the minimum wage rate is being raised in Algeria and Morocco. His full employment policies find in North Africa tragically fertile ground.
Economic expansion cannot be separated, of course, from political developments. One of its purposes, indeed, is to help create a peaceful political climate. Then it should be possible at last to improve the constitutional status of the French Union. But two conditions must be fulfilled. First, no bold economic policy will succeed if the political situation deteriorates. Secondly, if only the French benefit from the economic development of Africa one of its main purposes will be defeated--to give new justification and solidity to the French presence. Against the first danger, which is strong in Tunisia and Morocco, the government has taken or is preparing measures; they must be judged in the light of the strong belief both in Parliament and in North Africa that to discontinue the past policy of coöperating with hand-picked partners and repressing nationalism means to destroy the French Union. The government intends to fight the second danger by giving young natives full technical training and access to local administration and government.
Final success is still in doubt. The French have been used to discussing those problems in purely legal terms and the change in point of view is therefore quite stunning. Dogmatic anti-colonialists should not forget that the price paid by some countries for total independence has been the perpetuation of underdevelopment, and that others have obtained political independence only at the cost of continued economic dependence without much expansion. A rich and orderly French commonwealth of free peoples would be a priceless contribution to the world's political unity and economic equality.
These new policies, which run against so many interests, ideas and routines, could never have been applied if Mendès-France had not performed a revolution in the constitutional and political system. Indeed, what the French call his "style," something at once both an effect and a cause of the renovation of French politics, is at least as important as his actions. Many Frenchmen who disagree with some of those actions, or wait impatiently for others, support him enthusiastically because he has succeeded in getting fresh air into the stuffy political life of France.
He has brought about a complete change in the relations among government, Parliament and people. This is probably his biggest achievement so far, though the most fragile. To many Frenchmen it had become obvious that the combination of a parliamentary régime (in distinction to the presidential system in the United States) and a multi-party system was permanently crippling to the Executive. Also, there was no direct link between the government and the people. The voters cannot know after an election what kind of government they will have during the next five years: electoral coalitions seldom survive in Parliament. This explains why many, including the Gaullists, think that France needs a presidential system, or at least one in which Parliament could never overthrow a cabinet without risking being itself dissolved. Now Mendès-France has proved that the Constitution is not entirely responsible for these weaknesses. Its provisions may be interpreted differently, and he opposes the past interpretation. "Parliament has the right to withdraw its confidence from the government at any moment; the government must act as if it were sure to last twenty years."[v]
The Constitution provides that the Premier, selected by the President of the Republic, stands alone before the Assembly, whose approval he has to get, and explains his own program. Instead of submitting a hodgepodge of compromise proposals, Mendès-France has strictly applied the letter of the law. The Constitution empowers the Premier to choose his ministers; instead of making a weak coalition of the parties and groups represented in Parliament, and loading the cabinet with Very Important Politicians whose presence, weight and rivalries ruin the Premier's authority, he has selected a team of men who primarily believe in his ideas, study the problems he wants to solve and leave the final decision to him. As a welcome consequence, pressure groups have had much less access to government than before and have had little part in making decisions. The Constitution wanted the question of confidence, put by the Premier, to be a means of strengthening his authority. In past years it had become a shrill alarm signal given by a threatened cabinet, and the votes were the outcome of frantic negotiations and promises. But the new Premier has used this procedure as a weapon which forces the Assembly to state, without further haggling, whether it approves his actions or not. If the vote is positive, he expects Parliament to let him work in peace.
However, he does not snub Parliament in any way. He gives to both houses some of the most detailed accounts their members ever received from a minister. He thus makes "contracts" with Parliament, but he refuses to tie himself to a program that would have to be too rigid if it were to please enough deputies or too vague to be serious. Like de Gaulle's former Rally, he has objectives and a doctrine rather than a code. In short, he carries separation of power--another Gaullist theme--as far as the Constitution allows him.
This gives him high prestige among the Gaullists. But it does not make him the most beloved man in Parliament. It increases the hostility of the M.R.P. It accounts for the reticence of many Socialists who favor the political predominance of parties and the legal preponderance of the assembly. But so far he has been successful because he has found apart from the provisions of the Constitution the force on which he can rely to compel reluctant deputies to support him.
This force is the people. Now direct contacts between the people and the Executive have traditionally been considered an anti-democratic trick of would-be Caesars. For almost the first time, a man who is a parliamentarian whom no one suspects of being a right-wing demagogue goes to the people. He lays emphasis on the young. The lack of social and political opportunities, the sclerosis in education, the housing shortage--these and other conditions had developed a spirit of nihilism in French youth which was one of the main assets of the Communists. Mendès-France's choice of young and new men for his government and for his private cabinet, the nature of his actions and even more of his projects (houses, schools, a body to deal specifically with the problems of youth) have had a strong attraction for young Frenchmen.
What he asks the people to do is unusual too. He does not try to rouse them against Parliament, but instead asks them to show that they approve the support which their representatives give him. This is a far more subtle method, the only one which can enhance true democracy in a country where parliamentary rule has often led to oligarchy and where plebiscites have led only to dictatorship. To reconcile democracy with authority in France is quite an achievement. Mendès-France knows (and the Gaullists insist) that the dilemma will be ended decisively by only a reform of the Constitution. But it is difficult to get Parliament to agree to any decline in its own prerogatives and too early to press the issue. In the meantime Parliament will support him as long as the people approve him, and the people will be with him as long as he succeeds.
This initiative has produced a second revolution in the French political system. His action, cutting across all party lines, has had an effect on the parties which is both destructive and unifying. The opposition between Left and Right, which had become meaningless and sterile, is again becoming valid. After talking of new revolutions in romantic terms, the Left had long ago stopped playing with that dream and now spoke only of reforms; but as it thought in political and not economic terms, and as it was unable to adapt its themes to the economic conditions of the twentieth century, its ideas on social reform remained muddled and inefficient. The Right, fearing revolution, has opposed reform.
Judged by the old standard, Mendès-France is neither Left nor Right (his ideas on constitutional and administrative reform, budgetary economies, production's precedence over distribution, as well as his indifference toward the age-old platform of anti-clericalism, do not belong to the leftist tradition). By asking the really vital questions he has united behind him the dynamic sections of all parties (Gaullists as well as Socialists) and has united against him all those who, even if they sit on the Left, oppose the new stake: modern France.
Will not his enemies win and force a return to the old clichés and the old alignments? The danger exists. But in spite of their occasional reluctance to face a new situation, most of the democratic elements of the traditional Left know that no man nearer to their ideas has a chance of coming to power, since the Communist heresy partly paralyzes leftist strength. And some elements of the traditional Right support him because they feel that he is a solid if unpleasant bulwark against the more unrealistic forms of Socialism and a revival of the popular front.
A third revolution in French politics is that he has upset traditional class divisions. A climate of class warfare has existed in France in the past 20 years. Recent French cabinets have bid for the support of the upper middle classes and have more or less deliberately left out the working groups and the lower middle classes. This represented another return to a traditional pattern which Mendès-France tries to break. He wants to abolish class warfare by increasing the standard of living, not by taking repressive measures or repeating soothing slogans.
At present he can count on a considerable part of every class. The failure of former economic policies has given food for thought to groups courted by his predecessors; never before have these been so well disposed toward change. And the underprivileged show him so much goodwill that the Communists themselves feel embarrassed; they have found out that the success of the Mendès-France government would be a terrible blow for them, and they are now warning the workers against the benefits of the new policy, which they cannot deny. As internal and external circumstances prevent them from carrying out a revolution, they too have a vested interest in immobility, in the preservation of the old class antagonisms.
In the future, Mendès-France's economic reforms may deprive him of some of his present support. But he will replace the old horizontal divisions with new ones that are highly unorthodox. In those sectors of the economy and of the civil service which he intends to develop he may well get the support of all; and in the sectors which will suffer from economic "reconversion" and budgetary "transfers" he could be opposed by all. New geographical divisions may appear, for new areas are to be developed. Generally speaking, the big and modern industrialists and bankers will probably be more favorably disposed than the small enterprises, which always are more cautious and afraid of competition and expansion. An alliance between what someone called "the intelligent bourgeoisie" and the less alienated sections of the workers would be interesting alignment--and again an original one.
There is a last element in this action which upsets the traditional conditions of the French political merry-go-round. It is the man himself, who possesses qualities that often are considered mutually exclusive. He is an uncompromising man of principle, who makes no more promises than he can keep, and who keeps them; but he is also a masterly parliamentary tactician. Whereas the usual combination in French politics--a man of letters or lawyer and politician--often produces more heat than light and more words than actions, Mendès-France is both a social scientist and a fighter. He has the intelligentsia's sympathy, but enough common sense and earthiness to avoid "technocrat" attitudes.
Finally, he has both a knowledge of his own country's position and needs and understanding of the world at large. He has definite ideas for nearly every French problem (including physical training for the young) and the most far-reaching vision of French destiny that any French statesman has had since de Gaulle--but de Gaulle's was blurred whenever economic or social problems appeared, and his character is that of a moralist more than a politician. Many recent French statesmen, especially among those who emerged from the Resistance, had a very hazy notion of public opinion in other countries and of the character of their governments, and also of the main trends of postwar history (such as the growth of anti-colonialism). Older statesmen often were aware of the facts but refused to accept them. Mendès-France realizes that France can try to canalize trends which she deems dangerous but that stubborn resistance as such would be tantamount to capitulation of every external pressure. He knows how to use the narrow margin of liberty left to him in the circumstances. For the student of statesmanship, it is a fascinating fight to watch.
It is unusual to see Cassandra at the helm. In this particular case, the former lucid critic and dissenter produces ambitious and constructive policies and makes a new political start. If his leadership succeeds in restoring stability at the top and mobility at the bottom, if he is not defeated by the most stubborn force on earth, inertia, France should rapidly become an active and major partner for the other nations of the West. She has already stopped dragging her feet and begun moving in the direction that impartial American observers had so often advised her to take. Either the citizens of France will now be reconciled by their new tasks and united by the prospect of action or they will return to their past mistakes, to division by inaction, and to petrifaction.
[i] "Gouverner c'est prévoir, discours d'investiture et réponses aux interpellateurs. Assemblée Nationale, 3 et 4 juin 1953." Paris: Juilliard, 1953, p. 145.
[ii] "Gouverner c'est prévoir," p. 42.
[iii] ibid., p. 131-2 and p. 55.
[iv] See the book by P. Mendès-France and G. Ardant which has just been published under the significant title, "La science économique et l'action." Paris: Juilliard, 1954.
[v] "Gouverner c'est prévoir," p. 68.