“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?”

I attended the last International Studies Association (ISA) annual meeting in San Diego, and participated in a roundtable I helped to organize entitled “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys? Reassessing the French contribution to international security”.

The aim of the roundtable, chaired by my thesis supervisor Theo Farrell, was to bring together French and American scholars and have them discuss France’s role on the international stage in a funny, friendly, and provocative way.

The French team consisted of Prof. Pascal Vennesson (European University Institute), Prof. Frédéric Charillon (IRSEM) and I. The US team was made up of two big guns realists: John Mearsheimer (U. Chicago) and William Wohlworth (Darthmouth College).

The discussion was quite interesting. Pascal Vennesson showed that France’s return to NATO was just a normalization, since the majority of the recent French military interventions were already happening in a NATO framework. Frédéric Charillon argued that France was facing the traditional dilemma of middle-range powers: how to reinvent the ways to matter on the international stage when France’s power (measured by traditional indicators such as military power, economy, size of the population, etc.) is seen has gradually diminishing? I tried to list the main issues in contemporary international security, and to show that in most of them (the notable exception being the Israel-Palestine conflict), France was playing an arguably positive role. Moreover, France’s “immaterial” resources (I don’t like the term “soft power”) also matter: for example, France is one of the very rare countries at the UN to be able to draft an entire UNSC resolution in both French and English, hence setting the agenda in some ways.

John Mearsheimer adopted a historic look at France’s role, and argued that it was gradually diminishing over the last two centuries, because of a relative French decline in the traditional indicators of power. Basically, he thought that France did not matter anymore, a view consistent with his own theory of international politics. Of course, the three Frenchmen on the panel begged to differ and offered a more nuanced appraisal. William Wohlworth asked why France was so irritating to the US public and argued that it was because France behaved pretty much as predicted by the realist theory of international politics, which did not fit into the American liberal narrative on foreign policy. Hence the framing of France’s behavior as an issue of betrayal or reliability instead of an issue of diverging or shared interests. Wohlworth also tried to balance Mearsheimer’s view, arguing that it is only compared to the US that France appears weak, and that the French voice in the world still matters a lot.

The debate with the audience covered topics such as the Anglo-French defense treaties, France’s relations with Germany or the state of the French armed forces.

Overall, an interesting and funny debate.

From left to right: William C. Wohlworth, John Mearsheimer, Theo Farrell, myself, Frédéric Charillon and Pascal Vennesson