Business executives and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic have increased dialogue.

WASHINGTON – Now that the hard feelings are subsiding between the Bush administration and Old Europe, the conferences, seminars and roundtables have begun. Sponsored, for the most part, by trans-Atlantic organizations or multinational businesses, they are bringing together the usual suspects – academics, journalists, business executives and government officials – to discern what went wrong, and what might now be put right, and to ponder where traditional alliances now stand.

In Berlin, Deutsche Bank sponsored a meeting called “Desperately Seeking Europe,” in which leading Europeans put prominent Americans on display – notably the neoconservative polemicist Richard Perle – to observe their behavior and listen politely to their arguments. On the shores of Lake Como, the Council for the United States and Italy was treated to a stout defense of Bush-administration foreign policy from Under Secretary of State John Bolton. (“He left this resort,” complained Richard Cohen, of The Washington Post, “… (with) a chip on his shoulder so big I feared he would exceed the weight limit for the flight home.”)

When I received an invitation from the New York-based French-American Foundation to participate in a two-day seminar on the state of U.S.-French relations, I had visions of discussions in the shadow of Notre Dame or, perhaps, a meeting of the minds in Aix-en-Provence. Instead, I am disappointed to report, we met in two crowded conference rooms at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on K Street, one of which was below ground level and lacked air conditioning.

But I’m not complaining, because that’s the bad news. The good news is that reports of a historic estrangement between France and the United States have been wildly exaggerated. This is not to say that official differences do not exist, and will not persist, or that mutual stereotypes aren’t regularly reinforced. But it is to say that more things unite the two countries than divide them – shared political and cultural values, trade, tourism, the war on terror, historic ties – and that whatever our arguments about Iraq might have signified, they were not evidence of systematic animosity. It was the French participants who joked about Freedom Fries, not the Americans.

That’s the good news. The consensus among the American participants, including White House representatives and proponents of the war (such as The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol), is that the Bush administration could have done a better job of marketing the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and surely would have benefited from broader foreign support. For that matter, it was generally agreed that periodic outbursts of anger with France had been comparatively subdued: The occasional billboard, radio talk-show hosts, congressional blather and The New York Post, whose “Axis of Weasels” front-page headline was passed around the table as if it were radioactive.

When the discussion centered on questions of policy – the prelude to the war, weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East “road map,”etc. – there was broad agreement on terms and conditions, and differences of opinion transcended national boundaries. But when the discussion turned to mutual perceptions – how Americans see France, how the French see America – two old, familiar problems emerged.

The first, of course, is domestic indifference to foreign opinion. While it is a fallacy to suggest that in the good old days Americans were passionately interested in foreign news but now couldn’t care less, there is no question that the Europeans are considerably more attentive to us than we to them. To be sure, this has a lot to do with our status as the global hyperpower; but it is also the symptom of a gradual separation. A generation ago, intellectuals were far better acquainted with their European counterparts than they are today. To some degree, Americans have grown up and no longer look to Europe for guidance or inspiration; but that would not explain the evident decline in the exchange of ideas and arguments across the ocean.

The problem, however, is not exclusive to this side. I was surprised by the candor with which my French colleagues described how difficult it was to sell stories to editors that didn’t conform to rigid French presumptions. The French chattering classes swiftly concluded that the war in Iraq was exclusively about oil, and that George W. Bush is a dangerous cowboy and religious fanatic. Accordingly, the voices of French journalists who may have thought otherwise, or who report from here and possess a rather more accurate view of our president, were seldom heard.

Proving, I suppose, that for every half-baked serving of Freedom Fries here, the French were fully capable of foolishness there. And the fact that such seminars and conferences are held is proof the two countries still yearn to get along.

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.


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