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Messianic U.S. Driven by Harvard, Hollywood: French Books

Alan Minc
Alain Minc, head of a French consultancy agency AM Conseil, and author of "LAme des Nations." Photographer: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg

Why is the U.S. rejecting the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea?

Alain Minc would say it’s because the country has an isolationist streak in its DNA.

Minc, 63, is a successful French businessman, political guru and author of more than 30 books. His latest, “L’Ame des Nations” (The Soul of Nations,) examines the leitmotifs in the behavior of various countries and how they’re anchored in history.

Much of what he has to say may not be terribly original. Yet this book serves as a useful reminder of the constant factors that shape our world.

Minc sees the U.S. as torn between the contradictory impulses of isolationism and Messianism.

A typical clash between the two occurred after World War I when President Wilson preached the gospel of his 14 Points (“God contented himself with 10,” scoffed French premier Georges Clemenceau) only to be let down by the U.S. Senate which rejected a key point, joining the League of Nations.

Minc is incredulous that more than half the members of Congress have no passport and have never been abroad, yet the U.S. acts like the world’s policeman.

He also wonders at the contrast between America’s gigantic military expenses and the meager results achieved by its recent wars. The real source of its influence, he says, lies in its soft power summed up in three words: Apple, Hollywood, Harvard.

Russian Conflicts

Russia too, Minc believes, is torn between two conflicting tendencies, to copy the West and to cling to its own distinct identity.

The country is the largest in the world, he says, yet it suffers from a persistent encirclement complex, which explains its enormous frustration after the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulting in the loss of most of the territories conquered by the czars and the European satellite states subjugated by Stalin.

Another deep-rooted tradition is Russia’s fundamentally undemocratic approach to power: What the aristocracy was under the czars and the nomenclatura under the communists has morphed into a rapacious oligarchy well connected to the Kremlin.

Minc paints a rosier picture of Europe. France and Germany, once “hereditary enemies,” have found a way to overcome their conflicting views of their role in the world.

French Ambitions

For France, which has always tried to punch above its weight and dreamed of the Rhine as its “natural border,” Europe has become, in Charles de Gaulle’s words, the “Archimedean point” of its ambitions.

Germany, on the other hand, which sees itself as a “Kulturnation” defined by language, not by borders, has found in Europe a space in which the age-old contrast between Volk (nation) and Staat (state), which led to Hitler’s irredentist excesses, can finally be laid to rest.

The European Union, Minc says, is here to stay, despite all predictions to the contrary, because it envisages itself as a confederation, not a federal state, so no member is forced to give up its DNA.

The U.K. is an exception. For centuries, it has been guided by the principle of “divide and rule” and tried, successfully in most cases, to prevent one continental power from dominating the others.

Now, with the continent increasingly integrating, the U.K. has to make up its mind whether to join the adventure or, true to its DNA, to remain outside in “splendid isolation.”

“L’Ame des Nations” is published by Grasset (283 pages, 18 euros).

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Sam Knight on business books and Patrick Cole on charity.

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