A few years ago, miffed by France’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Americans re-christened French fries, and John Kerry derogatorily portrayed as ”French”, was hammered for suggesting that we should pay attention to what the rest of the world thinks.
If you saw the arrival at Camp David of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday, you saw the crows coming home to roost: in a fitting final act to his lexicographic handicap, President Bush felt compelled to coin a new code word: Democratic Capitalism, as opposed to the Democratic Socialism that prevails in one form or another in most European countries.
Unlike Jacques Chirac, the current French president, besides being a centrist convinced of the merits of capitalism, admires the United States for its energy and creativity. But he is the product of a highly centralized state, where banking has been regulated since the time of Louis XIV’s minister Colbert, who brought the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy, regulated the guilds and saw to it that the rich paid their taxes.
President Barroso, before being elected to head Europe’s most powerful governing body, was a social democratic professor of political science.
The two most powerful Europeans came to Camp David to read the riot act to the president of the country that for almost a century has dominated world economic affairs. Moreover, and strange as it must seem to most Americans, they are joined in their resolve to change the way finance is structured worldwide by President Putin of Russia. In fact, I am not aware of any significant disagreement in this respect, with the exception, perhaps, of some members of the former Soviet Bloc who harbor resentment at Western Europe’s failure to side with Washington against Moscow at the time, and often show it by siding with America.
Although the American media has sought to portray finance reforms as having started in the U.S., only to be taken up by Europe, things actually happened the other way around: the reforms were started by Britain’s (Labor) Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and were quickly adopted by the other countries of Europe. Sarkozy’s and Barroso’s visit was intended to spell out the agenda for a larger meeting between the European Union and the U.S.
The Europeans pressed for rapid action, but President Bush, acting on impulse rather than common sense, said nothing will happen until after the election. Delay can only make matters worse: the rest of the world was compelled to go along by the realities of international finance; but it has always had deep doubts about the justice and long-term viability of “the American model”. Now that events have vindicated its concerns, it will impose changes. And international and national regulations will reflect the widely held belief that the State owes its citizens protection against the misfortunes of birth or life, in line with basic social democratic values.
Senator McCain seems to have succeeded in convincing millions of Americans who stand to gain by it, that it is a bad thing to redistribute wealth. If McCain were to become president, those supporters, far from benefitting, would suffer what in soccer is called an “own goal”, when you mistakenly shoot the ball into your own net, raising your adversary’s score.
Beyond the hype about Wall Street versus Main Street, an Obama presidency will have to gradually undo America’s hypnotic fear of socialism, which now goes under the code-name of “redistribution”: self-reliance is a good thing, but we cannot program our lives for success, and when we falter, we must be able to count on the solidarity of the larger community, formalized in the state, which democracy allows us to control.