Thatcher, de Gaulle and the Rebirth of Nationalism

GEORGE F. WILL

November 23, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON. — FIFTY SUMMERS AGO, an austere French soldier in his 50th year sat before a microphone in BBC studio 2B and told France that she had lost only a battle, not the war. It was June 18, 1940, the day of Churchill's ''finest hour'' speech. And the 125th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.

History has recently been histrionic. The 200th anniversary of the French Revolution coincided last year with the collapse of the husks of Europe's supposedly ''revolutionary'' tyrannies. This year, while Europe experiences the rebirth of nations, and while Britain's prime minister has been punished politically for resisting the dilution of national sovereignty in the name of the abstraction ''Europe,'' France commemorates the 100th anniversary of a prophetic nationalist, Charles de Gaulle.

Other than in their implacability, Margaret Thatcher and de Gaulle are radically dissimilar.

She rose through Parliament, he through ''treason.'' His noble broadcast was a call to disobedience against France's government, which condemned him to death in absentia.

Until stepping down yesterday, Mrs. Thatcher reveled in party skirmishes. De Gaulle disdained ''the ballet of parties,'' practicing a caesarism of plebiscitary democracy, claiming ''the individual authority of the state.'' (Being Caesar is hazardous: He was the target of at least 30 assassination plots.)

Mrs. Thatcher had the hectoring manner of a national nanny. De Gaulle had what a biographer calls a baroque style of leadership suited, de Gaulle thought, to a nation ''made by 40 kings over 1,000 years.'' De Gaulle, who kept spiritual company with those kings (and Joan of Arc), was forever in flight from banality. Mrs. Thatcher's goal was to bang elementary arithmetic into British heads -- the costs of life, the calculations of capitalism.

De Gaulle was both Washington and Lincoln -- founder and preserver -- of the Fifth Republic, which in 1958, 1960 and 1962 was threatened with civil war. Mrs. Thatcher's more mundane aim had been to make Britain efficient.

Mrs. Thatcher wanted the British to be better shopkeepers. De Gaulle used the myth of French grandeur therapeutically, to purge disgrace -- the collapse in 1940 that was followed by collaboration.

He would ''make use of dreams to lead the French,'' to seduce them away from the passions of private interests, to national glory. Intoxication by myth was his answer to a perennial dilemma of democracy: How do you exercise the art of leadership amid the brokering of interests that is the basic business of government by consent?

De Gaulle, wrote Henry Kissinger in his memoirs, was ''the son of a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight.'' But because he understood the political primacy of nations (he spoke of ''the so-called United Nations''), he had foresight. He foresaw Germany reunified and the Soviet Union again being Russia.

Because de Gaulle's mind had a retrospective cast and his rhetoric a mystical tinge, detractors dismissed him as an anachronism oblivious to the wave of the future. Spotters of such waves were sure the next one would wash away much of the sovereignty and distinctiveness of nations, producing a fuzzy federalism of homogenized peoples.

Mrs. Thatcher has been similarly condescended to by advanced thinkers who stigmatize her as a ''reluctant European.'' But her reluctance partook of de Gaulle's farsightedness about the increasing, rather than decreasing, salience and utility of nationalism.

And in one particular, she was de Gaulle's superior. She knew that the nub of the matter is parliamentary sovereignty, meaning that great good by which mankind's political progress is measured: representative government.

De Gaulle understood that among all of Marx's failed prophecies, the most failed was the most fundamental. It was the notion that industrialism made man a merely economic creature and that all non-economic forces -- religion, race, culture, ethnicity and especially nationalism -- had lost their history-making salience. Rebirth of Europe's captive nations, including those imparting centrifugal force to the overdue disintegration of the Soviet Union, is refutation of Marx and confirmation of de Gaulle.

Today, socialism's old aspiration, the thin gruel of proletarian internationalism, has been supplanted by liberalism's still more watery soup of ''Europeanness.'' Mrs. Thatcher recoils from the drip-by-drip dilution of national sovereignty through the incremental transfer of power from national parliaments to the supranational bureaucracy in Brussels. There is a steady attenuation of control of lawmakers by elections, a weakening of the crucial criterion of legitimacy: consent of the governed.

As de Gaulle's nationalism was, so Mrs. Thatcher's is the face of the better future. And what has this to do with Americans' lives today? The threads connecting public consent with the gravest governmental decisions touching life and death -- war and peace -- are being tangled, frayed, perhaps even severed.

U.S. officials are seeking Ethiopia's, the Ivory Coast's, Zaire's forbearance for Americans to sacrifice blood and treasure in an enterprise supposedly swathed in special legitimacy because of 10 resolutions from the United Nations (''the so-called United Nations''), all to advance an abstraction: ''the new international order.''

America needs a more Gaullist foreign policy, more stabilizing contact with concreteness: U.S. national sovereignty, U.S. national interests, U.S. national decisions.

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