In France, passing the torch

SUN JOURNAL

Politics: The next generation of world leaders begins training amid rising tensions between Iraq and the United States.

October 25, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - The first prediction from the political science students here, some of the brightest young adults in the world, is presented without wavering. Yes, they agree, all 30 of them, the United States is going to use its military against Iraq regardless of what the rest of the world wants.

And, again without dissent, they say that would be a mistake.

But what should the United States do about Saddam Hussein? What should the rest of the world do when it sees the United States as arrogant, and, more important, when it disagrees with its course? What are the alternatives to war?

"Peace," says Olivier Treton, 21, simply, as if the answer were so clear the question need not have been asked. "All the efforts so far - with the diplomats, with the United Nations, with George Bush's speeches - have been about how to make war. You can't send soldiers in to make war. Their mission is to make peace."

Treton is not a stereotypical peacenik, not a disfranchised college student. He intends to work in the French government tackling policy projects. He is a student at the Institute of Political Science, commonly called Sciences-po, which has a long history of producing France's top politicians and policy-makers and is broadening its reach to try to shape future leaders from elsewhere in the world.

Sciences-po has produced the heads of most of the country's major businesses and was the educational home to President Jacques Chirac and numerous prime ministers. The stone-walled classrooms, sparsely filled with simple wooden benches and ancient blackboards, serve not quite as think tanks but more as intellectual incubators.

Whether the United States goes to war with Iraq will be determined, of course, by President Bush and, to a far lesser extent, the world's other leaders. How the world will manage itself in a decade or two down the road will be determined by students such as those at Sciences-po.

And based on interviews with 30 students from 14 countries, including the United States, these students are confident they can do a far better job than the current leaders, who seem increasingly resigned to war. They also see America as something of a bully, an unchecked and even threatening superpower.

"Everything is very complicated, that much I know," says Frederic Sauvage, a 21-year-old from Boulogne who intends to be a diplomat. "But I also know answers are not impossible, and right now it seems that people are not looking for these answers to avoid war."

This is no America-basher. He was an exchange student last year at the Johns Hopkins University, liked Baltimore quite a bit, is in awe of the power of the United States. But he fears that that power is being abused.

"A solution has to be found; and whatever the solution is, I think what is important is that it is not shaped in every way to America's criteria for how things should be," Sauvage says. "That is being rejected and will continue to be rejected. For the Arabs, especially, the problem right now is more about ideology than peace. They see ideology being forced on them."

This perceived heavy-handedness of the United States is common among students here as, indeed, it is common throughout Europe, both among government officials and the people they represent. In the classrooms of Sciences-po, admiration for the United States is abundant. Most of the students have visited the country if not lived there.

But, it seems, each bit of praise for the United States is followed by words of frustration. The United States is a good country with good people and agreeable ideals, the thinking goes, so why must the country's leaders make it so painful to support America?

The United States wants what is right, the students say over and over, but only if it is right for itself, the rest of the world be damned. International environmental treaties, among other evidence, are offered.

Nobody interviewed for this article gives Bush high marks for intelligence, but he scored off the charts on the arrogance scale. That might be expected from students who overwhelmingly identify themselves as left of center or liberal. But these students are in wide-eyed agreement that they desperately want Bush to succeed in securing peace. The problem, most of them say, is the president's tactics and what they perceive as a complete disregard for world opinion. And, they say, paying attention to friends and foes is not a diplomatic nicety but a useful strategy that Bush has ignored.

"The U.S. has principles, be they legitimate or not, and stands up for its causes by all means necessary," says Mariam Samsoudine, a 20-year-old French national who lives in California and is giving law school some thought. But, she adds, "the U.S. needs to remember that it cannot be a unilateral actor in today's world. World politics are not all black and white, and it's too easy to invoke `might is right' by creating `the axis of evil.'"

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