Allons, enfents de la Homeland?

Thanks to Kieran Healy for pointing me to this from CalPundit:

There is, in fact, one European country that shares most of America’s attitudes and values:

Uniquely for western Europe, they value independent military action and have a strong martial culture.

They generally speak only their own language, and when they do speak other languages they do it badly.

They believe in the superiority of their culture and aggressively try to export it abroad — though with minimal success these days.

They bargain aggressively and are often seen as obstreperous and arrogant by their fellow Europeans.

They have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and aren’t afraid to use it.

Needless to say, the country is France, the bête-noir of Americans because they’re the only European country that acts the way America does. Delightfully ironic, no?

Well, yes and no. France’s obstreperousness is, in some ways, optimal for a small power. Being stubborn is one way to take advantage of the strength of a weak position: the capacity for what Mancur Olsen calls “the exploitation of the great by the small.”

The basic idea is that if you and I have to agree on something to make it work, and it matters a lot to me and only a little to you, you’re in a position to shake me down. For example, imagine we’re partners; we own a piece of land together. I own 90%, you own 10%. The partnership agreement provides that the decision to sell must be unanimous. Now say we get an offer from someone who wants to buy the land for $100,000 more than we could otherwise get for it. That’s a gain of $90,000 to me, and only $10,000 to you. If you say, “I won’t approve the sale unless you give me an extra $10,000,” and you’re stubborn enough so that I believe you, you’ve got me over a barrel. Buying you off for an extra $10,000 is clearly better for me than having the sale fall through.

In a coalition, the unimportant members usually get more than they deserve and contribute less than their share, because the cost to the big partners of giving them what they want is small compared to the costs of having the coalition dissolve. (See Macaulay on the nightmare William of Orange had in managing the German princelings in his war against Louis XIV.)

And that’s the French strategy. Not nice — you wouldn’t really expect “nice” from a country whose national anthem ends “until their polluted blood courses through our gutters,” would you? — but reasonably effective.

However, the attempt of a superpower to behave in the same way is inevitably self-defeating, as the real estate example makes plain. Can you say “Cutting off your nose to spite your face?” I was sure you could.

“Beware,” says Eric Hoffer, “when the strong begin to employ the weapons of the weak.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: