- Charles De Gaulle’s Legacy of Ideas ed. by Benjamin M. Rowland
The authors of this slim volume faced a basic choice: whether to address Charles de Gaulle’s ideas about foreign and domestic politics—or politics more generally—directly or to stream these ideas through narratives about France’s relations with discrete states.
The authors chose the latter option. The result is a blurred and cursory rendering of de Gaulle’s political testament in narratives describing France’s relations with the Cold War superpowers—principally the United States—Germany, Italy, Vietnam, China, and the Arab states and Israel as well as brief chapters on French economic planning and de Gaulle’s attack on the dollar. These relations are more thoroughly covered in what one recent collection of essays on de Gaulle’s responses to globalization—Christian Nuenlist, Anna Locker, and Garrett Martin, eds., Globalizing de Gaulle: International Perspectives on French Foreign Policies, 1958–1969 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010)—estimates are more than 3,000 books, journal articles, and other materials evaluating de Gaulle’s ideas and presidency. As Robert Frost might have remarked, the road not taken—de Gaulle’s ideas—might have yielded more original results.
Only two chapters break partly from the narrative form. These are Christophe S. Chivvis’s “De Gaulle and the Dollar” and Dana H. Allin’s “De Gaulle and American Power.” Chivvis describes de Gaulle’s curious attachment to the gold standard. Allin examines de Gaulle’s views about nuclear weapons; what he believed was the irresponsible, self-interested role of the United States in relying on the dollar as a reserve [End Page 193] currency to finance its imperial expansion at the expense of its allies and, particularly, French interests; and the decisive force of nationalism as the driver of state policies and power. The other essays are competent summaries of France’s relations with the states noted above, but they do not offer any new revelations about Gaullist thinking.
Because the authors have chosen to approach de Gaulle through a state-by-state review of his thinking and politics, it is puzzling that the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union do not warrant separate chapters even as Italy is given pride of place. The United Kingdom is central to Gaullist thinking about European politics and the prospects of West European integration. The Soviet Union, conceived by de Gaulle as Russia, is key to his expectation that Russian national interests would eventually trump Soviet ideology. Of course neither de Gaulle nor anyone else—least of all the leaders of the Soviet Union—predicted that the Communist regime would abruptly implode. Rather, de Gaulle expected the Cold War eventually to be resolved through political compromise or to be placed on a more stable political foundation than reliance by the opposed alliance on the unprecedented buildup of vast armies, possessed of conventional and nuclear arms, in the middle of Europe.
What is absent in this foreshortened tour of the horizon of Gaullist ideas? Four might be noted. First, the book gives little attention to the French nuclear deterrence strategy under de Gaulle. The authors do make note of Pierre Gallois’s contributions to Gaullist thinking, but they do not really come to grips with de Gaulle’s reliance on a small and financially feasible nuclear force to justify the dismantling of French dependence on a large, costly, economically crushing land army to balance German power and to support the sprawling French empire across Africa and Asia.
Second, this fundamental shift in French strategy was also directly related to de Gaulle’s slow, reluctant, and eventually confirmed view that empires were unsustainable in the wake of the revolution in world politics ushered in after World War II by the demands of former suppressed peoples for self-determination. After more than a decade in the political wilderness, de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 in the wake of a coup d’état initiated to ensure France’s rule over Algeria. De Gaulle not only recognized the futility of that objective but the importance of aligning...