American diplomacy is seen as an oxymoron these days by many Europeans, particularly the French. That makes the effective work of the Bush administration in limiting the poisonous fallout of anti-French turmoil in Ivory Coast all the more remarkable and salutary.
As details emerge of a month of riots, racial and religious clashes, and a targeted air raid that killed nine French soldiers and an American aid worker, it becomes evident that Ivory Coast's president, Laurent Gbagbo, may have been betting that he could manipulate badly strained French-American relations to his advantage in an example of trickle-down instability.
He worked to build links to President Bush as both became involved in open conflicts with French President Jacques Chirac during the past 18 months. Under growing political and economic challenge at home, Gbagbo whipped up resentment of the residual French colonial presence in the world's largest cocoa producer.
Gbagbo may have assumed that the Iraq crisis had soured big-power relations so thoroughly that the United States would eagerly succeed France as Ivory Coast's foreign protector. It is hard to see what else would have emboldened Gbagbo to the point of ordering his East European mercenary pilots to attack French peacekeepers on Nov. 6.
French retaliation was immediate and unrelenting. French forces destroyed Gbagbo's small air force and made sure that the Belarusan pilots who carried out the attack were all killed, according to several Paris-based sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (Gbagbo's regime has unpersuasively denied that foreign pilots flew the mission.)
Gbagbo's hopes for U.S. protection were first dimmed when Bush supported Chirac's demand for U.N. sanctions and then totally dashed by a lengthy and tough telephone conversation he had with Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to U.S., French and African officials.
Any temptation to repay Paris in kind for opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was put aside in Washington, where it was quickly understood that payback policies would undermine regional security in West Africa and beyond.
Like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Gbagbo is feathering his own nest and holding on to power at the cost of reducing his once prosperous nation to ruins.
But more is involved than the establishment of one more thugocracy in Africa. Ivory Coast brings together in a red-hot crucible of change many of the forces that threaten post-colonial structures of governance and economic development throughout the Third World.
By moving goods, people and technology with increasing ease across national frontiers, globalization has also helped inaugurate an era of backlash that is only now becoming apparent and significant.
Aspirations, frustrations and resentments rise in lock step as distances shrink and groups feel that their identities or safety are threatened by circumstances and people they could once safely ignore.
Ruled in paternalistic fashion for three decades by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, with French civil servants and businessmen maintaining a deep if discreet involvement in the country's affairs, Ivory Coast failed to develop strong national institutions or identity. That is true in other African countries ruled by "Big Men" or political elites who enrich and protect themselves and their kinsmen to the detriment of others.
The shrinking of resources available through aid and through the erratic trading patterns of agricultural commodities makes the neocolonial pattern more difficult to sustain, as does the fading of the myths and real histories of national liberation struggles.
In Ivory Coast, Muslims in the north feel dispossessed by Gbagbo's power grab and his favoring of the non-Muslim tribes of the south. He has also pitted long-term immigrants and their families against those who can establish or buy citizenship. These are tensions that can quickly surface in other West African countries, as leaders from the region have been warning Chirac in urging him to act even more forcefully to establish order in Ivory Coast.
The Bush team's decision to ignore the temptation to stick a finger in Chirac's eye in revenge for the past should be recognized and publicly acknowledged in Europe -- most of all in Paris. It was a cost-free gesture from Washington that is nonetheless the right way to achieve better French-American cooperation to deal with a changing world.