Ugly Americans in Paris

Ugly Americans in Paris

The US may have won the war, but US companies are in danger of losing the peace.


The conventional wisdom at this year’s Paris Air Show was that Donald Rumsfeld’s temper tantrum and Russia’s shaky financial status were going to take all the fun out of the world’s largest arms bazaar and aerospace exhibition, held each June at historic Le Bourget airport in Paris’s gritty northern industrial suburbs.

Since Rumsfeld had refused to send US combat aircraft to Paris to “punish” the French for not supporting Washington in Gulf War II, and Moscow was afraid to send fighter planes for fear that a Swiss creditor might confiscate them, commentators were droning on about how the “firepower” would be missing from Le Bourget this year–or “US Drizzles Over Paris Salon’s Sizzle,” as Aviation International News put it in a front-page headline.

While the journalists were preparing for gloom and doom, someone apparently forget to tell the scores of nations, hundreds of exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of members of the general public who came to the show to follow suit. Under unseasonably warm 80-degree skies, against a backdrop of puffy clouds punctuated by the occasional quick thunderstorm, tens of thousands watched French pilots dominate the air over Le Bourget at a show whose theme seemed to be “we can do business just fine without America, thank you very much.”

This point was underscored by the largest deal announced at the show, a blockbuster purchase by UAE airlines of twenty-one massive Airbus 380A airliners–one of the most lucrative single airline deals ever made. The United States may have won the war for regime change in Iraq, but US companies are in danger of losing the peace, in large part due to backlash against the Rumsfeld/Perle/Wolfowitz brand of Ugly Americanism.

Even before Paris, there were signs afoot that the Bush policy of talking loudly and carrying a big stick is not good for business. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the partners in the first major European-wide military transport plane, the A-400M, opted at the last minute to switch the engine from the Canadian subsidiary of US-based Pratt and Whitney to an all-European consortium because it was the only way to get the project cleared by the German Parliament. And the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), the trade group that represents Lockheed Martin, Boeing and all the big US military/aerospace companies, took great pains to point out in its monthly newsletter that the leading importer of US aerospace goods in recent years has been none other than Donald Rumsfeld’s favorite foil: France.

Given this turbulent background, the aerospace companies came to Paris in the unaccustomed role of peacemakers, trying to patch up the divisions created by the unilateralist rhetoric of the Bush Administration. Prior to the show, AIA President and CEO John Douglass spoke of the need for US CEOs to sit down with their European counterparts to talk about “what’s in the interests of our companies, quite apart from the interests of our countries.” Far from being stereotypical merchants of death trying to stir up trouble so they can profit from the ensuing tensions, the aerospace companies seemed to be the ones working at diplomacy. After all, every time Rumsfeld insults another country, there’s a danger that its national airline might decide to choose Airbus over Boeing just to stick it to the Americans.

Following up on the theme of transatlantic reconciliation begun by the industry’s top trade association, Lockheed Martin vice president Bob Trice threw a big dinner at the Ritz in Paris at which he gave a speech on the theme of “transatlantic partnership.” While his call to put aside the differences that had divided the US and European governments during the Gulf War struck an appropriately conciliatory note, the main thrust of his speech was that he would stand with his brothers in the European military industry in the struggle to convince their governments to spend more on their military forces, so that they would be more fitting partners for the United States in future joint operations.

Leaving the nature of the products aside, imagine, if you will, the uproar in Washington if a French merchant of death rented out a hotel ballroom in Washington and put on a big spread to give a speech to say that he stood with his brothers at Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ready to influence the US government to spend more on the military! He would be run out of town on the next Concorde, if the Concorde wasn’t in the process of being retired from service and made into a museum piece at Le Bourget.

The head of the US Chamber of Commerce also put in a call to his industrial brethren in Europe at around the same time as the air show, with his own conciliatory note. Again, he stressed that the political divisions of Gulf War II should be put to the side. Again, he suggested unifying toward a greater goal, in this case reviving the global economy. And again, like his counterpart at Lockheed Martin, he placed his foot squarely in his mouth the minute he got down to specifics as he hectored the Europeans about how they needed to deregulate, cut taxes and basically be more like Americans in every way, every day.

The arrogance of US political and business leaders extended to the tarmac and the suites of the air show as well, where US companies had the most ambitious, world-encompassing slogans.

Northrop Grumman may have taken top prize for arrogance with its new slogan, “Defining the Future.” One would think this tag line might cause the company some trouble with the legions of the religious right–after all, isn’t “defining the future” supposed to be the Almighty’s job?

Lockheed Martin has changed its slogan from “Mission Success” to “We Never Forget Who We’re Working For.” Cynics might suggest that the change is linked to the fact that the company had so many high-profile mission failures in the 1990s–from faulty launches that blew up multibillion-dollar satellites to rigged missile-defense tests–that the PR department realized that the better part of valor was to change the subject. But the new slogan is interesting in its own right, given that Lockheed Martin has its hands in so many pockets–the Pentagon, NASA, the IRS, the US Postal Service, numerous state and local governments, and on and on–that they may well forget from time to time who they are working for.

Like Northrop Grumman, Boeing went for a futuristic motto, “Forever New Frontiers,” which sounds like a mix between a Bob Dylan song and a motto from the Kennedy Administration. The brochure that announces the new slogan shows a young African-American girl holding a globe in her hands, which opens up into a colorful, three-part brochure featuring lots of soothing talk about “global partnerships” interspersed with the occasional bit of heavy metal (an Apache helicopter here, an F-18 combat aircraft there). The overall impression is of a sort of hip imperial power that would be fun to be ruled by, certainly far better than those heavy-handed Russians or those stick-up-the-ass Brits.

It’s not clear that this is the message Boeing is trying to convey, but there’s the rub, of course–for all of their firepower, neither Boeing, nor Bush, nor Northrop Grumman, nor Rumsfeld, can control the way the rest of the world perceives them. And that is ultimately why we, the people, are going to win, and they, the corporate militarists, are going to lose. Let’s just hope we can limit the damage they do while we are seizing the steering wheel from their greedy little hands.

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