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.