French-style tactical maneuveringBy declaring that the world must be prepared for the worst and by clearly referring to the possibility of a war against Iran, Bernard Kouchner, the French minister of foreign affairs, has perhaps attracted more attention than he initially wanted.
Is France making a diplomatic U-turn? Will new French authorities aligned with the American agenda and put an end to the traditional strategic independence that used to be the Fifth Republic’s trademark? Will we witness the renunciation of a policy created by Charles de Gaulle and strictly followed by all his successors since then, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac included?
All the French presidents have declared the United States to be their staunch ally while emphasizing their independence at the same time.
During the Cold War, France had a special status. It strongly sided with Washington in the worst East-West crises (the Korean War, the building of the Berlin wall, the Cuban missiles and the Euromissile crises and so on) but also expressed its opposition to some American diplomatic positions on many occasions, being the outspoken opponent from within the Western bloc. Being a nuclear power, France was not dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its protection.
For many countries, France was attractive as a Western yet independent country. After the end of the Cold War and under Chirac’s presidency, confronted with the surge of unilateralism in the United States, France was perceived as the bulwark of multilateralism, international law and international organizations.
Being an ally doesn’t mean being aligned. When a friend makes a mistake, your duty as a friend is to tell him that he is wrong. Paris, speaking for the majority, thought that the war in Iraq was a pure mistake.
But in a time when the motto in Washington was “Those who are not with us are against us,” this independent position was perceived as ill-intentioned.
Sarkozy has a clear reputation of being pro-American and more pro-Israel than Bush. During the presidential campaign, international matters were almost absent from his agenda. Some observers wondered if Sarkozy’s pro-American stance was a purely tactical tool used to differentiate himself from Chirac or if there was a true possibility for a radical change in French foreign policy.
However, changing a country’s foreign policy is a very difficult thing to do. Just like a big tanker, their way is not easily altered. Historical legacy, national interests, perceptions and geography do not change with a snap of the fingers.
At the end of August 2007, in his first speech on international relations before the French ambassadors, Sarkozy had already raised the Iranian issue.
Unsurprisingly, he recalled his opposition to Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, a view shared by every country on Earth. He has also gone further by drawing two would-be-catastrophic scenarios: one would be a nuclear Iran, the other being the bombing of Iran.
Some experts took Sarkozy’s support of American (or Israeli) plans to drop missiles over Iran in order to destroy its nuclear capacities for granted. It would not only be a different position from the one France had on the Iraq war, but also the end of, as de Gaulle used to put it, “a certain idea of France.” Could France agree to an illegal war without any mandate from the United Nations?
There are, in fact, two different perceptions of the words of Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner. According to the first perception, these declarations are a green light for future military operations. In opposition to this interpretation, another view is that they only outline the situation as dramatically as it is.
There is real concern about American military options. From a rational point of view, a new war in the area could only turn out to be a bigger catastrophe than the Iraq war.
It is probably impossible to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities (most of them are hidden underground) and limited operations are not a realistic option since the Iranians would react to an attack, directly or indirectly. The already hotheaded Muslim opinion would be infuriated and terrorism would burst out.
On the top of that, Sarkozy does not want to be confronted with the following dilemma: refusing to side with the United States in case of a war ― and therefore being seen as an enemy again ― or supporting (or not condemning) Washington’s (or Israel’s) military options and, consequently, destroying the capital of sympathy for France and its prestige all around the world. Moreover, it would be the end of the honeymoon between Sarkozy and French public opinion, the latter being strongly opposed to both Bush and a new war.
Iran has an awful image among the French public (only 3 percent of them have a positive opinion of this country). However, another war seems “a worse cure than the disease,” and Sarkozy knows very well that military operations against Iran are hardly compatible with his heralded strategic priority: to avoid a clash of civilizations between the Muslim world and the West.
Therefore, Sarkozy’s declarations could be seen as tactical: dramatizing the situation in order to put pressure on Tehran while hoping that this kind of pressure, as well as economic sanctions, can sufficiently pave the way to a diplomatic solution.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface