[Overseas view]Balancing friendshipsDuring his visit to the United States, French President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly reaffirmed his wish to restore French-American amity.
French-American relations have always been difficult since De Gaulle.
French diplomacy since then has been built on the basis of an independent posture from Washington, thanks to French nuclear military capacity.
Unlike other American allies, Paris was not dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its security, and was therefore in a position to take autonomous decisions, even when those decisions were in conflict with Washington’s point of view. Accordingly, France was frequently perceived as the “bad pupil” in the Atlantic classroom.
But actually, France had sided with Washington during the most severe international crises.
Its strategic autonomy allowed France to be as close as possible to the U.S. without risk of appearing as its client.
During the Berlin Wall crisis (1961), the Cuban missile crisis (1962) and the Euromissile crisis (during the 1980s) ― the three main storms of the East-West struggle ― France staunchly supported American positions. In normal and more quiet times, France was an outspoken critic of American behavior on the international stage.
With the Iraq war, France was for the first time in opposition to Washington in a major strategic event.
The Americans felt betrayed. They considered France absent when they where under attack. Paris thought that the war was more than a mistake; it was also seen as a source of impending insecurity, as if adding fuel on a highly flammable Middle-East.
Ironically, nowadays, even in the United States, a great majority of people admit that the Iraq war was a failure, whereas Jacques Chirac is still regarded as an enemy, even if he has taken many steps helpful to Americans since 2005 (such as taking a common position on Lebanon and on the Iranian crisis; participation in NATO military operations in Afghanistan; and lending cooperation of France’s intelligence service in the fight against terrorism).
Sarkozy, even if he declared that Chirac was right on the Iraq war, is popular in the United States. He has repeatedly expressed his admiration for American society and values.
He was nicknamed “Sarko l’Americain” and is proud of it.
During his speech on Capitol Hill, he stroked the American ego. He paid tribute to American interventions during World Wars I and II and the Cold War. He praised the fact that in those occasions, Americans did not act for their own freedom, but for other nations’ freedom.
This sounded sweet to American ears, who have a strong tendency to believe that, in contrast to Europeans, their diplomacy is moral and dedicated to universal, not national, interests.
This is far from the reality. The United States, as did other nations, acted in their national interest, even with universal packaging.
If their intervention was decisive during the World Wars and the Cold War, they did not act in defense of their European or Asian allies but in order to respond to attack or to counter the Soviet threat.
In the same mood, Sarkozy applauded the fact that the world needs U.S. leadership to fight against global warming. It was a polite way to point out the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto protocol.
In France and abroad, some people are eager to see France giving up and showing allegiance to Washington. Others are fearful of such a perspective.
For the time being, it is just too soon to know if these hopes and fears have any substance.
While some doubts have been raised regarding the future of the French military participation in the war in Afghanistan (“French soldiers are not there forever,” the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared before the presidential elections), Sarkozy pledged to stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary.
He had probably come to the conclusion that a French withdrawal would be perceived as a betrayal by Washington and would be considered as a green light for other nations to withdraw.
Even if nobody is optimistic about the future of the military situation in Afghanistan, he chose the less dangerous one between two evils by staying there.
As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sarkozy is considered as a friend by Israel.
Nevertheless, he stated that the status quo would only fuel terrorism and extremism, thus making a direct linkage between the perpetuation of the conflict and the expansion of extremism.
Usually, Israeli friends deny any link between terrorism and the political situation.
He stated again his opposition to acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. But this declaration has been perceived as help for the ones in Washington who are opposed to taking the military option proposed by the hawks.
As far as NATO is concerned he proposed a deal: France could rejoin NATO on the condition that a European pillar be built. Reintegration would be a major change in French policy. But the Europeanisation of NATO would also be a tremendous change of U.S. policy which till now has always ruled out such a possibility.
As for Iran, by praising the North Korean example, he showed that the military solution is not the only, nor the best, option.
As a reminder, he balanced his position ― an ally but not aligned, a partner but a free one, a friend but one who stands on his own two feet.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface