[Overseas view]Sarkozy’s nuclear diplomacy
Since the beginning of his mandate Nicolas Sarkozy has steadily promoted France’s civilian nuclear industry. Since his election the French president has signed several agreements with Arab and Asian countries in order to build nuclear reactors or to provide technical assistance.
Such agreements have been concluded with Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Arab United Emirates, Tunisia, Jordan, India and China.
The short-term financial implications are often modest. But the long-term forecast could reach billions of euros.
This commitment and eagerness to promote France’s nuclear sector is so strong that some observers quickly dubbed Sarkozy’s foreign policy as “nuclear diplomacy.” Various factors could explain this French president’s focus.
Sarkozy believes that by a virtuous happenstance, the French national interest is the same as the general interest in nuclear fuel. Paris has a good card to play by seizing a window of opportunity. Thanks to massive state investments in the 1970s in order to cope with its soaring oil bill, France is leading in nuclear technology.
In contrast with other industrialized countries, French opposition or public opinion about nuclear energy has never been very strong, remaining limited to closed ranks of environmentalist political circles. This could perhaps be explained by a wide national support for the French nuclear military program.
For French people nuclear deterrence was historically a condition of strategic independence. The civilian program has been seen as a condition of economic independence.
Therefore France could benefit from a strong and efficient nuclear industry which can make a difference with other developed countries.
As France is facing again the threat of crucial trade deficits, selling nuclear equipment should provide both foreign currency and jobs for French workers while maintaining its technological advantage over its competitors. In Sarkozy’s mind this is a perfect virtuous circle.
Worries and concerns persist over proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nicolas Sarkozy wants to cope with persistent criticism from non-nuclear states about the non-proliferation regime.
One of the most often heard criticisms is that obligations are mainly if not exclusively imposed on non-nuclear countries with few or no rights in compensation.
According to Sarkozy, selling nuclear equipment, far from breeding military proliferation, could prevent it by withdrawing one of the major arguments against the non-proliferation regime.
Sarkozy wants to make clear that giving up nuclear weapons by non-nuclear countries must not prevent them, but on the contrary, help them in acquiring civilian nuclear technology. It was one of the rules in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, included in Article IV. This represents the very balance of rights and obligations under the treaty.
Nicolas Sarkozy is a hard-liner against Iran’s nuclear program. He has constantly repeated that Iran must be prohibited from obtaining nuclear weapons, but is legitimately entitled to go further in civilian nuclear field.
He has even stated that exporting nuclear equipment to Muslim countries is a way to fight against the “clash of civilizations” theory.
It helps to fight against the double standard argument, showing that Western countries take seriously into account less developed countries’ needs and rights for accessing modern technologies. “We are partners, even in this particular and highly sensitive sector,” could be Sarkozy’s motto.
Emerging countries tend to think that Westerners want to protect their technological advantage by denying them access to it. Non-proliferation is seen as a smokescreen: The real aim is to limit their economic development.
Moreover, as most of the agreements have been signed by Sarkozy with Arab countries, Israel has been very concerned about its relationship with France. The new Franco?Israeli honeymoon was a way to reassure them.
Nuclear equipment exports allow Sarkozy to have an active and positively perceived Arab policy in these countries, outside of any relationship with the Palestinian question.
Last but not least, the nuclear industry is presented as the best guarantee to have access to energy while coping with climate change. Preserving the environment is one of Sarkozy’s priorities.
Being a leader on climate change, looking friendly with emerging powers while the French trade balance benefits from exporting technology has nothing but advantages, especially for Sarkozy’s nuclear diplomacy.
The writer is the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface