Paris, September 25, 2007 – It is difficult to see what France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, expects from his effort to reconcile France with the United States, which so far has seemed rather confused.
Early in his campaign to succeed Jacques Chirac as France’s president he described Iran as the greatest threat to contemporary international society. That seemed to align him with the United States, reversing France’s previous policy. In recent days, he and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have provoked controversy in France and internationally – above all in Germany -- with their comments on Iran.
Kouchner innocently started it by saying that war with Iran is the “worst” thing that might happen in this situation, and governments had to acknowledge that possibility. Presumably he had in mind a U.S. attack on Iran, but made it sound as if France might go to war too.
To Kouchner, who likes to talk, this probably seemed a self-evident thing to say, since everyone in Washington has been arguing about whether President George Bush will or will not attack Iran before his term ends. But since Kouchner is now the foreign minister, and not somebody gabbing with his friends, or speculating on television talk shows and writing for newspapers, the statement shocked.
It didn’t really shock anyone who knows what’s going on, but it shocked people that in his position Kouchner should talk about war with Iran. Therefore he had to be repudiated by President Sarkozy. Sarkozy said that war is not in his vocabulary. He said he is for “an arsenal” of sanctions, negotiations, discussions, firmness. But then war was back in his vocabulary when he spoke to the UN on Tuesday. He said that a failure to stop Iran from obtaining such weapons would lead to war.
Sarkozy wants to make it clear that his France has a new policy on Iran and nuclear proliferation. Former President Jacques Chirac nicely summed up the old French policy in January, when he said that “one more or less” nuclear weapon nation among the small countries “was not worth getting a headache about.”
This, strictly speaking, is true, since all the nuclear powers, small or large, in one or another way deter all the others -- even the United States, whose passion for non-proliferation is not really motivated by fear of “rogue-nation” attack, but of the existence of nuclear forces outside its direct or indirect control, and thus able to inhibit or deter Washington’s (or Israel’s) freedom of conventional military action.
Virtually no one seriously concerned with nuclear matters thinks Iran would commit self-obliteration by attacking the U.S. or Israel. However the two would be a lot more prudent than they are now if they were dealing with an Iran that had a couple of nuclear missiles.
Some American commentators think that Sarkozy simply wants leadership in Europe, and thinks that being Washington’s best friend is the way to obtain it. Bernard Kouchner says France can help “channel” America’s power. Where have we heard that before? Surely Nicolas Sarkozy cannot think that Tony Blair’s was the way to win Europe’s leadership?
You can reasonably argue that opposing the United States is not the way to go either, but when the Chirac government blocked a UN Security Council endorsement of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it and its Germany ally seized the moral leadership of “old Europe,” thus splitting Europe as a whole, and making George Bush’s Iraq “coalition of the willing,” consisting in a few initially stalwart Atlanticists (later with second thoughts) and a lot of small-country blackmail victims, look pretty pathetic. And the French and Germans have since been vindicated, even in most Washington eyes (if not those of the administration itself, whose clear-sightedness has yet to be demonstrated).
Sarkozy’s real bid to lead Europe has come in his recent success in getting the proposed constitution rewritten in acceptable terms, his defense of European “national champions” in industry and business, his bid for a rethinking and reorganization of European strategic thought and military development, his effort to get the European Central Bank to defend the euro and promote growth, his cries to the Europeans to “Wake up! Wake up!”, and admonitions that the big European countries have failed in their responsibilities, and lack imagination and energy.
Many Europeans are uncomfortable about the directions in which Sarkozy wants to go. Many are put off by his abrasive style. The Germans already have leaked to the press that Chancellor Angela Merkel and her entourage are fed up with the headline-grabbing self-promotion, and the bear-hugs and kissy-kissy style, of Sarkozy. (She is a lady and prefers a polite touch-of-the-lips-to-the-outstretched-hand.)
If Sarkozy wants to lead Europe he’ll have to accomplish that with what he does in Europe, not in Washington. Why reintegrate a moribund NATO, whose other members are dropping out of its ill-conceived mission in Afghanistan, and which has just been forced by lack of allied support to abandon its plan for a permanent intervention force? Whatever the future of NATO, it’s no longer an alliance of supposed equals, in which France could expect to flourish; it’s Team U.S.A. now, and it’s not winning.
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