Paris, September 28, 2007 – Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president, has placed stopping Iran’s alleged nuclear military program at the top of France’s foreign policy agenda, a dramatic reversal of previous French policy.
While insisting on the danger of war if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Sarkozy reportedly believes there is unexploited space for compromise between the alternatives of “an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran” – as he and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, have both described the present situation.
The United States has refused to talk directly with the authorities in Teheran since its diplomats were taken hostage in the Iranian revolution of 1979-80. And in the American view, Iran has rejected every opportunity Washington has offered for reestablishing a dialogue.
Sarkozy believes that France’s history of good relations with Iran puts it in a special position to promote a dialogue, validated by its effort to block the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to prevent the catastrophe that invasion has created in a country next door to Iran.
France under Sarkozy is trying to reestablish close relations with Washington, and believes that it is in a position to advance credible compromises on the Iran nuclear crisis. This is the account offered by the journalist Renaud Girard in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, clearly writing with encouragement from the presidential office.
The weakness in this argument is its possible overestimation of the willingness of the Bush administration to solve the Iran problem peacefully. It may also miscalculate Washington’ readiness to have a solution come by way of France.
However the French initiative has substance, and even if it fails to solve the Iran dilemma, it could do a favor for the United States by easing it out of the corner in which Washington now finds itself because of its predilection for ultimatums, and because of President Bush’s habit of diabolizing or demeaning leaders with whom the U.S. might eventually have to deal (a political and diplomatic disability recently displayed by the sleek but pathetic president of Columbia University).
A major step in President Sarkozy’s intended reconciliation of France with the United States has been to sound out Washington and NATO concerning France’s rejoining the military structure of NATO.
In August, Sarkozy said that France should resume a full role in NATO. Since Charles DeGaulle withdrew France from full NATO participation 41 years ago, and the partial reintegration that took place under Jacques Chirac in the 1990s, France takes part in NATO military planning and French officers are present elsewhere in the military structure, but French forces are not integrated into the alliance or committed to NATO command. They are available for “insertion” into NATO operations at the discretion of Paris.
This is awkward, and as one officer says, causes France to seem to have one foot in and one foot out of the alliance, inspiring suspicions of a hidden agenda. The minister of defense, Hervé Morin, favors “a change in France’s political comportment in the alliance,” and so, it seems, does Sarkozy.
Opponents of reintegration think France has more global influence where it is, “taking NATO a là carte rather than the whole menu.” This is the view of a new policy study commissioned by Sarkozy from the former Socialist foreign minister, Hubert Védrine. The study argues that France’s international influence is closely connected to its nonaligned foreign policy.
However an argument some insiders make about rejoining NATO is that doing so will help France get what it really wants, which is an effective and independent European defense structure linked to the European Union.
This is a project long on paper, supporting the current small EU military staff that runs Europe’s existing peacekeeping and peace-supporting operations in the Balkans and Africa. The European defense project’s larger ambitions have been blocked by the U.S., which doesn’t want an independent European defense, and by EU countries who think it wasteful duplication of NATO structures and responsibilities, or who simply don’t like the idea of an autonomous European strategic presence in world affairs.
The insider argument says that with France a full partner in NATO, the European project would be treated on its merits, rather than as a rival to NATO, and would prosper as NATO declines.
The internal contradictions created by NATO’s transformation from a European defensive alliance into an instrument of international military interventions, initiated and strategically defined by the United States, would seem ultimately very damaging to the alliance, particularly if -- or as -- the Middle Eastern crisis deepens. The unhappy Afghan experience already provides fairly convincing evidence of the effect of these contradictions.
This interpretation of France’s motives in moving back towards NATO is probably too subtle, or too controversial, to be true. But as happened when Jacques Chirac tried NATO rapprochement, less complicated but more formidable obstacles to France’s return may emerge.
France would want reallocation of senior posts and major organizational responsibilities in NATO. It wants a clear geographical frontier for NATO, opposes membership for Georgia and the Ukraine, and would not accept NATO’s further transformation into the military arm of any new international entity meant to supplant or replace the UN – all of these ideas that are current in Washington. The chronicle of French-American relations under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency has only begun.
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