French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ushered in a new era of cooperation with a foreign policy that brings the country closer to the U.S. than it has been in decades. Vive la France.
The fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal dictatorship in Libya wouldn’t have been possible without Sarkozy’s leadership. The choice of the Elysee Palace, the seat of the French presidency, as the host of the Libya Contact Group meeting on Sept. 1 was no accident and was richly deserved. The gathering of leaders and foreign ministers discussed how to coordinate international support for Libya’s new government. But unofficially, it was a victory celebration. Sarkozy earned the right to sit at the head of the table surrounded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts from around the world.
The French emergence as a full partner of the U.S. and a leader of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might be the most important aftereffect of the effort to depose Qaddafi. By his reluctance to lead on Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged Europe to take greater responsibility for its security. Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron were up to the task.
As Sarkozy told French ambassadors on Aug. 31, “The Europeans demonstrated for the first time that they were capable of intervening decisively, with their allies, in a conflict on their doorstep.” Significantly, Sarkozy noted that “NATO turned out to be a crucial tool in the service of our military operations.” He added, “For the first time since 1949, NATO was placed at the service of a coalition led by two determined European nations.”
France has always seen itself as a world power, so its global ambitions are no surprise. What is new, and extremely positive, is that France wants to be a partner of the U.S. in leading NATO, rather than a competitor. Even though they have similar interests and share many values, France and the U.S. have often had a difficult relationship.
Charles de Gaulle, the founder of France’s Fifth Republic, famously said that he was animated by “a certain idea of France.” In foreign policy, that meant a France that retained its grandeur and global influence by asserting its independence. In de Gaulle’s eyes, NATO was an instrument for U.S. domination of Europe. In 1966, he announced his intention to withdraw France from NATO’s unified military command. Since then, a series of French presidents, from the left and the right, retained de Gaulle’s policy of reducing American influence in Europe by building up the European Union as an alternative to NATO.
That would have all been fine if it had resulted in a net increase in Europe’s ability to defend its interests without U.S. assistance. Instead, it led to the construction of redundant EU headquarters, and wasteful efforts to build an indigenous European defense industry for equipment such as heavy-lift aircraft and satellites, which duplicated existing U.S. systems. The U.S. has long called on Europe to rebuild its military capabilities by spending more on defense and doing so more wisely. Sarkozy’s Aug. 31 comment that Europe needs “robust military capabilities and real industrial and technological policies” echoes the same themes, and makes it more likely that the other Europeans will pay attention.
The French embrace of NATO could immeasurably strengthen the trans-Atlantic partnership. Strong relations with Europe remain the central pillar of U.S. national security. As was seen most recently in Libya, when serious foreign-policy work needs to be done, the U.S. turns first to its European allies -- not to its Asian friends, and not to emerging powers such as India or Brazil. We hope that Obama recognizes this reality.
France’s turn toward NATO comes as political paralysis and economic troubles have eroded Americans’ willingness to play an active role in the world. There is an irony here that Americans should appreciate. The U.S. and Europe have a common interest in promoting democratic change in the Middle East. Even with its economic troubles, and its deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. retains enormous military capabilities and financial resources that dwarf those of France or Europe as a whole. But unlike Obama, Sarkozy is prepared to act boldly, as he said on Aug. 31, “to resolutely support the peoples’ movements toward democracy.”
Closer U.S.-French cooperation on security issues could also help the two nations find a common solution to economic challenges from Asia, including from China and India. The Group of 20, a forum of the major industrialized and developing economies, is paying an increasingly important role in resolving global economic problems, including the undervaluation of China’s currency and imbalances caused by that nation’s export-driven growth model. The U.S. and Europe have virtually the same views on most of these matters. France will host the G-20 summit in November, and Obama should engage with Sarkozy to prepare for it.
France and the U.S. have been uneasy allies for most of the past century. As a result, their friendship has never reached its true potential. Sarkozy has taken important steps to turn that around. It is now up to Obama to respond by giving Europe the attention it deserves.
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