US Affairs: Vive la difference

One thing is clear - French foreign policy has certainly changed since Nicolas Sarkozy became president.

October 4, 2007 19:20
US Affairs: Vive la difference

Nicolas Sarkozy 298.88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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When US President George W. Bush gave his address to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly last week, he barely uttered the word Iran. When he did refer to the regime in Teheran, he used it to illustrate his overall message of the need for expanded human rights and international development. Instead, strong condemnation of the Islamic Republic and its quest for nuclear capabilities came from a different speaker: Nicolas Sarkozy. It was the newly elected French president who declared, "Weakness and renunciation do not lead to peace. They lead to war," and that "there will not be peace in the world if the international community falters in the face of the proliferation of nuclear arms. [The Iranian crisis] will only be resolved if firmness and dialogue go hand-in-hand." In case he needed a more visual reminder of the fact that there's a new sheriff in town, Sarkozy was even spotted taking his regular jog in an NYPD T-shirt. That's good news for the US, which wants another strong arm to shore up the good cop-bad cop EU-US tag-team routine on Iran. But some say that so far Sarkozy's been more willing to talk tough than act tough - and that even if he begins to walk the walk, it might not be enough to arrest Iran's bad behavior. But there's no doubt things have changed. "The election of Sarkozy and the new French government represents a sea change in French foreign policy, in that you really have in Sarkozy and to some extent in [Foreign Minister Bernard] Kouchner a new crop of leaders who appear ready to break the mold," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who described the former French administration as defining its foreign policy in opposition to the US, hardly the tack Sarkozy is taking. Perhaps most dramatically, it was France that led the effort against the US invasion of Iraq at the UN. Now it's Sarkozy taking the lead to make the case for tough action - albeit diplomatic - against Iran. AND ONE of Sarkozy's first foreign policy moves was to appoint as his foreign minister Kouchner, who actually backed intervention in Iraq, albeit on humanitarian grounds. Kouchner - an unconventional choice, given his Socialist party affiliation and resume as a founder of Doctors Without Borders - showed just how unconventional he is at his inaugural visit to Washington ahead of the General Assembly. He announced at the opening of his speech that he would be doing some "plain speaking" to the audience of diplomats, academics and journalists, but actually saved his frankest words for a group of female protesters who had come to disrupt his speech. As Kouchner took the stage, the women began to chant "No war in Iran!" and were promptly pulled out of the room by security guards. But Kouchner called for them to be brought back. He preceded with his speech only to be interrupted by them again when he spoke of the need for strong sanctions, saying, "If sanction without dialogue can only lead to confrontation, dialogue without sanction is unfortunately tantamount to weakness, so we have to propose both." When one woman yelled, "Sanctions kill children!" Kouchner came down from the podium to talk to her, asking what she would propose. Yet to her response - "dialogue without sanctions" - he said that it had been tried many times without success. The personal attention he showed them won over the protesters, who heaped praise on him when they met him after his lecture. Whether Kouchner's unconventional style will be able to win over his fellow Europeans on sanctions remains to be seen. So far, the new French leadership's clearest break with its predecessors has been to call for heightened European sanctions on Iran beyond those approved by the UN Security Council. But so far, Kupchan hasn't seen much progress. "My sense is that Germany's not on board." Indeed, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute pointed to the EU's desire to operate from a consensus among its 27 member states as presenting an opening for Iran to be disruptive of efforts to tighten sanctions. "It's always easy to exploit differences," he said, adding that as the US tries to stave off a nuclear Iran, "it's good to have the French on our side, but it might not be enough." Kupchan, too, is pessimistic about its overall impact. "Are the Americans and the Europeans prepared to adopt a set of sanctions sufficiently rigorous to change Teheran's mind about its nuclear program? I think the answer to that is probably no. Sarkozy helps the US, but I don't think it gets Washington over the red line of the consensus that it's time to turn up the heat in a major way." And in general, Kupchan assesses that under the Sarkozy administration, "thus far there's been lots of talk and not all that much action." Still Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees Sarkozy at least "waking up" Europe to the need to take action and a greater potential for European solidarity now that the French will be bolstering the British, who have been "feeling lonely" in their support of the US position. At the very least, Gordon said, if America again resorts to military action as it did in Iraq, this time France won't be the leading anti-cheerleaders. "I don't think France would mount a global and determined effort to stop the use of force," he said. "It would no doubt oppose the use of force by the United States, but it would no doubt blame Iran for failing to comply with the Security Council." Bush might still be maintaining his much maligned with-us-or-against-us bluster, but US officials have acknowledged it's nice to have someone with you. "It means the US is not alone in trying to organize a much tighter regime of sanctions," Kupchan said of the new French posture. "The broader issue is an ideological one - do we contain or do we engage, and I think Sarkozy is a container. That puts Sarkozy in pretty good alignment with Washington, but you can't close this deal with just two countries." Or two sheriffs.

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