Sarkozy’s Leverage Problem

It’s rare to find balanced analysis regarding Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy, no less so in France than in the U.S. The guy has a way of polarizing people to the point where most either love him or hate him, but lose all ability to calmly assess what he’s doing. Part of that has to do with Sarkozy’s frenetic nature itself, which lends itself more to caricature than to calm reflection.

Max Bergmann’s analysis at Democracy Arsenal of this John Vinocur IHT column, though, is an exception to the rule, mainly because Bergmann nails the circumstancial opportunity that Sarkozy has tried to exploit, as well as the primary obstacles in his way:

The United States under Bush is simply not as influential around theworld as it once was. Hopefully this will change, but over the lastyear there has been space for another country to attempt to play globalleader and advocate for the current international system. Sarkozy hasincreasingly tried to fill this role with his involvement in theEuro-Mediterranean partnership, the Middle East peace process throughhis attempts to bring Syria and Israel together and to bring Syria backinto the international community, and his recent efforts to playshuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi and Washington. The IHT is right that despite Sarkozy’s efforts, Francesimply doesn’t have the clout to play such an outsized role, butSarkozy’s efforts are not just driven by ego they (sic) have also been drivenby the need for someone to play this role — especially on Russia andthe Middle East.

Second — and I think this is largely missed — Sarkozy is not simplytrying not to make France a more prominent global player, but is tryingto make the EU into one as well. The problem that Sarkozy is facing isnot simply that France is not powerful enough globally, but that it isnot powerful enough within Europe.

With regard to Europe, I’d add that a related problem is that the EU has not yet decided if it wants the role that Sarkozy (and France more generally speaking) would like it play. Another thing that Bergmann leaves out is that Sarkozy is perfectly aware of both these obstacles, or at least I suspect he is. So yes, he — like his predecessors — hopes to use Europe to allow France to box above its weight class, especially vis à vis the U.S. And yes, he — like his predecessors — have been forced to accomodate the thorny inconvenience that Germany, and now Eastern Europe, actually get a say, and a weighty one at that.

But as the examples Bergmann cites demonstrate, Sarkozy has consistently been seeking out leverage points that, like a fulcrum, magnify the weight that France can lift, both within Europe, and in the Euro-Atlantic alliance. That, as much as anything, is Sarkozy’s genius, as one would expect from someone of diminutive stature and modest origins who nonetheless managed to attain the summit of power.

He’s also the furthest thing from an ideologue, and his pragamatism — which some call incoherence — is characterized by a willingness to toss solutions at a problem until one sticks, as this passage from the Vinocur op-ed illustrates:

An adviser to Sarkozy offered this positive spin: “People are startingto understand how he works. He has an idea, says something serious, butnot diplomatically, and then if necessary he’ll correct himself. Ifthere’s a hullabaloo, he couldn’t careless.”

If he didn’t have a way of wearing on people’s nerves, that could be a refreshing quality in a president, especially the president of France.

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