go to top

Libya Reveals Sarkozy's Inner Idealist

Friday, March 25, 2011

Amid all the criticism of the U.S. and coalition military intervention in Libya, one strain in particular has focused on the role played by France and President Nicolas Sarkozy in leading the charge toward action. In his typically thorough fashion, Art Goldhammer does a great job of explaining both the personal and political factors behind Sarkozy's zeal. As Goldhammer mentions, there is the thirst for glory, the appetite for risk, the desire to make up for flubbing Tunisia and receiving Gadhafi on a state visit to Paris in December 2007, as well as the potential boost a global leadership role might give Sarkozy's flagging domestic fortunes.

I'd add that there is also a desire to prove France's resolve and willingness to engage in military action, especially in its own backyard, in a way that the increased engagement in Afghanistan just can't accomplish do to its distance and low visibility. Furthermore, at the outset, it seemed like a promising opportunity to flesh out the new Franco-British military partnership as an alternative to the EU and NATO, although that has already proven itself to be a chimera. (Contrary to what Goldhammer says, though, neither France nor Britain lack the force projection capabilities for the current operation, although the British might be reconsidering the wisdom of foregoing an aircraft carrier. What they lack is the command and control capabilities to harmonize such a broad and disparate coalition of forces, but that puts them in good company with the rest of the non-American world.)

But while he mentions it, Goldhammer -- and others -- give short shrift to the actual humanitarian component of the intervention. In particular, there's one aspect with regard to Sarkozy that people are forgetting -- namely, that although foreign policy was largely absent from the 2007 presidential campaign, to the extent that it was broached, Sarkozy actually ran on a very aggressive human rights plank. He talked about business as usual with Russia being unacceptable so long as the Russian army was committing atrocities in Chechnya, for instance, and I have the vague recollection that China, too, came up in this regard. He also emphasized returning France to its largely self-imagined role as the defender of human rights around the globe. Upon being elected, he named Bernard Kouchner, known as a hawkish liberal interventionist, as foreign minister and created a subcabinet position -- secretary of state for human rights -- under Kouchner, to which he appointed Rama Yade.

But then something strange happened. Sarkozy spent the first 18 months of his presidency essentially selling nuclear energy to China and the Arab world, welcoming Gadhafi to Paris, and engaging in some smart realpolitik, but realpolitik nonetheless, with the third Bush administration (2007-08). But outside of meeting the Dalai Lama in Warsaw, for which the Chinese made him pay dearly for a year, there was zilch on human rights, to the point where he eventually let the subcabinet position on human rights lapse once Rama Yade fell out of favor and was reappointed elsewhere.

Now, I've argued in the past that Sarkozy's opportunism -- I'd call it pragmatism if he weren't so impulsive -- was well-suited to the historical moment of Bush's lame-duck period, and that his refusal to insist on foreign policy coherence allowed him to respond with agility to a chaotic and rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape. And while George W. Bush's foreign policy was perhaps driven by idealist illusions, its effect, as Sarkozy was quick to seize, was to create a geopolitical moment that rewarded realpolitik, especially during those final two years.

I've also argued that Sarkozy has had more difficulty navigating the post-Bush era, because the leverage he could generate from his pro-Atlantic posture decreased as America's isolation faded. There was also an expectation that President Barack Obama would pursue a more idealist foreign policy, of a sort that would be out of step with Sarkozy's opportunistic realism. But Obama, for all his idealist rhetoric, has conducted a realist foreign policy -- until now.

The Arab Uprising has, at least temporarily, suspended that realist period and ushered in a moment that allows for idealism to play a greater role.

Now, the problem for Sarkozy is that, because of his well-documented opportunism, people have trouble believing he can ever feel authentically and personally committed to anything. But I think this is a case of history presenting Sarkozy with the chance to act on something he actually feels strongly about, while overlapping with some gambles that he's willing to take. The NATO reintegration was a similar case, with a lot of short-term advantages in terms of mending the U.S.-France relationship, even more mid- and long-term gambles in terms of French defense autonomy, but beneath it all, a foundational personal commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance and what Sarkozy calls the "family of the West," with all the common values that implies.

In other words, the Arab Uprising in general and Libya in particular are presenting Sarkozy with the chance to get back in touch with his inner idealist. We'll soon see how much of a precedent this becomes, but I for one would not be surprised to see the overarching theme of Sarkozy's end-of-term foreign policy being sketched out now, with an emphasis on human rights and an end to business-as-usual.