PARIS — From the Caucasus in August 2008 to the Middle East in January 2009, is France under President Nicolas Sarkozy attempting to incarnate what might be called “the West by default,” making maximum use of the window of opportunity opened by America’s presidential transition?
Or is Sarkozy simply trying to capitalize on his global visibility to reinforce his popularity at home, where a majority of French citizens continue to support their hyperactive president’s diplomatic leadership? Despite his failed bid to orchestrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, was he not right to try?
For the French, Sarkozy’s determination to act, despite the odds, seems far superior to the passive cynicism of those who preach abstention or satisfy themselves with empty words.
Beyond its impact on the Middle East, Sarkozy’s failed but brave attempt to act as a go-between constitutes an interesting window into the foreign-policy methods and ambitions of today’s France. For the essential question about Sarko- diplomacy is whether it reflects a well-defined strategy, based on a clear vision of the world, or merely expresses a shrewd and pragmatic activism that applies a keen domestic political instinct to the field of foreign affairs?
The answer is far from clear, and is probably a combination of both. Sarkozy is a man prone to following his instincts. He does not theorize about what should be done; he simply does it, without any ideological bias or constraint.
Yet, as time passes, one senses the emergence of something like a new French self-definition, which is probably the most clearly “Western” in the history of the Fifth Republic. As a presidential candidate, Sarkozy was often described as “Sarkozy the American,” an expression that alluded to his can-do style, his taste for “bling,” and the very American way in which he used his personal history to gain the support of would-be voters. But now one could describe him as “Sarkozy the Westerner.”
This is not only because he has been willing to have France act, from the Caucasus to the Middle East, in the name of Europe and itself at a time America was defaulting on its role. Nor is it simply the result of Sarkozy’s decision to bring France closer to the United States, a move that will culminate symbolically with France’s likely return to the integrated military body of NATO in April.
In a deeper way, Sarkozy’s diplomacy reflects changes in how the French president thinks about the idea of “the West” in today’s globalized world. Under Charles de Gaulle, France combined faithfulness to the Western cause in time of crisis with a strong willingness to promote its diplomatic independence and freedom of maneuver. And, despite their very different styles, both Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Francois Mitterrand were more “European” than “Western.”
The same cannot be said of Sarkozy, despite his claims to the contrary. His rapprochement with Britain and his distancing of France from Germany are, from this perspective, no accident.
In a world where America is comparatively less because of the rise of China and India and the resurgence of Russia, and less Europe in diplomatic and strategic terms (due to institutional paralysis) if not economic and cultural terms, France, according to Sarkozy, must clearly define itself as part of the West.
And just as the very notion of the West must now be analyzed and probably redefined for this century, so France must play a central part in this act of reassessment. Is the West a concept defined by its political culture (democracy and human rights), its cultural dimension (including religion), or merely its diplomatic and strategic implications (facing the rise of new powers)?
If the concept of the West is to become the new cornerstone of France’s diplomatic identity, it must be applied with prudence and moderation, even as Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House is likely to improve its image of the premiere Western power. France is not in the same league in terms of power and influence as the U.S.
Moreover, it would be paradoxical if, just when America declares its willingness to call more upon its allies, particularly its European allies, the concept of the West actually leads to the diminution, if not the burial, of the European ideal.
Dominique Moisi is a visiting professor at Harvard University and the author of “The Geopolitics of Emotions.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.