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November 20, 2008

Sarkozy Filling a Vaccum
Posted by Max Bergmann

Photoofficiellepresidentsarkozy_2 The International Herald Tribune has an interesting analysis of French President Nicholas Sarkozy's term as president of the EU. The gist - Sarkozy wants the spotlight, has used the French Presidency of the EU to play a larger role, but in doing so has often overstepped.

For a temporary job, being Europe's leader for six months is a tough one, battling for Master of the Universe status with limited firepower and wavering support for big ideas. Nicolas Sarkozy tries. He has sprayed concepts, some of them good ones, like buckshot from a scattergun at international issues and problems. Sarkozy can be bold, emotional and refreshing. But if you go back to July, when France took over the European Union's rotating presidency, his distinguishing feature as Europe's point man may be his institutionalizing of the political potshot in place of coherent policy - firing off noise-making, important-sounding projects or plans that for the most part don't or are unlikely to work… his thrusting at importance without the caliber of influence, consistency or number of divisions (to quote Stalin) to carry it off.

This seems right. Sarkozy definitely would like to put France back into the mix of great powers and he definitely has the ego to attempt to pursue such a role. But it is not just that Sarkozy is "thrusting at importance" it is also that there is a real opportunity for countries to play a more prominent role internationally. Russia, China, Iran, have all expanded their international roles and there is  prime opportunity for Europe to do the same.

The United States under Bush is simply not as influential around the world as it once was. Hopefully this will change, but over the last year there has been space for another country to attempt to play global leader and advocate for the current international system. Sarkozy has increasingly tried to fill this role with his involvement in the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, the Middle East peace process through his attempts to bring Syria and Israel together and to bring Syria back into the international community, and his recent efforts to play shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi and Washington. The IHT is right that despite Sarkozy's efforts, France simply doesn't have the clout to play such an outsized role, but Sarkozy's efforts are not just driven by ego they have also been driven by the need for someone to play this role - especially on Russia and the Middle East.

Second - and I think this is largely missed - Sarkozy is not simply trying not to make France a more prominent global player, but is trying to make the EU into one as well. The problem that Sarkozy is facing is not simply that France is not powerful enough globally, but that it is not powerful enough within Europe. Part of the French vision of the EU was always that they would heavily control it and with the EU's clout France would be able to punch above its weight internationally - much the same way the Brits view its "special relationship" with the U.S. But Sarkozy - or any other EU leader - is simply unable to effectively speak for Europe, even as its current president. His dealings with Russia have angered Eastern European EU countries and his efforts to play a larger role in the international response to the financial crisis have fallen flat largely because he doesn't have the weight of the EU behind him.

While many American analysts may interpret this as just further evidence that Europe is weak, divided, and irrelevant, I think Sarkozy's efforts are actually a recognition of Europe's potential strength. Sarkozy is trying to fill the EU leadership vacuum that exists after repeated failures to pass a new constitution. Europe has tremendous latent power. It already acts as one economically, creating the largest trade bloc in the world. Militarily it is more powerful then most acknowledge. Kori Schake, a Europe expert, and interestingly, a former McCain foreign policy adviser, explains in a 2007 report for the Centre for European Reform in London,

Europe does not give itself adequate credit for its strength. The EU includes at least eight of the world’s best militaries. Taken in combination, the EU would not be defeated in war by any country or coalition that did not include the United States. Its military power is undeniable; whether it is willing to use it more actively is a question that is likely to be tested by the next US administration.

Sarkozy's problem, and this is one of the real dillemmas that the EU has going forward, is that no member country or leader can speak for Europe on foreign policy. It is simply too big. This does not mean that Europe cannot act as one, only that without a change in the EU's governing structure  (ie without passing the Lisbon Treaty which would reform the EU's government and would create a EU President that would have the equivalnt of a EU Secretary of State) the EU, and subsequently France, will continue to lack the clout to play a more prominent international role.


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France will still has influence even without leadng the EU due its neutral stance when it comes to Europe and the Middle East. Because the United States has allied itself too closely with Eastern European nations and Israel it has managed to lose all leverage in Europe and the Middle East.

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