Not long ago, lawmakers were so piqued at France that they officially relabeled French fries as “freedom fries” in congressional cafeterias. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld designated France as part of an increasingly irrelevant “Old Europe” because of its insufficient enthusiasm for the 2003 Iraq invasion. The conservative National Review channeled Bart Simpson in deriding our erstwhile allies in Paris as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
What a difference a decade makes.
After Syrian President Bashar al-Ashad gassed more than a thousand people last week—the worst chemical-weapons atrocity in decades—French officials were the first to insist that continued Western inaction was unacceptable. Months earlier, France had teamed with Great Britain, its frequent partner in recent foreign policy assertiveness, to break the European Union’s arms embargo on the Syrian rebels. (The British parliament voted yesterday not to intervene in Syria.) “France is ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people,” leftist French President Francoise Hollande said in a pugnacious speech this week.
This is beginning to look like a pattern. Last January, when al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadists joined with Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of Mali, France quickly dispatched 4,000 troops to its former colony. With a little help from the United States, they drove the Islamic extremists back into the hills and remote deserts of northern Mali. And in 2011, the French and British not only pressured NATO to intervene in Libya but also took charge of that operation. A French Mirage warplane spotted Muammar el-Qaddafi’s convoy trying to leave the city of Sirte and dropped the bombs that halted the ex-leader’s escape.
France has a limited sphere of influence, a number of special relationships in the Middle East and North Africa (because of its colonial history), and a narrow military capability to act on those interests, notes David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That has made France a real wild card in confronting recent crises in the region.” But he also points out that “the French essentially shamed the United States into intervening in Libya.”
What has gotten into France, which not so long ago seemed more interested in preserving the 35-hour workweek and criticizing American “hyper-power” than in playing an outsized role in world affairs? The simple answer: Paris sees a changing world. It is watching nervously as China ascends in the East and war-weary America increasingly withdraws in the West. As the only other NATO partners with nuclear arsenals and permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, France and Great Britain have assumed a more prominent role in a Western alliance that both nations view as more critical than ever.
“We see the world becoming more multipolar, and as Asia continues to rise in power and influence, we believe the transatlantic partnership between Europe and America will become even more vitally important as the backbone of democracy and democratic values,” says a senior French official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Keeping that partnership strong will require more burden-sharing on the part of your European friends, which is why France and Great Britain together account for 60 percent of total military spending in the European Union.”
In the past, France has insisted that only the U.N. Security Council can sanction military force, a position that protected its role as a permanent member but granted Russia and China veto power over collective Western action. Now French officials privately say they are willing to take part in military strikes against the Syrian regime even without Security Council backing. International legal legitimacy is still important, the senior official concedes, but Paris believes that two other provisions confer it in this case: the U.N. resolution on the “responsibility to protect” civilians from mass murder, and the prohibitions in international law against the use of weapons of mass destruction. “Democracies are strongest when our realpolitik interests and our values align,” the official says. “That was the case when we acted together to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo two decades ago, and it’s the case today in Syria where chemical weapons are being used on a massive scale to murder civilians in a civil war that is destabilizing the entire region.”
Skeptics say that despite spending more on defense than all their European neighbors combined, France and Great Britain still have cut defense budgets so deeply that they’ll have to share a single aircraft carrier. “There’s no question that Paris has become more outspoken, and because it has political will, France still matters militarily, up to a point,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and, until recently, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. But even for relatively limited deployments in Libya and Mali, he notes, France needed significant U.S. military backing for airlift, intelligence collection, and precision-strike weapons. “And that will almost certainly prove the case once again if it comes to a military strike on Syria,” Daalder says.
Yet France’s contribution to the alliance shouldn’t be judged by how many bullets and bombs it can pledge. After a decade of war, a global recession, and years of paralyzing budget battles, the political will to continue playing the global role of “indispensable nation” is precisely what is lacking in Washington. With the West’s standard-bearer so strained, Paris is reaching out a hand to share the burden. It’s what real allies do.