How France”“France!”“Became the World’s Sheriff

Just 10 years ago, Paris seemed toothless, isolationist, and untroubled by human-rights abuses elsewhere. Now it’s leading the charge across the Middle East.

A Rafale jet fighter, right, and two Mirage 2000, left, accompanied by a supply plane, center, perform during a military exercise in a display of the French assets used in NATO-led operations over Libya, at the Mont-de-Marsan military base, southwestern France, Thursday, Nov.10, 2011. France and Britain, the European Union's most militarized nations, emerged as standouts in the campaign that ended with the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. 
James Kitfield
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James Kitfield
Aug. 29, 2013, 10:53 a.m.

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.

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