Nicolas Sarkozy made headlines this week by telling his diplomatic corps that "an Iran with nuclear weapons is for me unacceptable." But the French President did more in his speech than name the gravest current threat to global security, itself a feat of clear thinking. He also signaled that France means to be something more on the international scene than an anti-American nuisance player.
That's worth applauding at a time when the conventional wisdom says the next U.S. President will have to burnish America's supposedly tarnished reputation by making various policy amends. In Germany, under the conservative leadership of Angela Merkel, foreign policy views have been moving closer to the Bush Administration's, not further away, while new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made clear he will not depart significantly from the pro-American course set by Tony Blair.
But it is Mr. Sarkozy who, true to his reputation, has been the boldest in stepping up to his global responsibilities. On Afghanistan, he told the assembled diplomats, "the duty of the Atlantic Alliance as well as that of France," is to "increase efforts." He then announced he would be sending additional trainers to assist the Afghan Army. On Israel, he said he "would never budge" on its security. He warned about Russia, which "imposes its return on the world scene by playing its assets with a certain brutality," and he cautioned against China, which pursues "its insatiable search for raw materials as a strategy of control, particularly in Africa."
Of course, this sort of thinking goes four-square against the prejudices of Sarkozy's predecessor and the anointed hair-and-makeup paragon of poetaster pomposity, the grandiose Foreign Minister, then PM Dominique Villepin [LNU], whose deft work with the epee into the back of Colin Powell was the highlight of the 2003 Security Council Jousting and Listing in the runup to the US/UK freeing of Iraq from its nasty dictator Saddam Hussein. The WSJ goes on to say in a masterful piece of understatement:
It's hard to imagine Jacques Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy's predecessor, speaking this way. (Mr. Sarkozy has also reportedly described French diplomats as "cowards" and proposed "[getting] rid of the Quai d'Orsay." Imagine the media uproar if President Bush mused about doing the same to Foggy Bottom?) No less a departure from past practices at the Élysée Palace is his stance on Iran. In January, Mr. Chirac had mused that an Iranian bomb would "not be very dangerous." Mr. Sarkozy, by contrast, has previously insisted on the need to "leave all options open" when dealing with Iran's nuclear programs.
In his speech this week to the diplomats, Mr. Sarkozy warned of the need for tough diplomacy, including "growing sanctions," to avoid the "catastrophic alternative: the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." That doesn't sound far from Senator John McCain's useful formulation that "There's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option; that is a nuclear-armed Iran." The important point is that Mr. Sarkozy has put on record that he won't let Iran develop a bomb under cover of feckless Western diplomacy.
One test of his resolve will be how much France assists the Bush Administration as it seeks to round up votes in the U.N. Security Council for a third round of sanctions on Iran next month. The Administration has had a hard time moving the diplomacy beyond symbolism in part because of the economic ties that other permanent members of the Council, including France, have with the Islamic Republic. The French say they've already pulled out some of their investments in the country, and in recent months France, Germany and other European countries have in fact cut back their export credits to Iran.
Mr. Sarkozy could now demonstrate real seriousness by forcing French energy giant Total from its $2 billion investment in the huge South Pars natural gas project. A corruption probe into the decade-old project could give him the leverage to do so, as could rising pressure in the U.S. Congress to start enforcing sanctions against companies that do business with rogue regimes.
Whatever Mr. Sarkozy does, however, he has plainly set a new tone for French foreign policy. That's not to say we agree with him on every point: He reiterated France's opposition to the war in Iraq and called for a "horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Yet even that puts him well to the right of every U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate. And he warned against the "risks of an antagonistic multipolar world," the very world Mr. Chirac seemed to strive for by opposing the U.S. at every turn.
In a speech last year in New York, Mr. Sarkozy noted that "I've always favored modest effectiveness over sterile grandiloquence. And I don't want to see an arrogant France with a diminished presence." With his remarks Monday, Mr. Sarkozy has given the best evidence to date that his presidency will attempt to enhance French influence not by opposing the U.S. but by working with it.
Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown all appear ready to deal with a lot of intractable problems with a serious sense of purpose. This is for France a welcome departure from the posing, strutting and puffery of Sarkozy's predecessor & Chirac's page-boy Dominique.