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Our best friends will be strangers

Author: Michael Moran
May 6, 2007


Some time this summer, theUnited States will find relative strangers leading two of its most vital allies, Britainand France.

In mid-June, Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, will turn over the reins of power to another member of his Labor Party, most likely Gordon Brown, a smart yet dour Scot who has been both partner and foil through the decade of Blair’s tenure.

Meanwhile, French voters today choose between two candidates to replace President Jacques Chirac, a man who has exasperated American policymakers time and again since taking office in 1995.

He will be replaced either by his own interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, a man not shy about his admiration for the United States, or by a socialist, Ségolène Royal, whose views of this country fit into what might be called a more traditional French pattern.

 With all the changes in the world since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some may question why theUnited States should care too much who runs these medium-sized European states. Yet, as much as the world has changed—such as the rise in importance of India and China—very few nations share the American view that military power is an extension of foreign policy.

Around the world, only three nations have the will, the power and the reputation to intervene when order and chaos break down: The United States, Britain andFrance.

On the surface, the U.S. would appear to have nothing to worry about. In Britain, Gordon Brown, who has served since 1997 in the British equivalent of treasury secretary, has a reputation as an Atlanticist,  i.e., someone who values ties with Washington. Yet he also is known to have been much more skeptical than Blair of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a decision that has, for all intents and purposes, destroyed Blair’s reputation at home and in many places abroad.

Indeed, Blair’s Labor Party is so deeply unpopular now that Brown may feel compelled to toe a more independent line before he calls the next general election, something he will have to do by 2009.

In France, Sarkozy is the front-runner, but the race remains too close to call. The campaign has focused more than usual on domestic issues. French exit polls in the first round indicated only 9 percent of voters say foreign policy is a deciding factor. Nonetheless, Royal has made much of Sarkozy’s publicly stated admiration for aspects of American society, painting him as a “French neo-con,” an insult similar to when New York Times columnist David Brooks said John Kerry’s speeches “sound better in the original French.”

As the campaign progressed, however, Sarkozy has carefully distanced himself from America, insisting he would never be subordinate and reasserting his opposition to the Iraq war.

Sarkozy and Royal, of course, are playing to the gallery. Whatever their true feelings about theUnited States, both likely will continue to seek a more independent voice in the world for France for fear of sharing Blair’s fate.

Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes “the surge in anti-Americanism triggered by the Iraq war has subsided. But even Sarkozy, usually at ease with his pro-U.S. instincts, has of late steered clear of trans-Atlantic issues lest he be seen as too close to the Bush administration.”

In short, France will be France, being helpful in the world when it is helpful for the French, but playing the Gaullist card, which seeks to restrain Americaon some situations.

So much of what is going on in European politics right now seems to be a reflection on Blair’s fate. Not too long ago, in early 2002, perhaps even into 2003, those who make a living assessing British politics seriously felt the name Tony Blair would one day rank alongside that of the great wartime leader Winston Churchill.

But taking Britain into the Iraq war against the wishes of the public was a gamble that has proven very ill advised. Like his Iraq war ally George W. Bush, Blair has the dubious honor of holding the record for garnering the highest and lowest voter satisfaction numbers on record.

Invariably, today’s conventional wisdom rates Blair harshly. But emphasizing declining poll numbers to assess Blair may be only a fleeting measurement.Iraq notwithstanding, Blair can claim accomplishments few would have imagined during Labor’s 16 years in opposition. Reforming Labor, which spent most of the Margaret Thatcher and John Major years as a disgruntled left-wing debating society, into an “electable” party may be his main contribution.

The British economy grew without interruption during his term. He pushed reforms that made the central bank independent for the first time and gaveScotland and Walestheir own parliaments. He helped bring Northern Ireland’s warring parties to the peace table. Overseas, Blair’s influence also helped push NATO to take up causes like Bosnia, Kosovo and, more radically, Afghanistan, which would have been unthinkable in the early 1990s. (Worth noting here: In each case, Chirac’s France was there, too). Blair pushed climate change against Washington’s wishes, and challenged the developed world to do far more in battling disease and poverty.

A separate, independent assessment of Blair’s foreign policy legacy by the Chatham House think tank in Britain gives him high marks in many areas, but concludes the Iraq war decision overwhelms the positive. The report singles out “the inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice - military, political and financial -that the United Kingdom has made.”

The result, the report concluded, would be that future British governments would be far more careful to strike a balance between the views of their European and American allies.

How the successors to Blair and Chirac might act in the next crisis will remain uncertain. Until now, the fallout of the Iraqdebacle has been hard to judge. Those involved have remained in power, and basically, after a while, realized they had to put aside certain feelings and just get along.

But how, for instance, would Gordon Brown or either of the French candidates view an Iranian nuclear test? A “9/11”-like event?

Aside from the United States, there are only two democracies with veto power in the U.N. Security Council that have professional military forces capable of deploying and sustaining a large military force far from its shores. Even today, it is the British and French to whom the U.S. will turn in bad times. Let’s hope the mistakes made during theIraq war have not permanently changed the trans-Atlantic landscape.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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