New Leaders in Britain, France Offer Fresh Start for U.S. Ties

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It’s the end of an era, or maybe two, as new leaders in Great Britain and France offer a chance for revived, and possibly very different, relationships with the United States.

In France, the presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy, the rightist occasional ally of former President Jacques Chirac, has won early praise from France-bashing American conservatives. Across the channel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will not immediately withdraw Britain’s remaining troops from Iraq, but he is expected to be a bit more explicitly multilateral than predecessor Tony Blair and more cautious should the Americans ever lead the world into a military adventure with an uncertain exit strategy.

But experts warn against expecting major changes in trans-Atlantic ties, and in any case, both Britain and France may save any bold diplomatic initiatives until after the U.S. presidential elections in November 2008, when their publics might be more accepting of a fresh start.

Brown comes from Blair’s Labour Party, the very government that began British involvement in the now-unpopular Iraq war. Brown is not expected to make major changes to Britain’s Iraq policy—at least until he receives political cover at home.

“As there is in the United States, there’s widespread concern that there’s no clear outcome [in Iraq],” Ian Davis, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, told The Washington Diplomat. “There is a strong opinion within the British military hierarchy that British troops are achieving very little in Iraq at the moment, and at present they may be escalating the violence.”

Britain already recently reduced its troop number in Iraq from about 7,000 to 5,500. Some events suggest Brown can pave the way for a foreign policy that is more independent of the United States, particularly on Iraq, and he’s more likely to involve top government officials in major decisions than Blair did, according to Davis.

Blair came under some criticism for running a so-called sofa government, while Brown seems committed to going back to a strong Cabinet-style government, with less reliance on outside experts and more on career civil servants.

“Blair went over the head of the Foreign Service and marginalized the role of foreign office,” charged Davis. “There’s been a collective sigh of relief within the foreign office that Gordon Brown’s key advisor on foreign policy is going to be Simon McDonald,” a career diplomat and former ambassador to Israel who has spent time working in Washington as well.

Furthermore, there’s talk in Britain of a high-level commission, along the lines of America’s Iraq Study Group, which might help Britain form some kind of consensus on Iraq.

Brown, the low-key longtime political player who held the position of finance minister (known as chancellor of the exchequer) for a decade, will bring to Downing Street a different personal style than Blair did. Brown, a Scotsman, has been described as private, prudent and bookish. Blair, on the other hand, was widely seen as easygoing, folksy and able to connect well with people with similar traits—people like President Bush. “I think it will be a much more clunky relationship,” said Davis of the Brown-Bush dynamic.

On other world affairs, Brown may be more engaged in an agenda of global justice than Blair, given his passion for international development. Under his watch as chancellor, he increased foreign aid by 140 percent, according to the Economist, which noted that Brown has called universal education and addressing global warming the twin tracks of his foreign policy. The article went on to say that Brown “has spoken of unemployment and deprivation as among the main sources of violence in Iraq. In some respects, again, Mr. Brown is not so different from his predecessor, who spoke passionately about global warming, and who helped to push for big aid increases, especially for Africa.”

And on Iran, which could become a major test for Brown if a crisis develops, he is likely to be very hesitant to engage in military force. Around the word, Davis predicted Brown will instead use debt relief, trade, aid and other “soft security levers,” or carrots rather than sticks, to get things done.

John O’Sullivan, a former advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and now a scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute, wrote of a conflict between Brown the “moralist”—who wants a healthy society of self-reliant citizens, freed of public handouts—and Brown the “control freak,” the Euro-socialist technocrat who wants to dictate economic and social outcomes for everyone through large complex schemes of income redistribution.

O’Sullivan wrote in May that prudence and the need for economy were now firmly on the side of Brown the moralist. “If Brown the moralist wins, that will have the incidental effect of moving him further away from Europe and toward America,” he said. “Brown has never been as Euro-sceptical as some Euro-sceptics wanted as a check on Blair’s Europhilia. He was ambivalent at best on whether Britain should sink itself further into a European federation.”

But a short time later, O’Sullivan sounded jilted and angry, claiming that Brown allowed his counterpart Sarkozy to achieve various protections for French industries during the recent negotiations to draft treaty reform for the European Union.

“Sarkozy stood revealed as a European protectionist who had achieved the long-sought French objective of abandoning Europe’s commitment to free markets,” O’Sullivan wrote in an op-ed, warning that Brown’s supposed cave-in to Sarkozy was bad news for Washington as well.

“For 50 years the State Department has encouraged London to accept ever-more intrusive Euro-integration on the theory that Britain would subtly push Europe in a pro-American and free trade direction,” O’Sullivan wrote. “Instead, Sarkozy’s victory, his new alliance with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel for a protectionist ‘Fortress Europe,’ and the Blair-Brown acceptance of this all suggest that Europe may be transforming America’s best friend into just another European ‘ally.’”

The verdict on whether Sarkozy is a true free trader in favor of globalization and free market principles or a “protectionist” in disguise is still out. Nevertheless, many other conservatives appreciate Sarkozy’s tough anti-socialist talk of how France is mired in backward institutions and an ethic of laziness—the 35-hour workweek is at the top of Sarkozy’s list of baggage—which he blames for plunging his country from a global powerhouse to one with a per-capita gross domestic product below that of Ireland and Finland.

But at the same time, Sarkozy is also against the death penalty, fearful of global warming, and still sticking by France’s decision not to join the U.S. coalition on Iraq—not the kind of talk that conservative Bush loyalists might like, although Sarkozy is still sufficiently pro-American to keep talk of “freedom fries” quiet for a while.

“Chirac was constantly looking for fights with the Americans,” Gary Schmitt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Diplomat. “Sarkozy is not going to be this way.”

France and the United States made nice, at least for the moment, on a friendly visit to Paris by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June. Sarkozy, Schmitt said, may not be especially helpful to American interests abroad, but at least he won’t be much of a roadblock either.

On the other hand, if Sarkozy enacts tough economic reforms at home—making the French stay at work longer than seven hours a day, for example—it could carry a political price, so America-bashing could become tempting for the new leader. But as Schmitt pointed out, Sarkozy has played the anti-Turkey card (he’s vehemently against that nation’s accession to the EU) far more than the anti-American card.

Folks looking for hints of Sarkozy’s foreign policy by reading his 2006 book “Testimony: France in the Twenty-first Century” have to wait until the very end of the book for any hint of foreign policy objectives, which are detailed in a brief list of generalities that seems tacked onto a campaign-season volume of the president’s political history and prescriptions for France’s economic and social woes. Until these final pages, there’s barely a peep about Iraq, Iran or the Palestinian question, and even Sarkozy’s writings on fighting terrorism lack the bravado typical of U.S. politicians discussing the “war on terror.”

Instead, Sarkozy reserves more passion for Turkey, calling its prospective entry into the EU nonsensical—a threat even to European identity itself—and pointing out that “98 percent of Turkish territory is not in Europe.”

“In 20 years, Turkey would be the most populous nation in the EU, and the Turkish population is majority Muslim,” he wrote. “Thus you have to admit that the Union would become a completely different organization from what it is now.”

Sarkozy’s brief comments on the United States are mainly a vague celebration of shared values. As with most policy questions Sarkozy mentions in the book, he’s been keeping many specific solutions secret and instead only revealed the heartfelt and noble principles, tests of character, and acts of political independence that he said have made him the leader he is today.

Sarkozy does favor greater engagement with Africa, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and a strong commitment to Israel’s security. Perhaps most of all, on domestic and international matters, Sarkozy calls for a “clean break” with the past. France’s greatest enemy, he seems to say, is its own refusal to give up certain entrenched values and habits.

“France must accept the best to fight the worst,” he wrote. “It cannot act like the Gallic village surrounded by Roman camps, forgetting that only in Astérix cartoons does the Gallic village win.”

About the Author

Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999