Nicolas Sarkozy’s Foreign Policy Should Be Vindicated

The French leader was controversial but his foreign policy can serve as a standard for future decisionmaking.

Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009
Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

George W. Bush and his acolytes are these days fond of claiming that history will eventually judge the administration of the former American president kindly. This is supposedly especially true of their foreign policy legacy: the “freedom agenda.” They went as far as to claim the “Arab Spring” as vindication.

Bush and the neoconservatives are unlikely to ever find their swan song adequately praised in history manuals but by no means is foreign policy out of fashion as far as swan songs go.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency for one was controversial enough but unlike Bush’s, his track record may yet be vindicated.

In France itself, Sarkozy is currently reviled for his collaboration with Germany and toeing the line of “austerity” as far as dealing with Europe’s financial crisis goes. This, too, while more of a domestic legacy, may also be vindicated as François Hollande’s reforms seem to amount to a “spare no expense” doctrine in a country on the verge of financial collapse. Then again, that was what he was elected to do.

In terms of foreign policy, though, the Sarkozy doctrine should stand as a standard for future foreign policy decisionmaking. Not only did it promote French business interests; it promoted Paris’ strategic imperatives in the European Union.

Sarkozy had his ups and downs and his tactical populism did not always serve France well. Polemics over the Chinese Olympics for instance were unnecessary and France’s ties with China may have suffered from it. Equally less worthy of praise was the overall reaction to the Arab Spring where Sarkozy and his government, while weary of the outcomes of the revolts, still chose the populist path of appealing to the success of the rebellions.

However, in policy arenas from Europe to the United Nations, France was extraordinarily assertive, pragmatic and ultimately efficient.

Facing an ever more independent Germany, Sarkozy chose to safeguard the Berlin-Paris axis as far as European questions were concerned but sought to hedge France’s bets by reapproaching Britain and the United States and reconstituting the Atlantic allies. France rejoined NATO’s political structure — mind you, at a time in which NATO’s political coherence is far from what it once was — thus pleasing its transatlantic ally — and paired with the United Kingdom in a number of industrial, military and geopolitical projects.

Germany, in spite of the French president’s efforts, turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Berlin united with the Central and Eastern European member states to downgrade Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean into a meaningless discussion forum and inefficient member bloated exercise. The original plan, however, had been good. The point was to endow the EU’s southern neighborhood with a Finlandized area of its own. Open to preferential trade with the EU, willing to apprehend European values but devoid of actual membership — tout sauf institutions.

Sadly, Germany’s insistence for the inclusion of all EU member states in the Mediterranean Union would finally prevent it from ever emerging as a meaningful institution. It managed nevertheless to alter the EU’s paradigm of political approach to its southern neighborhood from a post 9/11 belief in promoting normative reform in illiberal regimes, to a more pragmatic and noninterfering engagement.

It was also Germany that prevented an easier French triumph in the Libyan war. France followed its diplomatic victory in Côte d’Ivoire, where it succeeded in replacing the regime with a more reliable one while using relevant international organizations as the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations, with another impressive diplomatic mobilization of international organizations into adoption of the French narrative in Libya; Paris now being very likely to inherit the preferential commercial and military ties Tripoli used to respectively maintain with Italy and Russia and freed from Muammar Gaddafi’s nefarious influence over Françafrique.

Sarkozy wasn’t shy in advocating a heavy hand against Iran, a state which seeks to undermine Western interests in the Middle East. Along the way, apart from making France a front seat player in the world’s major developments and organizations (two successive French presidents of the International Monetary Fund) Sarkozy was good at securing a ceasefire between Georgia and Russia which for the most part secured the previous status quo (appeased Moscow, cooperative Tbilisi).

The truth is that Nicolas Sarkozy served the French people well in foreign affairs. One hopes that they are sensible enough to apprehend as much.

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