The Rise of French Diplomacy

In the United Nations' Security Council debate over the resolution on Iraq, many were surprised to see France re-emerge as a key player.

According to reports President George W Bush was for the first time in months regularly calling President Jacque Chirac on the telephone. Now that the Security Council has agreed to impose tough weapons inspections on Iraq, France is claiming to have secured an important concession. Meanwhile, British sources are ridiculing the minimal change in words in the final resolution. While visiting London, U.S. Pentagon advisor Richard Perle told the Guardian newspaper that, from France, "I have seen diplomatic manoeuvre, but not moral fibre".

The return of French diplomacy is something of a surprise -- not least for the British foreign office -- smarting at the recent isolation of London at the European summit. Though a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear power, France's status had dwindled in recent years.

America's support for rebel forces in Rwanda and Zaire in the 1990s reduced French influence in Africa. In 1995 France's nuclear tests in the Pacific upset U.S. attempts to enforce the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1996 France's nomination for the post of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was denied a second term in 1996, after Britain and the U.S.A ganged up to nominate their "own African" Kofi Annan, at a time when French-U.S. antagonism was said to be at its peak.

Behind this succession of international incidents stood France's diminished status in the emerging world order. France's chosen role for many years was as the diplomatic and military wing of the Franco-German alliance. While Germany was the European Union's economic locomotive, that country's troubled history limited its capacity to challenge the American order in the realm of diplomacy. But the Franco-German alliance was called into question by German reunification and the consensus-building international diplomacy of the Clinton Presidency in the 1990s.

With America more willing to deal directly with a reunified Germany, France's special position seemed to be over. Instead, Britain, having lost its Empire, at last appeared to have discovered a role. As the Clinton team sought to build international alliances, Britain under prime minister Tony Blair emerged as an intermediary between Europe - and specifically Germany - and America.

By driving the pace of humanitarian intervention in third world trouble spots, Britain was once again "punching above its weight" in the international ring, while France was looking like a non-contender. Lionel Jospin's foreign minister Hubert Vedrine did attempt to enhance France's reputation as a diplomatic innovator, but remained under Britain's shadow as Tony Blair stole a French proposal from the 1950s for a European Defence Force.

The changing mood of U.S. diplomacy following the election of Republican George W Bush, however, disturbed the pattern of international relations that had been established by President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Convinced that the previous administration had given too much away to the "international community" (read European diplomacy), the Bush administration tore up one treaty after the next in an effort to re-model the world order with its own status as sole superpower at the core.

In the renewed conflict with Iraq, Bush threatened that the United Nations (UN) could find itself irrelevant if it failed to endorse the U.S. war drive. In the event Bush's bluster was more negotiating strategy than isolationism, but it did put the European powers to the test - and that test proved as favourable to France as it proved awkward for Britain.

Everything is in the timing in international diplomacy, and Blair's gamble was that by being first to endorse Bush's position he would secure his standing in Washington -- uncertain since Bush's election -- and steal a march on his European allies. In the event, although Britain claimed to have won America to working through the UN, Blair was ridiculed for his servility.

German reaction to the new turn in U.S. diplomacy had been gathering pace, and eventually spilled out in the recent elections, but in terms that demonstrated the elite's enduring diplomatic gaucheness. A bullish Gerhard Schröder appalled Americans by refusing to pay the bill for any new war -- saying out loud what many Germans believed, that the last Gulf War in 1991 was a scam to wring money out of the Bundesbank. When a junior minister in the outgoing administration got carried away with the anti-American mood and likened Bush to Hitler, the White House had its excuse to freeze out Germany. Only on Nov. 10, during a visit by Germany's new defence minister, Peter Struck, did the White House grudgingly accept that relations with Germany were now "unpoisoned" again.

With a reputation as a crook and owing his election as president to a scare over the far right, the elderly Jacques Chirac seemed ill-placed to project France's standing in the world. However, Chirac saw that Britain's premature Americanism, and Germany's premature anti-Americanism left an opening for France. Chirac proposed the formula that true friends are prepared to disagree to steer a course between Britain and Germany.

Understanding that European objections to being rail-roaded by the U.S.A needed to be expressed more diplomatically than the German government was capable of, Chirac made a show of holding out for a distinctive position in the Iraq debate.

In substance, there is no disagreement between France and America over the attractions of making an example of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But France did persuade America to observe the niceties of consulting with its allies. For that Europeans will be grateful to Chirac, as they were scornful of Blair for being Bush's poodle.

Whether France can sustain its newly enhanced diplomatic standing is open to question. Certainly the Foreign Office will be working overtime to enhance Britain and do down the French.

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