Regime Change in the Transatlantic Relationship:Part I: Making Sense of French Foreign Policy

 The crisis over Iraq has not created a new transatlantic relationship.

 The crisis over Iraq has not created a new transatlantic relationship. It has revealed gradual changes that had long been under way but had not been apparent until now. And it has updated perceptions. The best way to understand the crisis is not to assign blame to the U.S. or France or to any particular country, pretending in effect that the old regime of transatlantic relations still determines behavior, but rather to analyze the new system of rules, the new transatlantic regime that has resulted from recent historical events such as the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the growing relative military power of the United States and the September 11 terrorist attacks. " 

A perfect illustration of this tectonic shift from the old to the new regime is the French-U.S. relationship, for it did not, during the crisis over Iraq, conform to familiar patterns. As a result, nearly all of the experts failed to anticipate that the U.S. and France would ultimately reach an impasse over Iraq. This week, I will offer an analysis of recent French foreign policy, trying to sort out what motivated policy during the Iraqi crisis and, perhaps more importantly, what did not. Next week, I will focus on the bigger picture, the "regime change" in the transatlantic relationship, and on the new regime itself.  

Let's begin with the most commonly alleged sources of the French position vis-à-vis Washington during the Iraq crisis. 

Did French policy derive from a defense of commercial interests? No. Trade with Iraq was somewhere between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of French trade, and if this had been a factor, the appropriate strategy for France and Germany would have been to join the coalition, and to insist on getting a fair share of oil and other contracts afterwards.  

Did the French policy derive from reflexive anti-Americanism? Even less so - President Chirac is probably the least anti-American of all recent French presidents, and anti-Americanism, from a historical point of view, has been receding in French society since its high water marks in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The French public was strongly against this particular war, but its attitude was anti-Bush, not anti-American. A recent poll by the Pew Center, released in June 2003, confirms this view: 74 percent of French people polled think that the problem ("with the U.S.") is with the Bush Administration. This is the highest rate among the 20 countries surveyed. Only 21 percent think the problem rests "with America in general", a more delicate way of expressing anti-Americanism. This is the third lowest rate of the 20 countries surveyed.  

Was French policy determined by France's large Muslim minority? There is no doubt that President Chirac welcomed the renewed bond between the Muslim community and the rest of the French population that resulted from a common opposition to the war in Iraq--not to mention the personal popularity he gained among French Muslims for his stance. Nonetheless, those very real effects were not a motivating factor in the first place. Chirac was ready to join the U.S.-led coalition and to send troops into the region as late as January 7. He sent an emissary in December to coordinate possible French participation with the Pentagon. Had he felt that French participation was justified, he would not have hesitated to go against the preference of a majority of French Muslims, as President Mitterrand did in deciding upon French participation in the 1991 Gulf War. The cost, here, is not significantly different from the one incurred by going against a majority of French public opinion in general. And Iraq is not as sensitive an issue for French Muslims as the Israel - Palestine issue.  

Did the policy result from a French quest for multipolarity? The preference for a multipolar world does color French policy but only as a secondary and mostly rhetorical factor. It is not a primary source of French foreign policy, and Chirac's talk about multipolarity is more about multilateralism - deciding together about issues that concern us all - rather than about constraining American power. A good point in case is the French reaction to the American actions in Afghanistan in 2001-2002. There was no talk about multipolarity, because the United States and Europe formerly agreed on the necessity of rooting out the Taliban as a key part of the war on terrorism. France sent troops, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier battle group, and 73 percent of French public opinion approved of this American-led war-another demonstration that France is neither pacifist nor massively anti-American. The intervention in Kosovo provides another interesting example in this respect.  

On the contrary, when France disagrees strongly with the United States government on some particular issue and when it feels is in the mainstream of world public opinion, the idea that the U.S. would decide to go against the will of most other countries naturally creates talk about multipolarity--not the other way around.   

When one reads about French foreign policy in the American press, it often seems as if France's overriding goal, its "grand strategy," its constant obsession, is to derail American foreign policy under any circumstances. Maybe it would be possible to find proponents of such a purely anti-US foreign policy in France, especially on the extreme left. But from my personal experience, rather than hostility to toward the U.S. one finds in the Quai d'Orsay (the French foreign ministry) mostly ignorance about U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. political system. There is a great deal of expertise and knowledge about Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, but what might be called the "American factor" - how will a given issue play in Washington? - is more often overlooked than overemphasized. In other words, there is nothing vaguely resembling an obsessive quest to check United States power at every turn.