In an event at the Nixon Center today, the French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, addressed the differences the Sarkozy administration has brought to France's foreign policy. The ambassador discussed as far-ranging issues as to the possibility of peace in Lebanon to the future of the European Union. The National Interest's executive editor, Justine A. Rosenthal, moderated the discussion.
"The evolution [of France's foreign policy] is not so much substance as method and personality," Ambassador Vimont stated. The key features of France's foreign policy-multilateralism and dialogue over military intervention-remain the same. He expressed France's continued interest in reform in the G-8 and the UN Security Council.
Following soured relations in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, President Bush and former President Jacques Chirac found common ground in 2005 by collaborating on Lebanon and the Iranian nuclear issue. Chirac's preference had been a discreet collaboration void of excess publicity or established doctrine. But the collaboration was both successful and substantive. Other initiatives that began under Chirac, such as NATO rapprochement and European integration and expansion have been continued under his successor. President Sarkozy has been far more publicly vocal about progress. And, in keeping with the ambassador's assessment, Sarkozy has also been more forthcoming in stating the misconceptions between the two countries and the desire for a solid-and publicized-partnership between the two.
In terms of real changes to policy, Sarkozy is currently contemplating sending more French troops to Afghanistan to aid the NATO effort in the region and Ambassador Vimont indicated that France had no intention of exiting the country until the mission is accomplished. The ambassador called the operation "a major test for NATO credibility" and an important international security matter. However, Vimont noted that with this pledge France would like to see the overall strategy reevaluated to be more constructive and cohesive. Additionally, whereas Chirac's general policy towards Iraq was to distance himself, Sarkozy has pledged to help find a solution. France has established a consulate-like presence in Kurdistan and looks to become further involved in other regions of Iraq in order to further the national dialogue toward a long-term solution. Again, France as always, believes placed a political solution as the ne plus ultra of foreign policy.
In regard to Iran, Sarkozy will remain firm: no suspension of sanctions until the enrichment process is "frozen" or "suspended." The administration will continue its policy of "carrots and sticks," with particular emphasis on the need to improve knowledge among Iranian moderates of the incentives at hand. Ambassador Vimont noted that previous offers went completely unanswered in Iran, mainly because of internal disagreement. This is why he noted that it is still important to "leave the door open" and let the Iranians know that dialogue is still an option. Anticipating his detractors on this policy, the ambassador admitted that the process has been stymied, but called it "the only realistic course for the time being."
During the question and answer period, Barbara Slavin of the United States Institute of Peace asked the ambassador if he thought the Iranians were waiting to see who will be the next U.S. president before acting. Vimont replied that he had that impression, particularly because their leverage has improved as the international "waiting game" continues. With the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and improved contact with most of the Gulf states, Iran may benefit as time goes by.
Vimont also called the situation in Lebanon a waiting game, conveying a dim outlook with a "dangerous" and "unpredictable" course going forward. Although tensions have recently calmed, the ambassador does not foresee that this status will remain.
The ambassador acknowledged that public opinion in France had become more skeptical regarding the expansion of the European Union. In the past, EU enlargement occurred without much long-term planning. Some of the issues now on the table include nuclear cooperation and economic cohesion. Hopefully with a thought-out strategy, public opinion may change.
France sees NATO as an ally in its effort to increase European security cooperation and the ambassador expressed the desire of his country to potentially rejoin the alliance. In order for Europe to be a more significant international presence, it is necessary to increase its military capabilities, although this aspiration doesn't sit well with some in NATO, chiefly Great Britain. The ambassador emphasized that the French understood Prime Minister Gordon Brown's predicament and would not attempt to undermine his standing in parliament. Vimont was not optimistic that the British would accept European defense collaboration, though he noted that the United States is more supportive and could aid this cause.
Steve Larrabee of the RAND Corporation asked if French public opinion was ready for French participation NATO, regardless of external complications. Ambassador Vimont explained that while there are "Gaulist elements" on both sides of the political spectrum in France, Sarkozy intends to move forward with the initiative.
Puneet Talwar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked the ambassador if the U.S. administration is being receptive to France's efforts to become more involved internationally. The ambassador replied positively and noted that once France offered to play a greater role in Iraq, the U.S. administration outlined additional ideas for how France could become even more involved. At this phase of the operations in Iraq, Vimont noted that the French administration sees "eye to eye" with U.S. authorities.
Dan Dombey of the Financial Times, addressed the suspension of the Middle East peace process and asked the ambassador for a "realistic goal." Vimont noted that the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was very enthusiastic about the Annapolis talks and that this established a relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although the suspension of peace talks is a setback, lines of communication have been established and there is no reason to disregard the possibility of resuming talks in the near future.
Robinson West of PFC Energy asked the ambassador whether Putin's successor, Dmitri Medvedev, will have a significant impact on France-Russia relations, particularly in regard to its use of energy as a bargaining tool in Europe. The ambassador replied that in all his negotiations with Russia, he saw a desire for Russia to be viewed as a major power, with all the credibility, legitimacy and respect that follows that title. Vimont advised that in negotiating with Russia, it is important to keep this in mind. He also observed that although Russia drives a hard bargain during economic negotiations, they are dependable once an agreement is reached.
The ambassador concluded his remarks by reiterating that the mainstays of France's foreign policy remain, although they have a different voice.
Caitlin B. Doherty is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.