French foreign policy: activism or leadership?

France seems to be one of the few EU member states that still has foreign-policy ambitions, but in order to to become a true leader in Europea, it needs learn to work with others

France has pursued a remarkable foreign policy during the last 12 months. A year ago it reacted quickly and sent 3,000 troops to Mali to prevent an imminent takeover of the country by Islamists; in August it offered support for a US military strike on Syria after it emerged that Bashar Assad regime had used chemical weapons; the same month it successfully insisted on further concessions from Iran in the second round of the E3+3 talks in Geneva; finally in December it sent another 1,600 troops to the Central African Republic. According to the European Foreign Policy Scorecard, France was a “leader” more frequently than any other member state in 2013. (I contributed to the Scorecard project as a member of its steering group.)

France seems to be one of the few EU member states that still has foreign-policy ambitions. Against the background of economic crisis, many other Europeans seem to be becoming increasingly inward-looking and abandoning the idea of trying to the shape the world of the twenty-first century. In so far as they have a foreign policy at all, it is one based on the pursuit of economic objectives – in particular, export markets and inward investment. The danger is that little remains of Europe’s aspiration to be a “normative power”. France, however, still has resources and – remarkably, given its own economic problems – is prepared to use them courageously. In an editorial in December the Financial Times even praised the way France had recently shown greater “élan” than the UK.

However, there is something frustrating about France’s role in European foreign policy at the moment: it is a leader that often has few followers. Although it often acts in the European interest – for example in the Sahel – and is willing to co-operate with European partners where they agree with its policy, it is also willing to operate outside the EU framework when it thinks it is necessary. Its boldness can also sometimes be risky. For example, it took a big gamble by blocking the agreement at the second round of talks in Geneva and insisting that Iran suspend work on the plutonium reactor at the Arak nuclear facility. Though the gamble ultimately paid off and produced what is generally regarded as a better deal, it could easily have gone wrong, especially because so many other actors in Iran, Israel and the US want to derail a deal.

So how can France's activism turn into European leadership? A big part of the answer depends on other European countries making their own adjustments, and the new German willingness to take a more active international role, very much in evidence at the Munich Security Conference, is most welcome. But France should also be prepared to adjust its own policies in order to achieve a European consensus – for example on Syria, where few other member states shared France’s willingness to arm the rebels. If France genuinely wants other Europeans to put their own resources behind its foreign-policy initiatives, it is important that it puts in the difficult work of persuading other member states that it is in their interests as well as its own to support it. Taking initiative and deploying resources – especially military resources, where necessary – are important but are not enough on their own to qualify as a real “leader”.

The limits of France’s approach were illustrated in December when President François Hollande’s call for the EU to create a permanent fund to finance military operations undertaken by member states met with a cool response: this excellent idea still requires a lot of diplomatic work to become a reality. French foreign policymakers are understandably frustrated that their European partners did not provide greater support for the two military interventions last year that they recognised were in the European interest. But, as one EU official told the Financial Times, you cannot expect Europe to pay for interventions that one member state has decided unilaterally to undertake. “It’s not that simple”, the official said. In other words, if France is merely activist, it will have to pay for its activism itself.

France should not abandon its activist foreign policy. At a time when most are looking inwards, Europe needs a big member state like France that is prepared to take initiative and commit resources to an ambitious foreign policy that promotes its interests and values. But in order to get others in Europe to follow it – in other words, in order to become a true “leader” – France must work with others. Only through the difficult process of co-operation with other member states and the EU institutions can there be real European engagement with the world. Ultimately, given France’s own limited and shrinking resources, this will be in its own national interest as well as in the European interest.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the director of the Saltzman Institute Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. A former French diplomat, he served as the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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