Not so very long ago, leaders on Capitol Hill were so piqued at France that they officially relabeled “French Fries” as “Freedom Fries” in Congressional cafeterias. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously designated France as part of an increasingly irrelevant “Old Europe” due to its insufficient enthusiasm for the 2003 Iraq invasion, insisting that the center of gravity in the NATO alliance was shifting eastward to “New Europe.” The conservative National Review channeled Bart Simpson in deriding our erstwhile allies in Paris as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
What a difference a decade makes.
In recent days, the news has centered on the British parliament’s stunning rejection of military force as a reaction to Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Ashad gassing more than a thousand people in the worst chemical weapons atrocity in decades, and of the threats of many lawmakers in Congress to likewise reject President Obama’s call to action. Less noted was France’s willingness to stand up to the tyrant with implicit pledges to join the United States if it launches a military attack.
“France is ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people,” leftist French President Francoise Hollande said in a pugnacious speech last week.
Recall that a few months ago, France was also instrumental in successfully breaking the European Union’s arms embargo on the Syrian rebels. French ‘surrender monkeys’ were also little in evidence last January, when Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated Islamist extremists joined with Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of Mali. France quickly dispatched 4,000 troops to its former colony who, along with a little help from their American friends, launched an offensive that drove the Islamic extremists back into the hills and remote deserts of northern Mali.
In 2011, it was also the French and British who not only pressured NATO to intervene in Libya to stop the imminent slaughter of civilians by strongman Muammar Gaddafi, but who also took charge of that operation when the United States decided to “lead from behind.” It was a French Mirage warplane that first spotted Gaddafi’s convoy trying to leave the city of Sirte, and dropped the bombs that halted his escape.
“The French essentially shamed the United States into intervening in Libya, which speaks volumes about how loathe the Obama administration and the American public were to become involved in another Mid-East war,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Because of its colonial history France has a sphere of influence and a number of special relationships in the Middle East and North Africa, he noted, and at least a limited military capability to act on those interests. “That has made France a real wild card in confronting recent crises in the region.”
But what has really gotten into our French cousins, who not so long ago seemed more interested in preserving the 35-hour workweek and criticizing American “hyper-power” than in playing an outsized role in world affairs?
The simple answer is the French see the world changing. Paris has watched nervously as China rises in the East and a war-weary America increasingly withdraws in the West, bringing its troops home from two unpopular wars in order to focus on “nation building at home.” As the only NATO partners with nuclear arsenals, a limited ability to project military power, and permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, France and Great Britain have thus assumed a more prominent role in a Western alliance that both nations see as more critical than ever.
“We see the world becoming more multipolar, and as Asia continues to rise in power and influence we believe the transatlantic partnership between Europe and America will become even more vitally important as the backbone of democracy and democratic values,” said a senior French official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We also recognize that keeping that partnership strong will require more burden-sharing on the part of your European friends, which is why France and the Great Britain together account for 60 percent of total military spending in the European Union.”
In the past France has insisted that only the U.N. Security Council can sanction military force, a position that protected its role as a permanent member, but granted Russia and China veto power over collective Western action. As a sign of just how far Paris is moving out of its comfort zone to play a more prominent role in the alliance, French officials privately say they are willing to take part in military strikes against the Syrian regime even without U.N. Security Council backing.
Insisting that military action have legitimacy in international law is a French trademark, the senior official conceded, but Paris believes the U.N. resolution on the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians from mass murder, and prohibitions in international law against the use of weapons of mass destruction, gives the international community the legal right to intervene in Syria.
“We also believe that democracies are strongest when our real politic interests and our values align,” he said. “That was the case when we acted together to stop ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo two decades ago, and it’s the case today in Syria where chemical weapons are being used on a massive scale to murder civilians in a civil war that is destabilizing the entire region.”
Skeptics point out that despite spending more on defense than all their European neighbors combined, France and Great Britain still have cut defense budgets to the point of having to plan for sharing a single aircraft carrier in the years ahead.
“There’s no question that Paris has become more outspoken within the alliance, and it has the political will and capability to back those words up with military action to demonstrate that France still matters, up to a point,” said Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and until recently the U.S. ambassador to NATO. Even for relatively limited military deployments to operations in Libya and Mali, he noted, France needed significant U.S. military backing in terms of airlift, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], and precision-strike weapons. “And that will almost certainly prove the case once again if it comes to a military strike on Syria,” he said.
Yet weighing France’s alliance contribution based on a bean count of bullets and bombs misses the point. After a decade of war, a Great Recession, and years of paralyzing budget battles, political will to continue playing the global role of “indispensable nation” is precisely what is lacking in Washington, D.C. With the standard bearer of the Western alliance clearly straining, Paris is reaching out a hand to share the burden. It’s what real allies do.
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