Who would have thunk it? The country vilified by US neo-imperialists as cowardly appeasers of dictatorship a few years ago has now morphed into an avid neo-imperialist of it own. France is currently engaged in three low intensity conflicts, in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Libya, and has taken a leading role in two of them (Ivory Coast and Libya). All three military interventions are wars of choice rather than necessity (since no core French strategic interest is at stake) authorised by UN Security Council Resolutions that were championed by France as a UNSC permanent member (people may not know it but the resolution to enforce a “no fly” zone in Libya was sponsored by France, the UK and Lebanon. The US merely voted in favour. Although it is obvious that diplomatic machinations were/are at play, the very fact that the US is willing to take a back seat on the issue–as it did with the Ivory Coast resolution–perhaps indicates that it has rediscovered the art of diplomatic nuance after years almost a decade of Fox-news style bully approaches to international politics).
More interestingly, although domestic support for French involvement in Afghanistan is low (the French have lost 40 troops in that mission), popular approval of the Ivory Coast and Libyan interventions is high. Only minority Left and Islamic groups have spoken out against them; all others have essentially agreed to the use of force.
It is worth pondering why this is. Most analysts claim that the French military adventures were ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy as a way of of bolstering his sagging electoral support in the build up to the April 2012 national elections (a fact confirmed not only by Sarkozy’s popularity rating of below 30 percent but also by the resounding defeat suffered by his UMP party in nation-wide local elections held last month–a defeat that saw the UMP not only lose to the Socialists but also to the far-right National Front). Thus his war-mongering is seen as a way of shoring up conservative-nationalist support in the face of the National Front challenge, something also seen in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant tone of his proposed amendments to internal security and civil rights legislation.
What is also interesting is the French public attitude, which appears to celebrate the resurgence of French militarism. Perhaps it s due to a sense of re-claimed national glory. Perhaps it is due to a sense of reaffirming France’s pride of place within the European community (where it has been eclipsed by Germany once again) or even vis a vis the US. Perhaps it speaks to a sense of French manifest destiny, now re-written. But contrary to many other countries that have sizable anti-war movements protesting their government’s involvement in foreign military adventures, in France there is little enthusiasm for protest of this sort. The majority of the French, it seems, are happy to support neo-imperialism. Either that, or they may have spent too much time in the sun.
It is further of note that France’s bellicosity has not met with the wave of international condemnation that often greets US militarism. This could be due to the fact France’s armed interventions have the UN “seal of approval,” Â are justified on humanitarian grounds and/or tend to occur in former colonies or where it has had a historical presence. Perhaps it is due to the relatively small scale and scope of their operations. Perhaps it is due to more international tolerance for French military adventurism than for US armed interventions. Whatever the reason, it appears that at home and abroad the French turn to foreign military adventurism has more support than is the case for other large powers.
In France, this speaks to the idiosyncracies of local political culture. In the international arena it may reflect a common belief that some nation other than the US needs to assume a global constabulary role, even if as a deputy sheriff. Whatever the reason, it looks like the French are cheese eating surrender monkeys no more. Oh, to be a fly on Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s wall!
In Libya and especially in Cote D’Ivoire it has to be seen in the context of France’s ongoing involvement in Northern Africa, which has basically been ongoing since “decolonisation” occurred. I’d say it was less France morphing into a neo-imperialist state now as having morphed into one quite seamlessly in the 1960s and continuing to do so.
Yeah, but fighting 3 conflicts at once? Sacre bleu!
He’s the Prime Minister now? Is this some sort of Putin-type deal where he’s the real power?
I guess Sarko probably wouldn’t have chosen to fight three conflicts at once if given the choice, but he realises these sorts of opportunities will not present themselves that often so he needs to leap at the chance when it comes up.
I’ve got to say though I think that unless Libya and Cote D’Ivoire turn into ongoing entanglements I think the French military is up to the task.
Graeme: My bad. Corrected now.
Gotta love that phrase “cheese eating surrender monkeys”. It’s like I’m back in the lecture theatre, Pablo…
Waaaaaay back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the “cheese eating surrender monkeys” meme was around, I found it quite ironic – France has probably done more outright military intervening in the Third World than the USA has. It just doesn’t generally get picked up by the non-French media.
But there’s certainly some irony in a situation where France is bombing a Middle Eastern country to restore democracy and the US thinks they should tone it down and wait for a UN mandate.
Hokeypokey: It was too good a phrase to let pass. Ironically I tried it out in a recent lecture in Singapore on exactly this issue and the students either sat there glaze-eyed and dumb-founded or furiously scribbled it down in their notes.
Hugh: The irony you mention is one of the reasons I decided to write the post.
Pablo – I laughed out loud at that headline, far too good an opportunity to pass up.
The reality behind the French action, according to an MEP I spoke to last weekend is the threat from Marine Le Pen electorally and the need to ensure that there is not a wave of illegal immigration to France. There was a very real chance that the young and more seemingly centrist Le Pen would knock Sarkozy out of the run off with the socialists for the next presidential election.
That threat will now be much diminished.
As with the French it is always about the self interest and never about the morality.
Phil: I thought that you, among others, would enjoy the title of the post.
I agree with your analysis, in part. I also think that there is a growing realisation by some Western states that the US, given its myriad problems, can no longer fulfill the role of global cop, but that the role of international constable is a necessary part of the international system. That means that, if a basic level of international civility and decorum are to be maintained, other nations need to fill the security breach when US core interests are not at stake (Australia is such a country). This latest French triple move is one such instance.
It also gives the French “cred” and currency within the Western community (and particularly with regard to the US), especially when c compared to Germany, which has turned vacillatory and inward, preferring to shore up its position as the core of the EU rather than as a power with global reach. The French are not happy with the assumption that Germany is the primer inter pares of Europe and see the rivalry with Germany as requiring counter-balance.
This can be done militarily because in Europe only the UK has the capacity to project force like the French do, and as you note the French are not as constrained in their power projection as are the UK (or the US, for that matter). As I said in the post, this is a matter of French political culture, and as things stand today, that culture advises in favour rather than against foreign military adventurism.
What I find interesting is that the EU’s foreign policy and fledgling military apparatus has been almost entirely absent. Discussions between EU member states have taken place bilaterally or through the UN. UK-French military cooperation took place on a Paris-to-London basis.
This is doubly ironic given that France has been the most enthusiastic promoter of the EU gaining a military component. It seems that France sees the European military as something that would bind other countries, but not restrain France’s own ability to act unilaterally. It certainly gives the lie to all the Quai D’Orsay’s fine talk about the need for multilateralism and respect for sovereignty in 2003, but anybody who didn’t see all that as hypocrisy (if possibly momentarily useful hypocrisy) might have no brains at all.
I believe this is a good example of a state pushing for positive short-term effects, that will prove to be mostly negative in the long term.
Sure enough, with these actions Sarkozy will increase his personal support, take votes away from the far right and give himself a good chance of re-election. The domestic audience will feel some national pride and a sense that France remains a powerful state. Also, France will (temporarily) posit itself an an alternate leader of the international community (and a less dislikeable one at that).
However the negative effects will be seen both in the area of European integration and regarding France’s position within Europe.
France’s willingness to go off on military adventures, without the support of its colleagues, shows a lack of concern on their part for the process of integration within the military sphere. This will probably slow or stall the process itself. While some may argue this is a good thing, ultimately it cannot be denied that an integrated European military would be stronger than that of any individual state within the union. So France’s undermining of the process is against the interests of Europe as a whole.
Elites in the other states are unlikely to ignore this, so I doubt France’s position within Europe would be strengthened. Contrast the German position… Germany’s primary occupation at the moment is with solving problems directly effecting EU states. The are contributing massively to the Greek, Irish and Portuguese bailouts for instance. Though they may not get much credit for this, at the very least they will be perceived as concerned with the practical affairs of Europe.
If France hopes to once again eclipse Germany within Europe, they need to match or supersede German practical attempts to problem-solve within Europe. These adventures basically just put themselves forward as a some kind of ‘military leader’ of Europe. This won’t work because the members of the union are genuinely dedicated to a collaborative approach. It is their own sovereignty after all, they won’t just automatically follow where France goes.
French attempts to appropriate ‘European values’ as largely their own elicit a negative response in the rest of Europe (particularly the UK), and weaken an integration process which could potentially make the collective stronger. Any attempts by France to insert themselves as the military leader would have the same response and the same effect.
I mostly agree but I actually think the UK is probably the part of Europe where France’s actions have played the most positively, at least in the short term. Of course British support for European military integration was never forthcoming, so that’s no biggy.
Actually thinking back the whole European military integration thing seems to have been dead in the water since Chirac lost his political capital. Sarko is far more interested in bilateral military ties, particularly with the UK. So there’s that.
But it only furthers the implication that, however fervently and grandly France declares the need for European coordination and deference to central institutions they only feel the need to coordinate and defer when those institutions are promoting the French position. So it’s “do as I say, not as I do”
Although European military integration has been downright pedestrian when compared with cooperation in other areas (and with good reason), I wouldn’t say it’s dead in the water. There has still been incremental progress in Sarkozy’s time (even if it is largely superficial) and the current climate of malaise could easily change once he is ousted, whenever that may be.
It often seems like an impossible task when I try to look at the specifics of it, but I believe the overall global situation deems it a necessary one for Europe to attempt. By this I mean the projected decline of the US over the next 20 years, and their forthcoming reduced willingness to guarantee the security of a region they will deem fully capable of looking after itself. Their focus will be on restraining China and securing access to resources and Europe will decline in relative importance to them.
So Europe will be left with two choices… to remain divided, decline further and become eventually less relevant in the world than it was before colonialism, or to attempt the impossible (military integration) and become a strong secure united global actor. I’m just an observer so I don’t really care what they do, but I know which option is in their interests to pursue. That’s broadly why I believe there will be increased integration over the next say 20 years, however incremental it may appear to be.
Your last paragraph sums up the French position pretty well. It’s a position I believe is in their own long-term interests to get away from, which I hope came through in my last comment.
As an anti-imperialist the situation in Libya has me divided. If we look to interventions of the US and its client states throughout the Americas, in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq we see a general pattern. But I am struggling to decide whether the Libyan case is different.
Different enough to be a humanitarian intervention and nothing else? This is never the case. It is always political, and imperialists only side with the oppressed to advance their own interests. Along with the French interests you accurately detail, I think Achcar is also right – this is about oil. Had a massacre occurred in Benghazi, the Western would have had no choice but to respond – either by direct intervention, or by sanctions and an oil embargo which would drive up the price of oil and be very costly to Western interests.
Instead, and I am assuming a massacre in the order of 25,000 (probably more) deaths would have occurred at the hands of Gaddafi without the no-fly zone, the UN/US avoided an embargo and in doing so got in front of the massacre and prevented it. This is, to date, the argument for ‘humanitarian effect’ and the only basis of my agreement with the intervention. How can us progressives just ignore the uprising’s request for protection– unless you ignore the concrete circumstances and the imminent threat of mass slaughter? Could this be an all too rare example in which the intervention to date has achieved protection of the oppressed? This may change if the intervention develops beyond a “protect civilians only” restricted mandate, and future events may prove me to be naive and overly optimistic. Is our role then, rather than opposing the intervention outright, to monitor and critique any imperial overstep in the original UN resolution (and there are issues in the resolution, e.g.: not enough safeguards against transgressing the mandate of protecting the Libyan civilians) or in events as they unfold?
Yes, “humanitarian” interventions are always driven by politics and imperial interests and Libya is no different in this regard. Kosovo, Iraq, Kuwait all had non-violent alternative solutions that the West ignored. Depleted uranium shells must be banned. But Libya is different in that the alternative – non intervention – was potentially much worse. Perhaps this is an exceptional circumstance where imperial and humanitarian interests have aligned, not by intent, but by the specifics of the situation. Or is there a more compelling argument that should lead us to denounce the intervention in its entirely, lives spared or not?
I think you’ve homed in on the main factor that makes the intervention hard to write off as pure unmitigated imperialism of the Iraqi favour – the clear statement from the Benghazi government that they want the West involved, but only to a certain degree (eg no ground troops) and the West basically respecting that provision. You would have to be a very strong nationalist-isolationist to say that it’s wrong to send troops even when legitimate authorities request them – you would effectively be putting the principle of non-intervention above the principle of self-determination and claiming that military deployment is the international legal equivalent of murder, that it’s an offense against a (legal) person even if the legal person wants it.
The biggest question mark hovering over the whole affair is whether the Benghazi authorities really do represent a legitimate authority. It’s probably true that most Libyans would like to get rid of Qadaffi if they could do so at no cost (they would have to be pretty intensely stupid not to) but they might not all see the Benghazi regime as an acceptable replacement, let alone an ideal one. The regional conflicts between the areas we now call East and West Libya (themselves terminologies only imposed by the Italian occupation) are pretty profound and definitely predate the Qadaffi regime, even if he was able to exploit them quite skilfully. I think even in a democratic Libya we’d see tension between Benghazi and Tripoli, so the west’s intervention risks taking sides in an ongoing and quite profound regional divide – in this case it is replicating one of the chief errors of the Iraqi and Afghanistan interventions, both of which were seen as biased towards particular regional groups (although in Afghanistan there was also an ethnic, and in Iraq and ethnic and religious divide).
Milos and Hugh:
Much thanks for the edifying commentary. Well reasoned and argued.
Food Baby: Thanks for joining the discussion The big problem with the Libyan intervention, to my mind, is that under the pretext of UNSC 1973 authorising the no fly zone for humanitarian purposes, the real intent is on regime change (which was not authorised but which is publicly admitted by Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy). This is a slippery slope, or what I might call the “tar baby” syndrome, where once foreign forces are involved they wind up taking sides and leading the charge in what is essentially a domestic conflict.
Gaddafi could have been warned not to attack unarmed civilian targets and allowed under UNSC 1973 to fight the rebels on “clean” terms. But under those rules he would have prevailed. So the pretext needed to be used. But that pretext has now undermined the future use of the responsibility to protect doctrine upon which UNSC 1973 was grounded, since it has been shown to be an easily manipulated cover for armed interventions with non-humanitarian objectives. This is what the Russians and Chinese were saying from the onset, and it will now be much harder to invoke R2P justifications for armed multilateral intervention.
BTW–given your views, how do you feel about the intervention and outcome in the Ivory Coast? No oil, no diamonds, no reason to intervene other than to uphold the principle of elected governance (such as it is in the IC). What do you make of it?
Pablo – There is a revealing article in last weeks Sunday Times on how the supporters of the election winner are busy hunting down, killing and raping supporters of the incumbent refusing to give up power.
France is intervening for domestic political reasons.
I am not going to bother engaging Food Baby’s views on imperialism.
Hugh: Thanks for highlighting the domestic side of the issue for me and bringing it more into focus as I continue to develop my understanding of this issue.
Pablo: Thanks for your response. You isolate the key problems and in doing so confirm the suspicions I’ve had. The difficult part for me is to extract the need for a R2P response from the non-humanitarian objectives. The more I see this as a domestic civil war, the more inclined I am to oppose the intervention but the brutality of Gaddahfi enrages my liberal reflexes, a reflex that the West more often than others seems to act on, or want to be seen acting on, with tragic consequence.
Phil Sage: I’m not sure what aspects you don’t want to bother engaging with, but should you be inclined my current position (although liable to change) is quite similar to Achcar’s here:
PS: I’m not very familiar with the Ivory Coast issue, with only the passing comment to make that Ouattara (former deputy managing director of IMF) would seem to be a much more reliable ally for the West. That and again, the political kudos associated with battlefield success accruing to Sarkozy, and maintaining regional connections and influence. I just don’t know what any other interests would be.
Here is a realist assessment of the state of affairs in Libya, and its geopolitical implications: http://www.stratfor.com/node/191580/geopolitical_diary/20110413-europes-libyan-predicament
Thanks for the link Pablo. It’s become clear to me that the intervention cannot be supported, in even a suspicious and qualified way like Achcar does. The inherent logic of the situation, set in motion with the first air strikes, is being determined by two equally bellicose and unrelenting parties – Gaddahfi and the Sarkozy/Cameron/Obama triumvirate. As the Startfor article notes, and the NZ Herald reflects, the media tone is changing to suggest the problem of NATO inaction and the solution of prevailing at all costs. Historically we know these tragic costs will be the very civilians the West is purportedly protecting. The only hope seems to be an immediate ceasefire (which was requested earlier by Tripoli but rejected until Gaddahfi goes) and some sort of negotiation leaving Gaddahfi in power. In spite of some of Clinton’s remarks, I’m not sure this option is being seriously considered, unless it is being worked on in the background and what we are seeing in the tabloids is a staunch negotiating stance.