A Pas De Deux

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

November 3, 2002

Why is France getting in America’s way at the United Nations? Since George W. Bush addressed the UN Sept. 12, launching a negotiation now in its seventh week, it has seemed as if the only obstacle to UN approval of a resolution to use force against Iraq is Paris’ intransigence.

American pundits have offered various explanations for the French attitude. Some contend that Paris is just posturing, using its outdated veto power on the Security Council to look powerful to the rest of the world. Others suggest that France is shielding Saddam Hussein from the international community to protect French commercial interests in Iraq. The most narrow-minded explain that the French are acting out of nostalgia for their past glory, or even simply out of jealousy: They can’t stand America being the superpower France once was.

These commentators are all wrong. Reducing the UN debate to a selfish French quest for narrow national interests hides the real issues: What is the best way to deal with Iraq, what kind of international legitimacy is needed to wage war, and is America accepted as the world’s sheriff?

This does not mean that France is not pursuing its national interests. Of course it is, as any normal actor in international relations would. For example, its insistence that the Security Council is the only source of legitimacy is not just an expression of France’s attachment to international law, but a wise management of its assets: France holds veto power there.

But reducing Paris’ position to a trivial quest for commercial interests or for glory is the equivalent of anti-American arguments that reduce Washington’s Mideast policy to a scheme for securing access to more oil fields or achieving complete domination in the region. Iraq represents only 0.12 percent of French exports. And it sells 9.6 percent of its oil to France, compared with 46.2 percent to the United States.

The real divergence between France and America lies in two political questions: How best to deal with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and what legitimacy is needed to declare war on Baghdad.

The Bush administration has been ambivalent toward Iraq. Sometimes its policy is one of preventive war and “regime change,” sometimes it is just disarmament. The problem is, no matter how moral and desirable regime change is, it has no standing in international law; nor does preventive war. And there are good reasons for this. An international system where these are fair game would be plagued with wars. Why would India not invade Pakistan on the grounds that it is a non-democratic regime harboring terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction?

The French position is that war is legitimate only when defensive or decided by a large consensus of the international community, and that the best vehicle for this, despite its many flaws, remains the UN. Even the Bush administration, for all its talk about the irrelevance of the multilateral body and its threat to go it alone, has deemed it important to obtain a UN mandate—not to please France, but to get other countries with deep reservations on board. This includes Russia and China, also members of the Security Council, both of whom essentially are free-riding, expressing toned-down reservations about unilateral intervention while the French do most of the arguing about principles.

Among others, the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Mexico, faced with possible anti-war and anti-American protests, will support military intervention, or at least lend silent consent, only if it is preceded by a serious attempt to disarm Iraq peacefully and if it is the policy of the international community as a whole—that is, sanctioned by a UN mandate—and not if it is a purely American crusade. Polls indicate that the American public also has a strong preference for multilateral action.

In a world where order and stability are largely provided by the United States but where world opinion is increasingly resentful of the freedom Washington demands in return for this special responsibility, American policymakers need to heed the words of James Madison in “The Federalist”:

“…independently of the merits of any particular…measure, it is desirable…that it…appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy…particularly when the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the…opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.”

This explains France’s strength in this negotiation: It stands for much more than itself, and its position is much closer to that of the rest of the world than Washington’s. Paris holds one of the keys to the legitimacy of an armed intervention in Iraq. And, at the end of the day, if peaceful disarmament doesn’t work, French forces will end up fighting alongside American forces, as they did in the Gulf War. Money has already been earmarked in the French defense budget for possible operations in Iraq.

An argument could even be made that French opposition, although frustrating in the short term for U.S. policymakers, is a valuable asset in the long term. It shows that Washington doesn’t impose its choices on the rest of the world. By offering a constructive opposition, by working inside the American order, rather than against it, Paris strengthens U.S. legitimacy. After eight weeks of debate, no one will argue that UN approval is a mere rubber stamp.

Of course Bush could bypass the UN and decide to act unilaterally; he has enough domestic support for this, and a case could be made that previous resolutions and Iraqi violations enable him to attack Iraq with some legal authority. After all, France itself took part in the war in Kosovo against Serbia with a tenuous UN mandate.

But legality doesn’t equate legitimacy. The risk would be to lose key regional allies as well as the support of world opinion, antagonize other countries when the war on terrorism makes their help essential (they wouldn’t stop fighting al-Qaida, but might show less zeal to comply with specific demands from Washington), and create a dangerous precedent. And Washington will also need help, or at least tacit support, for its occupation and reconstruction of Iraq after a war; it can win the war on its own, but will need help to win the peace.

So what do the French want? They have been advocating a two-stage process and refuse to pass a resolution that would not give a serious chance for the disarmament of Iraq through inspections. The first stage would be a new mandate for the inspectors, and the second would be a new convening of the Security Council, if Baghdad fails to comply. The council would then authorize war, and this would lend the operation great legitimacy.

The French are wary of the intentions of the Bush administration; they know it is divided, and that some in the administration would like to toughen the inspections regime so much that Hussein would never want to comply, giving a pretext to launch a war. This explains the tug-of-war on two issues: the “automatic trigger” that Washington is looking for—that is, only one resolution rather than the two-stage approach—and a series of clauses to make the inspections regime harder for Hussein to foil.

It is not hard to guess that Washington and Paris eventually will find a compromise and strike a balance between threatening Hussein enough to prevent him from cheating again, but also making inspections acceptable in order to get his compliance. Secretary of State Colin Powell said late last week that the UN debate would likely be concluded toward the end of next week.

Both countries need this resolution: France, because a unilateral action would make the Security Council irrelevant, and America, because an action seen as illegitimate would further antagonize a world that increasingly tends to see it as a hegemon, not as a leader.