He may lack the strategic vision of Bismarck or the tactical genius of Talleyrand, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy is clearly drawn to the endless challenges of foreign policy. His rising popularity in France suggests that a majority of French citizens are pleased with their President's diplomatic record. They enjoy his charismatic presence on the world scene, reinforced by the beauty and distinction of his wife, Carla Bruni. Sarkozy's audacious Union for the Mediterranean summit in July 2008 in Paris, and his high visibility in his current six-month stint as President of the European Council, stand in striking contrast to the leaden final years of François Mitterrand's second term, or to the two mandates of Jacques Chirac. From the Caucasus to Damascus, it seems, France is back.
Mixing pragmatism with relentless energy, Nicolas Sarkozy has brought his undeniable lawyerly talents for persuasion and negotiation to French diplomacy. His personal, even solitary, approach means both his successes and his failures are accountable only to him. Yet if France is undeniably "on the move" again, the question remains: Is she always moving in the right direction?
Since it has become fashionable in France these days to rate the efficiency and productivity of the various members of the government, the temptation to apply the same principles to the foreign-policy results of the French President is irresistible. What, so far, were good moves, what were wrong ones? And in the middle — they tend naturally to be the most numerous — what are the mixed ones?
Early in his presidency, Sarkozy engineered a compromise to turn the rejected E.U. constitution into the Lisbon treaty, which was ratified by the French parliament. That figures prominently in the category of good moves. France bears no responsibility for the Irish no, which largely emptied the French diplomatic success of any significance. The highly symbolic rapprochement of France with the U.S. was also both legitimate and necessary. Does this reconciliation necessarily imply France's full return to NATO and the reinforcement of France's military presence in Afghanistan? The answer is yes, but with conditions. The blood tax paid by French soldiers accords France a central role in redefining the common strategy in Afghanistan, where the Western world cannot afford a defeat. Sarkozy's tougher tone toward Tehran, as well as his efforts to secure a climate of trust with Israel, can also be ranked as successes. Only hard-nosed diplomacy constitutes an alternative to war, and only an impartial go-between can be accepted by the two parties to conflict in the Middle East. Sarkozy can also chalk up a success in freeing the Bulgarian nurses in Libya.
And the failures? France's handling of the Beijing Olympics was a clear one. Sarkozy made himself a prisoner of a contradictory logic by trying to appear dedicated to human rights without endangering the economic interest of French firms. France fell between two stools and became an easy target for Chinese assertions that its position lacked coherence. Another failure was France's initial neglect of Germany's sensitivities toward Sarkozy's ambitious Mediterranean project.
The crisis in the Caucasus may offer the best illustration yet of both the assets and the limits of Sarkozy the diplomat: strong in instinct, deft in tactics, but short on strategic vision. His quick exercise in shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Tbilisi was at the same time technically brilliant and strategically flawed. The deliberate vagueness of his cease-fire agreement secured Moscow's speedy signature, but also caused confusion over what Russia had to do to comply.
The same ambivalence prevails in France's diplomatic overtures in the Middle East. Beyond the Libyan episode, which is full of savory anecdotes, lies the question of Syria. Damascus' role in the Middle East remains potentially important, even if it has decreased with time. Sarkozy's engagement with Syria is both daring and legitimate, but it is not clear that it makes peace in the Middle East any more likely.
Sarkozy, the ultimate politician, has not yet become the consummate diplomat. But like a parade of world leaders before him, he is discovering that the appeal of foreign affairs prevails over domestic politics. Making compromises with other countries brings a satisfaction that is hard to secure in dealings with more fractious national actors, who rarely fade graciously into the background.
Dominique Moïsi is a senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations