Beyond political calculus, the French-led intervention in Libya marks a fundamental shift in how the international system works
From Washington, the enthusiasm of the French for intervention in Libya is seen with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The Americans do not want the job and are happy that someone else does. Indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s willingness to intervene (alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron) helped close a dangerous gap between the world of "values," which would call for direct American intervention against Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the world of "interest," which impelled President Barack Obama to restraint.
America’s strategy seems to be to squeeze Qaddafi’s regime out of power through a combination of financial, economic, and even "psychological" pressure aimed at isolating the Colonel from his sources of support within his own inner circle. That is a wise approach, one that may ultimately work. But it will likely take a lot of time to produce results.
While Americans are relieved by France’s display of determination, they cannot refrain from expressing a sense of bemusement: Do the French really know what they are up against? What has happened to them? We know what war means, but they seem to have forgotten!
Indeed, France and the United States seem to have switched roles from just a few years ago. Listening to Obama’s reflexive and distant speeches on Libya, one can nearly hear French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s flamboyant intervention at the United Nations on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And, though the circumstances and the "legal" environment are very different – there is a UN resolution for the Libya intervention, and a vague declaration of support by the Arab League – Sarkozy’s stance reminds some of George W. Bush’s enthusiasm for war.
The British, too, seem to be regarding the French with some perplexity. Even though they are fighting side-by-side in Libya, with their armies expressing a deep confidence in each other, there are distinct nuances in each country’s position on military intervention. The view from London contains the same element of "distance" – if not slight apprehension – found in the view from Washington.
To explain this difference in perspective, perhaps one should venture further into the past than the Iraq War and consider the divergence that already existed traditionally between the United Kingdom’s pragmatic approach to its imperial role and the French Empire’s missionary zeal. A duty to accumulate wealth catalyzed the former; a duty to civilize inspired the latter.
The spectacular inversion of the French and US roles on the issue of intervention has different causes. Some are linked to the personalities of Obama and Sarkozy; others reflect the nature of their political imperatives. Obama’s priority is not to be dragged into another conflict. Afghanistan is already such a costly quagmire. Sarkozy’s goal is to "exist" as much as possible on the global stage.
But, beyond personalities and political calculus, what we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the international system. It is a shift that raises a major question: if those who are willing to act prove incapable of doing so "successfully," what happens to global stability unless those who are capable are also willing to step in?
At the crossroads of this question stands NATO, an organization perceived as American by Europeans and international (i.e., not American) by the average US citizen. But if NATO is – for better or worse – in command on the ground in Libya, it is the UN that has given the necessary green light to French action there.
It is this specific "marriage of reason" between France and the UN that is essential to understanding the French position on Libya. Indeed, the same relationship between France and the UN that led to the country’s resistance to intervention in Iraq in 2003 has now pushed France to intervene in Libya in 2011.
Yet it is dangerous to believe that the world has found in this new-model Coalition of the Willing the solution that it was seeking in today’s increasingly chaotic post-American order. Neither France nor Britain – not to mention the European Union, which is more divided than ever when it comes to military interventions – can be seen as substitutes for the US. Despite Sarkozy’s exceptional activism, they have neither the means nor, in reality, the will.
Confronted with the world’s increasing complexity and America’s decreasing appetite for international responsibilities, the need for adequate rules – and for a referee to enforce them – is greater than ever. In the face of growing risks of global anarchy, the courageous but risky activism of France and Britain should not be seen as a substitute for an engaged US. But does such an engaged America still exist? The answer is probably no.
Dominique Moisi is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
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