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France and the Security Council: poker diplomacy wins

Patrice de Beer
20 November 2002

The lengthy negotiations leading to Security Council Resolution 1441 were a success for French diplomacy. France’s ‘two-step’ approach may not avert war on Iraq; but in deflecting the United States’ unilateral drive to war she has served the world’s interest.

Whenever France acts independently in the international arena and, especially if she fails to fall in line with the United States, the country is deemed to be a troublemaker. Viewed from Washington or London, we are an obvious ‘usual suspect’. Yet in the intense recent negotiations at the United Nations (UN) over Iraq, France has served the world’s interest as well as its own.

By intervening in favour of a UN-sponsored, multilateral process that will give the arms inspectors a last chance to carry out their work in Iraq, an outright war with Saddam Hussein has been averted – a war that the Bush administration eagerly sought even before it occupied the White House, one that was its top priority before 11 September 2001.

What, this time round, has rendered French strategy altogether more persuasive and successful, albeit under the auspices of a President whose international credibility is far from obvious? Has Jacques Chirac become more credible or consistent overnight? Why should President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell now start to listen to an unpredictable ally from faraway Europe (especially when the continent is despised by the present US administration and, apart from Britain as long as it behaves itself, increasingly ignored)?

France’s diplomatic success

The surprise French diplomatic success can be traced to several causes. First, there was the favourable international climate. A wide swathe of countries – from Europe and the Middle East to Russia and China – fundamentally objected to the latest (and because war was involved, most dangerous) manifestation of unilateralism in US foreign policy. As a result there was widespread sympathy for the more nuanced French approach.

Secondly, there was the unexpected tactical skill of Jacques Chirac, who until his re-election as president in May, had been better known in France as well as abroad for unpredictable blundering. This newly found quality, as expertly applied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dominique de Villepin, and France’s UN ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, displayed the ‘French flair’ generally associated with the rugby field, rather than customary ‘French arrogance’.

Thirdly, there was the united approach of the French political parties, with the predictable exception of extreme left and right groups. France was able to play on the fears of countries unable to express themselves publicly – fears that stemmed from what UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has diplomatically called the ‘timidity’ of the Security Council’s non-permanent members, or from other political and economic pressures.

The accumulated result of these factors was that France was able to stress that a new conflict in the Gulf could not happen in a void, but would add to the explosive situation elsewhere in the Middle East; that there could be no success in the ‘war on terrorism’ without a mutually-acceptable solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Thus, Paris offered an alternative route both to those who wanted to see Iraq disarmed without a regime change and to those who objected to President Bush’s pre-emptive war strategy. What we offered was a plan – the now famous ‘two-step’ approach – to involve the UN in the Iraqi crisis. It was acceptable because it was practical, openly non-confrontational, and devoid of any vestige of the typical French anti-American rhetoric that Washington hates so much.

The winning words were ‘dialogue’, ‘consensus’ around the need to dismantle Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and the decision to leave all the ‘options open’ (including war) if Saddam Hussein again breached his promises or cheated the UN arms inspectors. Unlike German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, France’s leaders never objected to military operations, only ever insisting as a precondition that they must be initiated through decisions taken by the world international order, as represented by the UN.

Turning weakness into influence

At the beginning of September 2002, nobody could have foreseen that either the US war machine or the war against Iraq could be stopped in its tracks. The direction set by the Washington hardliners – Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice – seemed irreversible. Tens of thousands of US troops were already in the Gulf, supported by warplanes and ships; more were on the way. Tony Blair was cruising the world on behalf of his great friend (George W. Bush) from the other side of the Atlantic, with the same conviction he had displayed in support of the ‘Third Way’ of his earlier great friend (Bill Clinton).

Crude pressure or material incentives, if not simple resignation in the face of the unavoidable, seemed to be carrying the day. The countdown was already ticking when, four days before President Bush made his 12 September speech to the UN, intended to clear the path for the winter campaign on Baghdad, President Chirac gave an interview to the New York Times, in which, for the first time, he laid out his ‘two-step approach’.

Until that point, the French leadership had gone no further than emphasising the importance of the international rule of law as a point of principle, not at all a popular position in Republican circles. Recall, for example, Robert Kagan lambasting the Europeans for their overly legalistic – and quite possibly cowardly – approach, compared with the robust US willingness to take on the ‘forces of evil’ in an act of unilateral, heavy military punishment for which he demanded that the allies toe the line (as discussed in openDemocracy by Anthony Barnett and others).

Now, Paris took Washington by surprise with its two-step proposal: first, a UN resolution previously rejected by the US administration, giving Saddam a strict deadline for fulfilling his obligations, under the close scrutiny of the UN inspectors; secondly, if he once again violated the UN resolutions, the Security Council would meet to take the necessary decisions, which, it was stressed from the very beginning, could very well mean war.

Two months of tough diplomatic negotiations ensued, on two separate levels: between the Powell pragmatists and the Cheney–Rumsfeld hardliners within the US administration (which the State department finally won); and between Washington and Paris. The margin for negotiations was thin. France knew that, at any time, the White House could decide to go it alone; and that a French veto might not only be overruled on the ground by the US, but could isolate France, or even fatally undermine its strategic position as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

To push too hard could only be counterproductive; not too push hard enough would be irrelevant. The only remaining option was patient, step-by-step, poker diplomacy – the weapon of the weak. Nevertheless, what some saw as a time-consuming, perhaps pointless, debate on semantics, could not have been more serious; its purpose, to ensure that the international community was involved in a process which could otherwise have been conducted by President Bush, single-handed.

Finally, on 7 November, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441. The US has got what it wanted, from the beginning: the right to intervene in Iraq if Saddam Hussein does not destroy his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But with a cherry on the cake, an international mandate provided thanks to French diplomacy. Chirac won the image battle, appearing as the ultimate bulwark against war: the last rallying force able to confront the only remaining world power, the only country with enough energy, skill and determination to bargain hard with Washington.

Yet, at the same time, the compromise reached at the UN remains fragile; nothing can stop the Bush administration if it decides finally to go to war. The smallest incident, then, can be used as a trigger, and any final consultation with the UN Security Council, a mere formality, a fig leaf.

Despite this qualification, Jacques Chirac and his team deserve credit for having provided the US administration with a tool which might not look attractive or useful to the warmongers, but which could be crucial in the months and years to come. A unanimously-agreed international legitimacy has been given to what, from its very beginnings, was planned as a unilateralist endeavour. Washington has been given the kind of support it could never previously have hoped for, and which its hardliners may never have wanted as it could restrain them in the future.

Both countries, as well as Europe and the rest of the world, have benefited from a strategy which was never at any point in opposition to a potential military outcome. Chirac never pretended to be a pacifist. He has long since cut off his 1970s ties with Saddam Hussein. Not once during this crisis has he acted as the opponent of US-style globalisation. And he certainly hopes he can draw on this diplomatic triumph on the domestic front.

Beyond all this, however, lies a deeper question: will the US decision to fight Iraq instead of pursuing the intractable ‘war on terrorism’ – whether under the UN umbrella, or not – succeed? Whatever the Iraqi outcome, the skills of French diplomacy may yet be called on in an even more dangerous period of world affairs.

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