Europe Rising: French and British Engagement in Africa
In the past, Europeans and Americans have viewed the efficacy of hard power versus soft power in starkly different terms. British and French military intervention in Libya and French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire demonstrates that Europe is willing to reconsider the use of military power to achieve stated objectives. Western European views about the use of hard power are evolving.
Rather than participating in the Libyan no-fly zone, Germany withdrew tertiary support and instead offered to increase its presence in Afghanistan. It was announced that several hundred German personnel are to be transitioned to Afghanistan to offset the NATO efforts in Libya. “This will alleviate NATO and it’s also a political signal of solidarity in the alliance with respect to the mission in Libya,” Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s defense minister argued in defending Germany’s decision. “It must be possible in an alliance that you can have differing opinions on individual questions or that you don’t take part in certain activities…You can’t take part a little bit, either you take part or not at all.”
Germany, along with Russia and China abstained on the UN Security Council authorizing the no-fly zone. Outside of Europe’s limited spheres of influence, instances of European abstention in military interventions outnumber examples of European participation in military operations. Compared to continental Europe, the British have been more willing to consider the use of hard power as a realistic option to deal with threats. Through Tony Blair’s decade in power he developed very clear lines of distinction when hard power should be used and under what circumstances.
Blair had a clear understanding of the international system and supported force when he saw very clear examples of right and wrong. Essentially, Tony Blair viewed the international system as black and white with few gray areas. This view was a contrast to the fluctuating arguments put forth by the Bush administration for regime change in Iraq. UK perceptions contrasted sharply to those of the French and Germans. German apprehension concerning the use of hard power has its roots in the First and Second World Wars.
The French are largely nationalistic and avoid foreign conflicts unless their national interests are threatened. Center-right politicians have continued to dominate French politics since the 1990s. Sarkozy has chosen to focus on domestic issues rather than projecting force abroad. This nationalist streak harkens back to the Gaullists.
Differing European views about when to project force have often frustrated the U.S. when it has chosen to build coalitions through international institutions. Robert Kagen writes in Of Paradise and Power, “Differing perceptions of threats and how to address them are in some ways only the surface manifestation of more fundamental differences in the worldviews of a strong United States and a relatively weaker Europe. It is not just that Europeans and Americans have not shared the same view of what to do about specific problems such as Iraq. They do not share the same broad view of how the world should be governed.” Kagen importantly posits that Europeans and Americans differ on when diplomacy would be more effective than hard power. This worldview developed because the Americans met European security needs during and after the Second World War.
Unlike in Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. has chosen to play a more cautious role than either the UK or France has chosen to play in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron advocated intervention. Obama wished to avoid unilateral intervention.
Obama’s apprehension was by design. The administration believes that while unilateralism is effective in achieving stated goals and objectives, multilateralism affords the best opportunity to share the burdens of any foreign adventure. Shortly after assuming office, Obama argued to the UN General Assembly, “Make no mistake: this cannot solely be America’s endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” Obama’s objective in selling multilateral intervention in Libya has resulted in France and the UK leading the no-fly zone and other military efforts. The U.S. role, by design, is limited. For the present, this policy choice also placates the American public which is war weary after ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the American public largely supports a limited U.S. role in Libya, Obama is aware that selling the American public on a more active role would be difficult. Following the UN vote it was Sarkozy and Cameron who hosted a summit in Paris with Arab nations. During the debate over the extent of U.S. involvement it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who generally opposed U.S. involvement because of American troop commitments in two other Arab nations.
Gates and Obama opposed taking the lead in Libyan intervention and they were relieved that the French and British assumed that role. Importantly, once NATO assumed command of the no-fly zone from the U.S., the operation is visibly a multilateral mission and not an American led mission against a third Muslim nation. Shortly after the Paris Summit for the Support to the Libyan People, French warplanes were the first to strike outside of the UN mandated no-fly zone. American and British cruise missile attacks and air sorties by American and British fighter pilots followed the French attacks. At the conclusion of the Paris summit, Sarkozy said, “The Arab peoples have chosen to liberate themselves from servitude in which they had been chained…France has decided to take on its role before history…it is our duty.”
In Côte d’Ivoire, the French have assumed a unilateral role. The French military has apprehended Laurent Gbagbo in an effort to end the bloody civil war. Whether French actions are because of colonial guilt or an effort to divert public opinion from focusing on France’s domestic problems, Sarkozy is projecting military forces abroad in very public ways. French involvement in both Côte d’Ivoire and Libya is very visible and designed to have an impact. Pierre Rousselin, in the French daily Le Figaro, argues, “In Libya and in Ivory Coast, France has played big. It is in the process, at least in Abidjan [Ivory Coast’s capital], of scoring a success that will have a world impact.”
In the Côte d’Ivoire it remains to be seen how far France is willing to stay engaged. Thus far, French intervention has allowed forces loyal to the legitimately elected president, Alassane Ouattara, to regain a significant amount of territory from pro-Gbagbo forces. French and UN involvement has also raised significant questions as to whether they are propping up an equally flawed man. Forces loyal to Ouattara have been implicated in human rights violations including wholesale burning of villages and mass killings of Gbagbo supporters. MSNBC reports, “New York-based Human Rights Watch said forces loyal to Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 suspected supporters of Gbagbo and burned at least 10 villages in the country’s far western region as they advanced in March.”
A newly engaged and militaristic Europe, notably France and the UK, illustrates that states will apply force multilaterally and unilaterally when they perceive the need. The question is whether this engagement is a long-term trend. Counterfactually, the U.S. cannot be expected to police the world and French and UK intervention is necessary and appreciated.
The Cato Institute’s Barbara Conry argues, “The United States can and should play a leading role in a number of arenas. Washington’s leadership since World War II of the global trade liberalization process, for example, has been highly constructive. Such economic leadership should continue. U.S. moral and cultural leadership–the American tradition of commitment to such ideals as democracy, individual liberty, and the other philosophical foundations of the Constitution–should also continue. Such American economic and moral leadership is both beneficial and sustainable.”
Policing and being the sole arbiter of international conflicts, while beneficial, does carry with it enormous costs. Therefore, American efforts need to be matched by contributions from other global powers. China and Russia, while being global powers, avoid international humanitarian intervention even when the need is the greatest. The need for humanitarian intervention has not deminished. In the long-term, Western democracies will continually be called upon to intervene in many global regions. A time may arrive when the U.S., UK and France will put more of the onus on regional institutions to confront regional problems. The Arab League’s request for Libyan intervention was an important development that afforded the West a buy-in.
Perhaps the most calculated step would have been to prod Arab states into confronting Qaddafi who has and does pose a regional problem for Arab states. The same could be said of Côte d’Ivoire. French intervention avoided further bloodshed by the illegitimate president but at a cost of propping up another questionable leader who perhaps is no better than the man that the international community has denounced. The violence in Côte d’Ivoire should have been handled by the African Union because it is Africans who are most affected and not the French.