How new a day between France & US?

President Sarkozy’s speech before the U.S. Congress on Nov. 7 certainly sounded very heartening to friends of America in France. Reversing years of efforts by his predecessors to play a diplomatic zero-sum game in which French international grandeur could only be achieved, as they saw it, by undermining American interests and influence, the address rightfully reiterated French gratitude to the American people for the sacrifices made in two world wars, and formally placed “friendship”, “loyalty”, and a shared “love for freedom and justice” at the heart of Franco-American relations once again. Moreover Mr. Sarkozy’s words eloquently captured the essence of America’s strength when he emphasized that “what constitutes the moral value of America” is that “nothing is owed to [anybody] and that everything has to be earned.” Most remarkably to French friends of America, he also acknowledged the universalistic scope of America’s mission in the world when he explained that “what made America great was her ability to transform her own dream into hope for all mankind.”

Dispiritingly, though, the limit of Franco-American rapprochement can already be detected in this speech. It shows in the contrast between Mr. Sarkozy’s high-flown rhetoric and his actual defense commitments. It is facile for the French president to grandly claim that “loyalty between the French and the American people has never failed” and that “in times of difficulty, in times of hardship, friends stand together, side by side… support each other and help one another.” But hard-headed American policy-makers might justifiably retort that in recent decades the “loyalty” has been fairly one-sided and that, despite the encouraging news from Iraq that the surge is having some effect, these are still “times of difficulty, times of hardship” for America there.

This would be exactly the right time for the French president, if he really means what he says, to “stand by” America and “support” her by sending French combat troops to Iraq or by providing some sort of logistical support for American soldiers there. After all, Mr. Sarkozy urged France and the U.S to “fight terrorism together”, straight-facedly asserted that “America can count on France” and pledged that “terrorism will not win.”

Yet by pointedly failing to even mention Iraq in his speech, the French president clearly signaled that, unlike the Bush Administration, he does not regard the war in Iraq as strategically central to the broader war on terror. French media have equally been silent about reports of American military progress there and consistently stressed that French opposition to American intervention has been vindicated because the war has been lost.

French tough-talking on Iran may well have limits too. In a sharp, staccato burst in his address, Mr. Sarkozy uncompromisingly vowed that “the prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is unacceptable.” However in an interview with the New York Times a few days before addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September, he distanced himself from the martial words of his own foreign minister by unambiguously ruling out the prospect of French participation in any military pre-emptive strikes against Iran, let alone any full-blown war. Bearing in mind the counterproductive nature and downright inefficiency of economic sanctions, realists can legitimately question the reliability of French assertions that “America can count on France.”

Ominous signs can also be read all over Mr. Sarkozy’s plans for more robust European defense capabilities. Ultimately his plans are not necessarily for Europe to selflessly relieve America from the human, financial and technological burden of protecting Europeans while pursuing similar strategic goals. Indeed Mr. Sarkozy intends to be a “friend who stands on his own two feet, an independent ally, a free partner.”

The independence he is talking about could only be achieved through the development of stronger European military capacities with a view to wielding greater influence within NATO. As the French president put it himself, “the more successful we are in the establishment of a European defense, the more France will be resolved to serve its full role in NATO.” In other words, solidify Europe and use it to negotiate France’s return to the NATO fold from a position of strength. Given the ingrained nature of anti-Americanism among French elites and Mr. Sarkozy’s own “passionate love for France”, sooner or later, “independence” is bound to sound like “counterweight”, the cherished goal of too many Europeans.

And besides, what evidence is there that Sarkozy’s iconoclastic respect for America will influence French policy beyond his time in office? Unless it does, his successors may well seek to distance themselves from or even thwart America once again. A stronger Europe as well as greater influence within NATO would conveniently give them the tools necessary to do so. In the end, the Sarkozy years might have the potential to paradoxically and self-defeatingly widen the gap between France and the U.S. – instead of bridging it as initially planned.

Writing the other day on NRO, Nile Gardiner cautioned that “an ‘entente cordiale’ with Paris is pragmatic and sensible, but any attempt by Washington to ultimately replace the Anglo-American alliance with a new partnership with France would be both naïve and short-sighted, as well as a highly risky proposition.” I agree.

Note: “Paoli” is the pen name, er, nom de plume, of our French correspondent. Monsieur is a close student of European politics, a onetime exchange student in Colorado and a well-wisher to us Americans. He informs us the original Pasquale Paoli, 1725-1807, was the George Washington of Corsica.