Our New Best Friend?
For a while, it was possible to think that a 2009 statement from a State Department official — "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment" — had to be an unauthorized opinion or a gaffe.
Turns out it wasn't. At President Obama's press conference Monday, he declared: "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people," as a bored-looking French President Nicolas Sarkozy sat at his side, not reciprocating.
And what was the basis of this radical shift in U.S. foreign policy? The financial crisis, Obama intoned, throwing in French cooperation on terrorism and "global geopolitical issues from the Middle East to Iran to Afghanistan" as an afterthought, and moving on.
But the claim didn't go unnoticed in the United Kingdom, which the U.S. has had close ties with since shortly after the War of 1812 and a "special relationship" with since World War II. Obama's statement is the strongest signal yet that the special relationship is over.
So forget the ties of blood, culture, language and economics. Our new top ally is France, for vague reasons that Obama sees as somehow more momentous and weighty than World War II.
The shift has the air of caprice, since we don't recall a national discussion or debate over who our new best friend this year would be.
This isn't to denigrate France, whose president is friendly enough to the U.S., and which in recent years has shown real commitment to fighting the war on terror. But in important ways, France's interests differ from ours in a way that Britain's do not.
What does France bring to the table? Its big economy? It's not doing too badly, but in Europe, Germany is the economic muscle where partnership is more logical.
Military alliance? In name only. For years, France was a political member of NATO but didn't contribute actual troops. It now contributes 4,000 troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but nothing like Britain's 10,000 as well as more from other countries in the Anglosphere.
In fact, not too long ago France did its best to thwart the U.S. war effort in Iraq. And don't forget: In 1986, France denied the U.S. overflight rights when we attacked Libya for sponsoring terrorism.