A couple of weeks ago, a French magazine asked me to write a piece about the relationship between Presidents Obama and Sarkozy.
We might like to think that politics and diplomacy is all about issues, policies, ideals, and there is a fair bit of that. But there is no point pretending personalities do not come into it, even – possibly even especially – at the top end of the diplomatic tree.
As President Obama prepares to make his announcement on more troops for Afghanistan, we can look back on recent weeks as evidence of a very deliberative approach to decision-making. Even amid all the accusations of dithering, and leaving the strategic space void, he continued to take advice, reflect, refuse to be rushed. Not easy in the 24/7 media age.
President Sarkozy is a very different character, a livewire, emotional as well as calculating, prone to sudden outbursts, like his celebration of a Frenchman becoming Europe’s new single market commissioner with the observation that ‘the English are the big losers in this business.’ Let us put aside, that on St Andrew’s Day of all days, and with a Scot as our PM, he might have referred to us as ‘British.’ It was not very diplomatic, and it led to the new commissioner, Michel Barnier, having to do the rounds to make assuring pro-enterprise noises to the City.
But of rather more immediate significance is the issue of troop numbers for Afghanistan, and here the tale of the three leaders, Obama, Sarkozy and Brown, is further enmeshed. Obama is about to pledge another 30,000 troops. Britain has already pledged 500 to take the UK contingent, including special forces, over the 10,000 mark. Germany has 4,365 troops involved, France 3,120.
Sarkozy’s defence minister yesterday described this as ‘an extremely big effort’ adding ‘there is no question for now of raising numbers.’
A combination of this, plus the Barnier comments, will make for an interesting mood the next time GB and Sarkozy meet. And when Obama next sees Sarko, he will be thinking that America deserves more European support in trying to tackle a terror threat that confronts us all.
In the meantime, this is the piece I wrote for L’Express, which has some relevance to what is happening now.
‘The keys to political and electoral success are strong leadership, clarity of strategy and message, and boldness in execution.
I vividly recall the moment I felt Nicolas Sarkozy had the bold touch in campaigning. It was when he pitched up in London for a presidential campaign event that turned out to be as successful as it was high profile. It was bold because campaigning outside your own country, no matter the size of the diaspora, is not the norm. It risks sending a message ‘back home’ that ‘abroad’ matters more. Instead, he used it to show an understanding of the changed nature of the electorate post globalisation, and energy and drive in going for votes wherever they may be.
Sarkozy had already by then emerged as the more strategic and charismatic of the two main contestants, and was making most of the political weather. That visit pressed home the advantage.
Barack Obama took on an even more ambitious overseas challenge during his campaign for the White House – a trip to Iraq, Israel, Berlin and London. ‘The Audacity to Win’, the memoir of his campaign manager, David Plouffe, underlines the risk Obama and team realised they were taking. Page 272 has a very interesting revelation that says something about both Presidents.
‘On our last call before locking in the itinerary,’ writes Plouffe. ‘Obama insisted that we add France to the agenda. He said that while it might not add much to this trip, if he was elected president, this perceived slight could start him off on the wrong foot. We fought this but he pulled rank, and that was that.’
So why is that so revealing? Because it shows that Obama, whilst receiving strong advice to the contrary, believed he had to see Sarkozy if he was seeing Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown. It also revealed his anxiety there could be a possible price to pay if he didn’t. Sometimes politics is about personalities, and Obama made a human calculation about Sarkozy’s. It benefited both men.
As for the impact, Obama’s speech to enormous crowds in Berlin was the main European event but Plouffe also writes ‘The subsequent meetings with European leaders were judged to have gone well. If there was a problem it was that they went too well – Sarkozy essentially endorsed Obama in glowing language during their joint press availability. This created some blowback in the American press that being the candidate of Europe and France could backfire with voters. We found this thinking dated but, nonetheless, we monitored the story carefully.’
So why is that revealing? Because it shows Sarkozy’s capacity for being noticed by going a little over the top, but in a way that caused concern but no offence. Another bold move, in response to Obama’s bold decision to go there.
Since then, there have been disagreements, over the US handling of Iran and North Korea, for example, and tensions on climate change pre the Copenhagen Summit, and reports of Sarkozy being disgruntled that he perhaps does not figure quite so often in Obama’s thinking as the American President does in his.
Does any of this matter? It does. Relations between nations matter and the relations between their leaders are often the most important manifestation. Even before he reached the White House, Obama knew Sarkozy was one president worth keeping on his radar. And when Sarkozy feels the US radar is deficient, he makes sure the world – and therefore Obama – knows about it.
It also explains why, despite initially favouring Tony Blair as the first ‘president of the EU,’ Sarkozy eventually fell in with Merkel’s desire for a less well known, centre right, small country politician unlikely to interfere too much with their direct lines to Obama. Herman van Rompuy’s appointment is in part a product of Sarkozy’s belief that his own relationship as a near equal player with Obama matters more than the new bold leadership for Europe the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to deliver. That too says something about both presidents, the importance of status to one, the raw power of the other.’
Raw power … Obama may be thinking today that the French, despite Sarkozy’s colourfully stated pro-Americanism, have not responded too well to the moves he has made, before and since his election. His Ambassador in Paris will be making sure he knows that the French position is no more troops ‘for now.’ That doesn’t mean forever. A space to be watched.
And while Obama, Brown and Sarko address issues like war and terrorism, and repairing the global economy, I hear David Cameron is out and about today putting health and safety at the heart of the political debate. Undeterred by ballsing up his facts on the terrorist schools that weren’t, he is going out to bat on tabloid tales that children have been made to wear goggles to play conkers, and trainee hairdressers have been banned from using scissors in case they cut themselves. This is the big issue for the day. Oh, the tabs will lap it up Dave. While serious people further question whether Dave is very serious at all.