The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

MSF’s Foreign Policy

May 19, 2007

It is a time of political transition in Europe. While Tony Blair is not leaving his post as the UK’s PM until next month, Jacques Chirac has already been replaced as French President by Nicolas Sarkozy.

A few weeks ago, Sarkozy’z UMP party of the center-right beat Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal 53% to 47%. However, Sarkozy has just named Socialist Bernard Kouchner as his Foreign Minister.

What will this mean for French foreign policy — and perhaps US-French relations?

The former is perhaps easier to predict. Kouchner is best known as a founder (1971) of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the Nobel-winning transnational medical organization. Most of the cofounders had worked for the Red Cross in Biafra in the late 1960s and were critical of the agency for being too deferential to international law, political neutrality and state sovereignty.

That history provides a huge hint as to Kouchner’s priorities and ideas. In 1987, he published a book with a title that also strongly signals his priorities: The duty to intervene. He declares simply, “mankind’s suffering belongs to all men.”

As a politician, Kouchner has continue to be both a humanitarian and an interventionist. He served as French Minister of Health during the 1990s and Minister of State for Humanitarian Action 1988-1991. From 1994, he was a Member of the European Parliament and President of its Committee on Development and Cooperation.

Over the years, these posts provided Kouchner frequent opportunities to advocate western intervention in humanitarian crises around the world. In Somalia in 1992, the AP reports, Kouchner “fumed about ‘rich people everywhere … who do nothing’ in the face of misery.” Later, he headed the post-war UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) from 15 July 1999 through 12 January 2001.

Experts guess that Kouchner is likely to make Darfur his top foreign policy priority.

As for French-US relations, Kouchner apparently speaks English very well, worked with the US in the Balkans in the 1990s, and like President Bush, has declared his personal and political opposition to tyranny and dictatorships everywhere.

In advance of the Iraq war, the AP says that Kouchner told interviewer Charlie Rose: “I’m really, clearly, strongly in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, because of the suffering of the Iraqi people.” Though he hoped that conflict could be avoided, he criticized Chirac for linking French foreign policy to German pacifism, threatening to veto a second Iraq resolution at the UN Security Council and thereby undermining ties with the US.

Let me offer two possible futures.

First, Condi Rice’s dream: If the US can somehow successfully reframe the Iraq war as a humanitarian operation, which would likely require ending the counter-insurgency campaign, then perhaps Foreign Minister Kouchner will be able to convince the UN and his fellow European ministers to help the US solve its Iraq problem.

Second, Kouchner’s more likely dream: He pushes for the west and the UN to intervene in Darfur, urging the US to put its material might behind its political rhetoric.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.