In the post-Iraq world, the war-weary United States, still trying to extract itself from the quagmire in Afghanistan, has yielded its ‘international policeman’ role to an unlikely contender: France.
After taking a leading role in the Western efforts to oust Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, France has become a strong advocate for the Free Syrian Army and is now using tactical airstrikes to repulse Islamist rebels in Mali.
A pattern is emerging. The biggest missing link in the Iraq Coalition has unilaterally taken on another generation of challenges, and the big bad US is following meekly.
The motivations and politics behind these actions are difficult to decipher. Perhaps France’s involvement is somehow tied to Syria, Libya and Mali’s status as former colonies and protectorates, and its missions are imperialist or “white man’s burden”-esque projects. Regardless, the nation’s impact on international affairs is significant.
France’s bold actions undermine the US’s position as the unquestioned global leader. We are the reluctant giant again, a tottering collection of ambiguities in foreign policy. If other countries (particularly in the vital Middle East and developing Africa) look to France for leadership and aid, as Mali, Libya and Syria do, unilateral US influence will suffer tremendously.
However, this may not be a bad thing. France (due to its refusal to engage in Iraq) enjoys a much better reputation in the Middle East than the United States. Its limited engagement blunts Islamists’ best recruitment tools: Anti-Americanism and civilian casualties. France has neither the intention nor ability to replace the US as a hegemon, but would rather become a partner and ally. If, through France, the West can gain more influence and become a more effective pacifying and democratizing force, this may be productive for stability.
Since end of the Cold War, only the US has had the power to act ambiguously, unilaterally, and sometimes selfishly in the international arena. France’s recent successes may be a sign that other countries are preparing for the end of that era, and are moving back to a more multipolar world.