The international community has warmly welcomed the French intervention in Mali, of which the stated goal is to save the country from collapse. There has been a lot of talk and questions about whether France has found its Afghanistan, and certain commentators have started to dub northern Mali the new “Afrighanistan.” Though the war is for now strictly a French matter, the absence of a concrete EU policy on the question offers three crucial lessons: war is a rather selfish enterprise; it is often a calculated act of domestic policy and, maybe most importantly, history matters.
Let us start with Henry Kissinger’s famous joke “Who do I call if I want to contact Europe?” In no other policy field is this question as salient as in foreign policy. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 was supposed to be the answer to this question: the position of “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security” was supposed to embody European foreign policy. Catherine Ashton, the first person to hold this position has however inherited a difficult position. Uniting the foreign policies of 27 member states has proved a rather difficult enterprise. The European Union may officially adhere to the doctrine of an “Ever closer Union” but its nation-states remain ever self-interested.
This has to do with the fact that–– if we assume that wars are often somewhat self-interested–– there is rarely an issue where the self-interest of 27 nations converges. In theory, a common foreign policy is one of the three pillars of the European project (along with the monetary union and common Justice). The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), established with the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 aims at uniting the European Union’s members into a single, coherent foreign policy. The agreement goes so far as proposing a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), which in effect, should eventually lead to a single European military force and foreign policy. European states have had a strong tradition of international interventionism and yet the European Union has remained surprisingly irresolute and shy. Possible explanations are reliance on NATO and on.
On Mali, the fact that the intervention is French and not European can be understood easily enough: only France has the willingness, capacity and self-interest to go there. Characterizing the French intervention as a quest for national prestige would however be reductive; there are other factors at play such as France’s economic interests in the region, the protection of the 30,000 expatriates living in the area and the threat of terrorism. But if France were truly and unreservedly committed to human rights or democracy we would have seen French boots not just in Libya or Mali but also in Syria or even Iraq.
Mali is crucial to France’s foreign policy but it also plays a key role in its domestic politics. Tough leaders are temporarily popular; in fact war is often a therapy in approval ratings. George W. Bush almost hit a 90% approval ratings after 9/11; Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s unpopular predecessor saw his popularity rise to a 12-month high immediately after the French-led effort in Libya. Francois Hollande, elected this May, is already the most unpopular President of the Republic. It just so happens that 2013, a non-electoral year, will be a decisive year for France’s economy. Politics is a cynical business and it is possible that Hollande, by posing as the “Chef des armées,” is attempting to leverage as much political capital as he can before he wages a much more messy war, that of reforming France.
A third lesson to draw from Mali is that history matters. The argument of France as a neocolonial oppressor is obsolete but that France is still intervening in its old colonial realm, with which it still maintains cultural, economic and linguistic ties is not completely arbitrary. The reality of the situation is that France, for all the talk of ending “Françafrique,” is still the gendarme of Africa. Mali will not be France’s Afghanistan simply because Africa is, for many reasons, still France’s backyard. Half of France’s 12,000 troops devoted to global peacekeeping are employed in Africa. France possesses military bases in Djibouti, Senegal and Gabon. In the 21st century, France intervened, among others, in Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Somalia, Libya and now Mali. In Europe, only Britain has the expertise and willingness to take on international interventions, which is also a product of its imperial past. Germany, on the other side, though the economic powerhouse of Europe has become somewhat pacifist and is still extremely cautious of its actions. It is understandable that the thought of a strong German military makes many anxious. It also just so happens that France’s imperial and colonial past shaped its military and intelligence capacity to intervene in Africa; nevertheless as the global power balance slowly re-adjusts, there is little reason why France should continue punching above its weight for much longer.
In a way, therefore, the situation in Mali sums up Europe’s woes. Of Europe’s two main military powers, Britain and France, one is flirting with “Brexit” and the other is nearly bankrupt. Even leaving the ambiguous British aside, European dynamics still need to be reconsidered. A European Union, as traditionally driven by the Franco-German “couple”–– one being the political decider and the other the economic giant–– will become increasingly dysfunctional in terms of foreign policy. France’s decline and Germany’s apathy mean that neither of them possesses the legitimacy to drive European foreign policy. Only when the European Union adopts a truly collective and consensual foreign policy will it matter internationally. But then again, that may be easier said than done: why should Denmark pay for a war that doesn’t affect it? So long as European countries think in terms of national security, domestic politics or historical role there will be no continental strategy.