Despite recent controversy over the use of the former Tunisian president’s plane, I continue to be an enormous fan of Michèle Alliot-Marie, foreign minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy. Alliot-Marie is perhaps best known for her five-year stint as defence minister, the first French woman to ever serve in that position. There, despite her sex, she managed to earn the respect of the military top brass and much of France’s population with her tough, Thatcherite persona; episodes like this one made me love her even then:
…by far the best story about France’s first woman defence minister recounts how she was walking up the steps in front of the National Assembly one day in her impeccably-cut trouser suit when a brave – or possibly stupid – steward raised a gloved hand.”Excuse me, madame,” said the frock-coated steward sternly, “but I am afraid that while parliament is in session, only gentlemen are permitted to wear trousers within the confines of the assembly.” Michele Alliot-Marie turned on him with the terrifying glare that has since earned her the not entirely appropriate nickname of France’s Iron Lady.
“Let me just be sure,” she said very loudly and slowly, “that I have understood you correctly. Do you mean you would like me to take them off?” Collapse of stunned steward; de facto end of discriminatory and outmoded dress code for women in the French parliament.
Since serving as defence minister between 2002 and 2007 under Jacques Chirac, and toying with a gaullist presidential bid against Nicolas Sarkozy in ’07, she has also filled the posts of interior (2007-2009) and justice (2009-2010) minister, before becoming France’s top diplomat in November of last year. From a traditionalist gaullist background, she has nevertheless challenged conventional French wisdom by supporting her country’s re-entry into the NATO military alliance, and was for a time considered a strong candidate for the Secretary-General of that organisation.
While her most recent declaration in favour of increasing Europe’s role in its own defence and reducing the continent’s dependence on the USA was perhaps nothing new, the terms in which she couched such a move couldn’t be better chosen:
The French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, advocated a ‘re-launch’ of the European defence policy on Sunday in Munich, underlining that “The American umbrella cannot be universal or eternal”. Speaking before the 47th Conference on Security Policy about the economic crisis which is leading European countries to ‘reduce their [defence] budgets and troop numbers’, she expressed worries over the ‘real risk of strategic decline’ for Europe.
“The American umbrella cannot be universal or eternal. We must act to make sure that Europe has its own [security] capacities, in order to contribute to peace and world security”, she underlined, focusing in particular on the global war on terror and on piracy.
Trying to get Europeans to agree on security policy and pooling defence resources is a bit like herding cats. But, of late, there are signs that the French and the British, Europe’s two nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, are willing to share military tools, potentially including a Franco-British aircraft carrier.
America’s military spending dwarfs that of all of its rivals at present. That is likely to continue for several years hence, despite the continuing rise of China. And it would be insane to expect European nations to spend as much as the 4.3% of GDP that the US shells out every year for military equipment and personnel. However, what is clear is that a massive American military presence on the European continent is strategically of little use and costly for the United States – while US bases like Rammstein are of use at present for such matters as expert medical treatment of the wounded, few would argue that America still needs 57,080 soldiers in Germany, for instance.
There is no longer any substantial risk of Russia invading Poland or Germany. Europe should, at the very least, be expected to spend the minimal amount necessary to defend itself without American help. What is more, the EU has a greater total GDP than the United States. The fact that America is expected to act as the world’s policeman, while Europe sits on the sidelines and wrings its hands, is ridiculous. That does not mean that Europeans need to develop massive missile and satellite systems and engage in régime change and nation-building exercises around the world, but it does mean that the old continent should accept its responsibilities as a peaceful region with sufficient financial resources to do good around the globe. In the end, it’d be better for Europe to be its own master, for America to be able to use its military resources in a way that reflects 21st-century security realities, and for the world two have two positive actors for peace instead of one.