A bereft François Hollande has just concluded the state visit to Washington that his erstwhile partner, Valérie Trierweiler, was apparently so keen to share. Some neat diplomatic positioning had the French President seated between Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the White House state dinner. Honour upheld all round.
But Hollande’s biggest public appearance since his status update deserves attention for more than this. It was the first state visit by a French President to the United States for 18 years – proof positive that the years of freedom fries and champagne emptied into gutters are over. With hindsight, though, it may be viewed as marking the end of an era, not just in bilateral US-French relations, but in US relations with the rest of the world.
And while Obama lauded France as America’s oldest ally (sorry, Britain), and Hollande lavished praise on Franco-US cooperation in the Middle East and Africa, there could be no disguising who had taken the military initiative here. In Libya, in Mali, in the Central African Republic, and albeit only rhetorically in Syria, it was France, not the US, that was the more overtly interventionist, with selective European and – discreet – American support. No cheese-eating surrender monkeys here.
What is more, after a few years in which Europeans, and others, have expressed concern about the international passivity of Obama’s United States, both sides may be finally starting to get used to the idea of a less interventionist America. When US officials first talked about executing a “pivot” to the Pacific in 2012, there was more than a flutter in European dovecots. And when Washington registered the near-panic in Europe, envoys – official and not – were dispatched with denials.
Over last summer and autumn, I lost count of how many Americans I heard protesting (too much) that the word “pivot” had perhaps sent the wrong message; “rebalancing”, they said, would have been a better word. Why European Atlanticists, including Britons, were supposed to regard “rebalancing” as preferable, defeats me, but the message to be conveyed was that the US had no intention of deserting tired old Europe for vibrant new Asia. It just wanted to spread its attention around more evenly.
More evenly spread, perhaps, but it also looks as though there will be less of it. The 44th President of the United States began his first term with overtures to Iran and the Arab world, went on to honour his election pledge to end the war in Iraq, and will complete the withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan two years before he leaves office. For some reason, this is a record that US allies, not just the Europeans, but its allies in the Middle East and Asia too, find disconcerting. The talk has been of dangerous vacuums that malign forces will fill, of dereliction of duty, even of surrender.
If, as it appears, the world’s gendarme for the best part of 70 years is hanging up his boots and laying down his gun, except for purposes of self-defence, this does indeed represent a huge shift in US behaviour. It does not necessarily mean the end of US intervention abroad in pursuit of its national interests, but that intervention may well take a different form. There will be less visible hardware and far fewer troops; the stars and stripes will be less in evidence around the world.
Obama’s use of “smart” force – precision air strikes and unmanned devices of all varieties – will doubtless continue, and be continued by his successors. But foreign occupations, new and old, are coming to an end. And if, as it appears, the United States is turning into an energy exporter, the rationale for its Middle East alliances also starts to fall away. John Kerry’s focus on finally sealing peace between Israel and Palestine – which need not be seen as mission impossible – could be the present administration’s last international bequest before it leaves the region to its own devices.
Europe, I sense, may be just starting to get to grips with the idea of a world without the sense of stability, and occasional recklessness, that attended the exercise of US power. At gatherings on European topics in recent weeks, I have sensed concern, tinged with disbelief that the United States may be stepping back from an active global role. But those sentiments are now secondary. They now tend to be relegated to the subordinate clauses that signal inevitability and acceptance.
When the assistant US Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, made her notorious leaked remarks about the EU and its ineffectual, as she saw it, dealings with Ukraine, Europe’s shock was less about her meaning than about her language. The use of F-word EU is the cue that it is time for the EU to open a new chapter of self-reliance.
We must assume that, henceforth, that the US will be there for us only if that suits its – far less expansionist – self-interest.