President-elect Barack Obama has lessons to learn from France's Nicolas Sarkozy, but they may not be what Sarkozy intended. When he greeted the visiting Democratic candidate at the ElysÃ©e last summer, the French president meant for a bit of Obama's cool to rub off on him (and his dwindling poll ratings.) He also wanted to play the elder statesman, bequeathing the wealth of his foreign-affairs experience on the freshman from far-away Illinois. As it turns out, it's Sarko who's been played, like a Stradivarius, by the redoubtable team of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and his remote handler Vladimir Putin, at the EU-Russia summit at Nice last week-end.
Sarkozy, who as recently as 2006 peppered his ultimately successful presidential campaign with statements like "I'd rather shake hands with George Bush than with Vladimir Putin - Putin has Chechen blood on his hands," has of late experienced what can be termed a Damascene conversion in more ways than one. Russia, he believes, must be "engaged". (So must Putin himself, it would seem: at his first G-8 last year, Sarko was snapped lending his cell phone to the Russian strongman, so that he, Putin, could share a joke with his, Sarkozy's, wife.)
The French president built his political reputation on his willingness to personally engage any number of opponents. He made the cardinal mistake of thinking that he could successfully bluff his way among the autocrat leaders of an empire stretching over 12 time zones, who cut their political teeth in a totalitarian system punishing thoughtcrime with secret police, tanks, and a prison camp system second to none. Why not? The reasoning seems to have gone. It worked with union picket lines, angry demonstrators, even a hostage-taker threatening to bomb a primary school when Sarkozy was the 28-year-old mayor of a Paris suburb. Sarko has always trusted his gut, and most of the time this has served him well - together with his genuine physical courage.
But winging it, even with the best intentions, simply doesn't work in this case. For the sake of "engagement", Sarkozy, in his capacity as rotating president of the EU, abandoned beleaguered Georgia, and agreed to resume talks on EU-Russian economic partnership, event though Russia violates to this day even the favourable ceasefire brokered by that self-same Sarkozy last August in Tbilisi - there are Russian troops not only in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as close as 30 miles from the Georgian capital.
To "help" Medvedev feel he was in congenial company in Nice, and - as he thought - get the negotiating ball rolling - Sarko didn't hesitate to state that the US plans to install an anti-missile shield against Iranian nukes in willing countries like Poland or the Czech Republic "would bring nothing to European security." (Only the week before, Medvedev, for his part, had shown no compunction to threaten to target missiles on EU and NATO countries.)
Sarkozy believes he can "mediate" between Russia and the West. He is wrong on several counts. The first is that no-one gave him a mandate. (He believes success will validate him after the fact, but his definition of "success" while bleeding advantages left and right should be unacceptable to the West and the United States.) The second is that he seems to forget what Ronald Reagan always knew (from his past as a tough union negotiator battling Communists in Hollywood): that for a certain type, which was Russian even before it was Soviet, everything that's theirs is theirs and everything that's yours is negotiable. The third is that you do not talk with an adversary who does not share your basic values without preconditions. It is strange that Sarkozy understands this about Iran, but won't see it when it comes to Russia. From all accounts, President-elect Obama does see this about Russia, but is still uncertain about Iran. Each of them should learn something from the other; but they should not be mistaken on what there is to learn.