Nicolas Sarkozy, the recently elected leader of America's oldest ally - and possibly the most pro-U.S. president in France's history - begins his first official visit to the United States today, a country he's called the world's "greatest democracy."
During a two-day visit, Sarkozy will meet with President Bush, go to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon and - following in the footsteps of Marquis de Lafayette - address a joint session of Congress, becoming the eighth Frenchman to do so.
Let's just say, we've come a long way since freedom fries . . .
Compared to his anti-U.S. predecessor, Jacques Chirac, "Sarko the American" (as he's sometimes scornfully called at home) has been nothing less than a breath of fresh Alpine air for Franco-U.S. relations. Even so, he's no Gallic lapdog.
In his electoral victory speech, Sarkozy said: "I'd like to appeal to our American friends to say that they can count on our friendship." But, he added, "I would also like to say that friendship means accepting that your friends don't necessarily see eye to eye with you."
Fair enough. But Sarkozy's record so far inspires some confidence.
In his first major foreign-policy speech, he called Iran's development of nuclear weapons "unacceptable" - and agreed that keeping the military option on the table was a good idea. But, choosing his words carefully, Sarko didn't advocate attacking Iran.
He supports punitive economic sanctions against Iran, even increasing them, but has yet to require French firms, such as energy giants Total or Gaz de France, to divest themselves of their Iranian holdings.
While not endorsing Coalition policy on Iraq, Sarkozy seems to understand the importance of success there. In fact, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner visited Iraq in August - an act that would have been treasonous under Chirac.
Sarkozy's also pretty good on Afghanistan. He originally advocated removing French troops from the NATO mission, but he's now in favor of staying, although French forces largely don't operate in the most dangerous parts of the country.
On Russia, Sarkozy has talked tough, saying the Kremlin is too hard-edged in its policies at home and abroad. He's also upbraided Russia about the use of the energy card, but produced little in early dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Another plus: Sarkozy has pledged to make human rights a centerpiece, especially in Darfur, Russia and China. Kouchner - a founder of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders - is noted for his strong humanitarian streak. While Chirac was famously pro-Arab, Sarkozy isn't anti-Arab, but is warmer toward Israel. He gets it on terrorism, straying from French policy by describing Hezbollah as a terrorist group - even if he has yet to add it to France's terrorist-organization list.
So what are the real downsides? The United States and France begin to part company most starkly on Europe. As much of an Atlanticist as he seems to be, Sarko is also Eurocentric, dedicated to the European Union's rise as a world power, including the passage of a constitution.
While he's talked of France rejoining NATO's military command, which it left in 1966 under Charles de Gaulle, it will come with a price, including giving some NATO key posts to the French. (Negotiations in the mid-1990s under Chirac failed.)
He's also strongly in favor of a common European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) - an EU defense capability independent of NATO. While the Europeans should do more for international security, the ESDP could lead to NATO's demise.
The Kyoto Treaty is also a priority for Sarko. He's chided Bush indirectly, saying: "A great nation like the United States has the duty not to oppose the fight against global warming, but to lead that battle, because what is at stake is the destiny of mankind."
So, on balance, Sarko looks pretty darn good in comparison with his predecessors. But while the desire to break out the champagne and foie gras over the new French president might be overwhelming, he's no French poodle.
Sarkozy will do what he does for his own French reasons, looking after France's national interest. Don't expect Sarko's Elysee - or the entrenched French foreign-policy bureaucracy at the Quai d'Orsay - to just take the American line.
But Sarkozy's France seems open to a new partnership with the
United States. And considering continuing French influence in world
affairs, this is an opportunity we should try to make the most
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in the New York Post