Choose a key foreign policy decision of a state (other than Singapore) and discuss how that decision served the foreign policy objectives of that state Essay


This paper focuses on the events leading up to the United States (US)-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003 and scrutinizes the reaction and stand taken by France. The French refused to sanction the use military force in Iraq by threatening to veto the United Nations (UN) draft resolution crafted by the Americans. The French had varying reasons why they did not support going to war with Iraq, and this paper seeks to understand the rationale as well as the outcome of their decision. Questions on America, Iraq and Europe, along with domestic and individual issues coming together to influence and craft french foreign policy.

The structure of this paper is such that firstly, it states the key French objectives, and secondly, analyzes and critiques the decision not to go to war in Iraq and thirdly, how the decision matches up to its objectives.

Foreign Policy Defined

Before we embark on any further discussion, it is necessary to understand the concept of foreign policy; what it entails and is composed of.

Foreign policy, according to Holsti, consists of “ideas or actions designed by policy makers to solve a problem or promote some change in the policies, attitudes, or actions of another state or states”.1 Simply put, foreign policy is the behaviour of states that are directed towards an external party in order to change their behaviour. Hence, foreign policy has a very dynamic nature, with action and reaction from one party to the other.

Foreign policy composes of certain objectives and goals that the government tries to meet. More often than not, this is expressed in a certain “vision of a future state of affairs” that governments try to realize and bring to reality, “by influencing the behavior of other states and non-state actors.”2

The Foreign Policy Context of France

French foreign policy since the founding of the 5th Republic in 1958 under General Charles de Gaulle has focused greatly on French stature and status in the world. General de Gaulle has “pursued an active foreign policy in every part of the world” in a bid to raise France to a “front-rank player” in world affairs and traces of his legacy can be even seen in French contemporary foreign policy.3

The basic tenets and grand vision of French foreign policy is that of the sovereignty of France and all nations, French leadership based on the values of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” for all mankind, and the notion of universal human rights.4 This cumulates in a distinctly French worldview that its unique “central geographic position” was not coincidental and they were meant to play the part of leader and guide in civilizing and enlightening the world.5 In addition, its leadership extends from “its social and economic philosophy, its ideas, [and] its culture” and thus necessitating the view that the French voice must be heard.6

A crucial objective for French policy is the establishment of a world that is governed by consensus, shared responsibility, cooperation and “respect for international law”.7 Thus, the French place a large amount of belief in the United Nations. Making decisions at a multilateral level reduces the risk of misjudging situations and provides a check and balance to decisions made by states. This also stems from its historical experience of keeping monopolies of powers in Europe in check.8 Multilateralism as endorsed by the French also allows them to achieve their modus operandi which is to have a leading role in international affairs.

Foreign Policy Objectives in Iraq

The general objectives of French foreign policy as seen above is expressed and reformulated in the specific case of Iraq. This manifests into certain specific goals and objectives that can be analyzed in international, domestic and individual levels that illustrates its opposition to the war against Iraq.

International Level

The American Question

The first and foremost objective for French foreign policy at the international level would be to address American unilateralism. The French believe that American power must be checked in order that “unhealthy unilateralism” is prevented.9 By “unhealthy”, it refers to America’s disregard for international law and the UN, as well as the larger question of destabilizing the international order.10

The danger of US being a “hyper-power” that is too much inclined towards unilateral action is in contrast to the French belief in multilateralism and diplomacy.11 The French upholds the notion of “carrots and sticks”, that there is time to threaten and punish and a time to reward, as opposed to Uncle Sam’s image of carrying a big stick. As such, there is more to gain from patient diplomacy rather than simply using force all the time.12

By opposing the war on Iraq, France tries to uphold the international system of multilateralism as expressed in the UN Security Council, to let its voice and ideas be heard, and to be a leader and spokesperson among the “coalition of the unwilling”.13

The Iraqi Question

The French fear that a war on Iraq would destabilize the entire middle-eastern region, creating a burden on its citizens and further emboldening acts of terrorism.14 In fact, many feel that a war on Iraq would constitute a further step backwards with regards to fighting terrorism.15

Furthermore, lessons from France’s colonial past illustrate that chaos would reign even after the war has ended and that the costs shouldered by the occupation would far exceed its benefits.16 A possible scenario would be that of an conflict within Iraq among the three rival ethnic clans of the Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis after Saddam is deposed of. This would make Iraq a very costly mess and problem for the international community and France to clean up long after the Americans are gone.17

Another critical issue would be that of the sovereignty of Iraq as a nation. The French, as much as they dislike Saddam’s dictatorship, strongly oppose regime change through external force as it is against the principle of national sovereignty that France upholds.18 This can be seen in the public opinion towards regime change after the first Gulf War. Most French opposed further action stating that regime change ultimately had to be up to its citizens.19

The European Question

France believes that the Iraq issue also presents an opportunity for Europe to present a consolidated position and a chance to flex its diplomatic muscle. France has long been a major proponent of the development of the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to the US. A cohesive European position on Iraq would be able to provide checks on America’s unilateral tendency.20

An objective thus would be to enhance EU’s standing in international affairs with France at the helm. This would be in line with the grand objective of French leadership and voice in the world.

Domestic Objectives

At the domestic level, the French had to take into consideration its 5 million Muslims within its population that potentially could be mobilized and turned into a breeding ground for future terrorist activities. Officials believe that the spillover effects of France supporting the war in Iraq would encourage terrorist elements to strike within France.21

It was also a political decision as public opinion showed that up to 64% of the French oppose using force against Saddam.22 By supporting the war cause, politicians would risk being voted out of the office since public opinion was opposed to the war.

Individual Level

Keiger notes that in the French political system, the area of foreign policy and diplomacy are controlled and influenced largely by the President. Foreign policy is the “reserved domain” of the President and is subject to his personal beliefs and worldview.23 The current President, Jacques Chirac is predominantly Gaullist in nature in which Gaullism is defined as “a political movement founded on and supporting General de Gaulle’s principles and policies”24 This means that Chirac’s philosophy entails that of a continuation of de Gaulle’s grand vision of France being active and participative in international affairs.

Opposing the war in Iraq and being able to stand up against the world’s sole superpower as well as stating French concerns over the issue attests partly to Chirac’s character and Gaullist belief.

Assessment of Foreign Policy in Iraq

International Level

Firstly, France was successful in opposing the United States in going to war with Iraq. However, the fact that the US went ahead anyway showed that the multilateral system was disregarded by them. This calls into question the legitimacy and relevance of the UN Security Council that France holds in high esteem with regards to containing the unilateralist tendencies of the US.25 The UN and France looked rather feeble in this respect with the latter failing to realize its foreign policy objective of multilateralism.

On the other hand, the French have been vindicated in its opposition to the war by the fact that no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have been discovered. The allegations of Iraq’s possession of WMDs have been the leading precept of the US argument to go to war. The increasing “daily revelations about the fabrication of evidence and lies” by the US goes some way to prove that to a certain extent the French have been right.26 The French were vehemently opposed to war as they believed that Iraq’s nuclear program was dismantled and there was no conclusive evidence of its presence.

Secondly, post-war Iraq has become a quagmire of civil strive, frequent acts of terrorism, deaths of US soldiers, and the extreme poverty of its citizens. Once again, the French belief in the difficulty of occupation seems to be proven correct at least in the short term.

Thirdly, sovereignty, a concept held dear to French has been called into question as a result of the US occupation of Iraq. The French were unable to prevent the US from ultimately rolling its army into Iraq, thus debasing Iraqi sovereignty.

Fourthly, the objective of uniting Europe into opposing the US has also failed. Countries like Spain, Poland and Britain have come under the banner of the US in supporting the war. Hence, the EU community has been divided into two camps, further worsening relations between its member states, notably between the French and the British.27

Domestic Level

Public opinion of French politicians has been favourable ever since its decision to oppose the war in Iraq. The decision has been widely supported even by its Muslim population and the Chirac-led government has enjoyed increased domestic support. Vaisse also notes that the politicians and Muslims common opposition to the war has also cemented both parties’ ties with one another.28

Individual Level

Chirac has unreservedly increased his appeal both internationally and domestically. His belief and convictions have garnered him applause in the UN which Time describes as “by the UN’s decorous standards, positively thunderous.”29 He has also gained domestically as mentioned above, with his weight increasing in the eyes of his fellow French.30

A Successful Foreign Policy Decision?

The decision not to go to war alongside the US and its vocal opposition against it can be seen to be a calculated move by the French in determining its foreign policy goals and objectives.

France by opposing the US has contributed to an increasingly polarized and fragmented world with two camps between the coalition of the willing and the unwilling. This is in direct contrast to its vision of a world that is multi-polar, not just bipolar. Add to this fact that the UN as a multilateral mechanism is seen to have failed along with a divided EU, and it seems that French objectives at the international level have not been met.

Where France succeeds however, is in mustering support against the US-led war at the international and the domestic level and providing a greater awareness of the need for justice. The latter issue was raised by the French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who stated that justice is the key and the heart of French diplomacy and that resentment and frustration would only follow the use of force.31 Hence, France remains true to its principles of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, bringing a certain level of morality and vision into the international equation.32


The success of French foreign policy regarding Iraq has been decidedly mixed. Why is this so? France has succeeded in leading and presenting an opposing view to the US, receiving international attention and awe for its bravado, and enhancing Chirac’s stature. But these rather intangible successes can be measured against that of the tangible-multilateralism has been trodden upon by US military might and an increased division within the EU.

In as much as it has been presented and discussed, the jury is still out on certain issues as it is still far too early to tell how things might turn out in Iraq. The long term objectives of France may or may not hold in Iraq. The French decision may have longer term repercussions that are neither present nor visible now.

In post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq, there is an increasing international consensus that it must be a multilateral effort. As such, multilateralism may not have been dead and buried just yet. De Villipin puts it succinctly, that “you can win the war on your own, [but] you can’t win the peace on your own”.33

1 K. J. Holsti, International Politics: A Framework for Analysis, 6th Edition (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1992), Chapter 4, p. 82.

2 Bruce Russett, Harvey Starr and David Kinsella, World Politics: Menu for Choice, 7th Edition (Australia: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004), Chapter 6, p. 131.

3 A. W. DePorte, “The Foreign Policy of the Fifth Republic: Between the Nation and the World”, In James F. Hollifield and George Ross (eds.), Searching for The New France (New York: Routledge, 1991), Chapter 10, pp. 253, 254.

4 French Foreign Ministry, The, “Statement of Principles”, See http//

5 DePorte, p. 250.

6 Michael Brenner and Guillaume Parmentier (eds.), Reconcilable Differences: US-French Relations in the New Era (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002), Chapter 2, p. 23.

7 French Foreign Ministry.

8 International Herald Tribune, “Americans are wrong to vilify the French France-U.S.”, 20 September 2003.

9 Brenner, pp. 19, 21.

10 Jacquelyn K. Davis, Reluctant Allies & Competitive Partners: U.S.-French Relations at the Breaking Point? (Virginia: Brassey’s Inc., 2003), Chapter 2, pp. 35, 37.

11 Jocelyn Coulon, “How Unipolarism Died in Baghdad”, European Foreign Affairs Review, Vol. 8, 2003, p. 538.

12 Davis, pp. 38, 51.

13 The “coalition of the unwilling” consists of nations that have outwardly shown their lack of support for the US-backed draft resolution on Iraq, namely, Germany, China, Russia and Belgium.

14 Davis, p. 51.

15 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The, “Strategic Comments”, Vol. 9, Issue 2, March 2003.

16 Ibid.

17 Davis, Chapter 6, p. 178.

18 Ibid, p. 171.

19 Ibid, p. 172.

20 Brenner, Chapter 5, p. 121.

21 IISS.

22 Sophie Body-Gendrot, “If France Didn’t Exist, Americans Would Have to Invent It”, French Politics, Culture ; Society, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 2003, p. 13.

23 J.F.V. Keiger, France and the World Since 1870 (London: Arnold, 2001), Chapter 2, p. 43.

24 Collins English Dictionary, The (U.K.: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).

25 IISS.

26 Coulon, pp. 538, 539.

27 International Herald Tribune, “French intellectuals take note as their nation’s influence declines”, 4 October 2003.

28 Justin Vaisse, “Making Sense of French Foreign Policy”, In the National Interest, July 2, 2003. See http//

29 Time Asia, “So, What Went Wrong”, October 6, 2003.

30 Vaisse.

31 Embassy of France in the US, Interview given by Dominique de Villepin, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to “France 3” on the Culture et dependances programme (excerpts), See http//

32 Davis, p. 46.

33 Embassy of France in the US.