"This is amazing. The Americans now sound French. And the French sound American." This was a comment often heard at this year's Brussels Forum, the splendid high-profile foreign policy conference held by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. What had happened?
Predictably, one of the meeting's most prominent sessions was dedicated to the subject of interventions, and what the cases of Mali (successful intervention-kind of) and Syria (no intervention, continued civil war) can tell us about the West's willingness and ability to enforce rules and protect values around the world.
As part of that panel, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and the new director of policy planning in the French foreign ministry, Justin Vaïsse, performed a remarkable role reversal.
The topic under discussion was whether the West-in the absence of any intention to intervene directly in Syria-should supply arms to the outgunned rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Sherman, pressed hard on the issue, was forced to use the full arsenal of diplomatic vernacular to say "no" while maintaining that the United States was deeply concerned about the atrocious situation on the ground.
She sounded believable on both counts. She was visibly torn, but her statements were an exercise in caution, passivity, and the carefully crafted abstention that only seasoned diplomats can produce. She was very professional in saying "no," but there was also just enough genuine pain in her performance to avoid appearing cold.
In other words, she was the epitome of the U.S. foreign policy posture in President Barack Obama's second term.
Vaïsse, in contrast, argued so fervently in favor of arming the insurgents that no one in the room could remember when old Europe had last looked so young and ready to act. At least France, after Libya and Mali, looks decidedly rejuvenated these days. Vaïsse argued that France would also prefer a negotiated solution for Syria, and that it had tried-in various ways, both inside and outside the UN Security Council-to reach one.
These efforts, however, had led to nothing, and it was now time for plan B. Together with the UK, he said, France was considering sending weapons to some rebel groups, despite the recently prolonged EU embargo on arms deliveries to Syria.
Regardless of whether one believes such a plan is a good idea, the scene is of high significance. It is important less for the robustness of France's position than for the defensiveness of America's.