November 5, 2008
French president Nicolas Sarkozy was the first foreign leader to offer congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama. In a statement released by the Elysee palace, Sarkozy declared, “At a time when we must face huge challenges together, your election has raised enormous hope in France, in Europe and beyond … France and Europe... will find a new energy to work with America to preserve peace and world prosperity.”

Rebuilding the trans-Atlantic partnership is a key priority for Sarkozy, but one wonders whether his aim is even higher. Does the French president see himself in the role of mediator and interlocutor between the United States and Russia—the European bridge between North America and Eurasia? Does he believe that he might be able to play the role of matchmaker between two presidents of the “next generation”—Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev? (Especially when Medvedev “rained on the parade” today by announcing the deployment of a missile system in Kaliningrad!)

Sarkozy initially ran on a platform of Russia-skepticism, but after taking office has become a leading proponent of a strategy of engagement with the Kremlin. He emerged as the leading figure to get a cease-fire between Russia and Georgia after the Caucasus war erupted this past August. At the EU-Russia meeting in October, Sarkozy bluntly stated:  “Given the state of the world, I don't think the world needs a crisis between Europe and Russia--that would be irresponsible. Europe should not be an accomplice in starting another Cold War.” And when Medvedev unveiled his proposals for a new system of collective security for the larger Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian worlds, Sarkozy expressed interest —  with one caveat. America could not be excluded. His remark, “I don't take instructions from America. But America is our friend and ally,” was very telling.

On the other hand, a closer partnership with America is not likely to cause the Sarkozy Administration to change its policy toward Russia.  Sarkozy, during his October visit to Moscow, said that Russia had “kept its word” on meeting its obligations under the Sarkozy cease-fire plan, and at the end of the month French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner endorsed the speedy resumption of negotiations between the EU and Russia for a new partnership agreement.

Sarkozy will see Medvedev in Nice for the EU-Russia summit scheduled there. Will Sarkozy make the offer then to try and assist in repairing the damaged U.S.-Russia relationship? And would an Obama Administration want to use Sarkozy’s good offices? This is something that bears watching.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.