It’s an interesting idea, absent clear American command for the moment and even, perhaps, extending beyond the arrival of a new president in January.
It depends on not focusing too hard on the details of a Europe whose divisions confront and usually overwhelm its ambitions.
It also means believing both in a multipolar vision of the world and in the long-shot notion Europe’s former Soviet bloc countries might soften their conviction that only the United States can guarantee their freedom.
Sarkozy, all the same, has some things going for him:
A degree of success in negotiating on behalf of the West to remove Russian invasion troops from Georgia. The bully pulpit of the European Union’s rotating presidency. And no real challenge to his primacy from Britain, or a Germany handcuffed by national elections in 2009 that could focus on the question of where it stands between the United States and Russia.
Of course, there’s the problem of a recession looming in Europe, which Sarkozy acknowledges. The subject remains an official no-no across the Rhine, recessionary statistics in the second quarter be damned. In fact, a whole series of difficult German-French contradictions are avoided, wadded in cotton and traditional desires of good will.
«There are tests that forge great character,» Le Figaro, a newspaper close to the president, wrote in an editorial. «Nicolas Sarkozy intends to prove that he has the fabric of a European leader able to confront the world’s storms.»
He’s approached some of them so far with something akin to wisdom.
Sarkozy has characterized the world financial crisis as one involving speculative rather than productive capitalism, caused by ridiculously rigid beliefs in the law of the market. In this process, America gets spared being singled out as sole source of the problem.
This is important because it reaffirms Sarkozy’s decision that France could never lead Europe without having shed the label of American’s eternal antagonist.
But an examination of Sarkozy’s leadership qualifications has its smudges and chinks.
On the economic side, in the middle of a crisis whose ongoing horrors are ones of bad debt and liquidity, Sarkozy has indicated France will stay a massive debtor and postpone its promise to live up to EU debt and deficit criteria until at least 2012.
On Russia and Georgia, Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU Commission, has said Sarkozy supports re-starting postponed EU talks with Russia on a Strategic Partnership as soon as Moscow pulls its forces out of «Georgia proper.»
NATO and Barack Obama see things differently: in the presidential debate on Friday, Obama insisted the Russians «have to follow through on the six-point cease-fire. They have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia,» the Georgian provinces effectively annexed by Russia.
Other disagreements that keep Europe from speaking with a single voice (and Sarkozy from claiming he can talk as leader of a determined unit) are tucked under a blanket.
For fear of discomforting Angela Merkel — a Sarkozy adviser told me last week the president would consider her losing elections next year a disaster for Europe — France says next to nothing about how using more atomic energy would help break its dependency on Russian energy. (And absolutely nothing about exclusive sweetheart deals, like the German-Russian Nord Stream pipeline, that kill Eastern Europe’s confidence in the solidarity of their big continental allies.)
In terms of the diverging French and German approaches marking out convenient responsible parties in the financial meltdown, the difference in tone is sharp.
Sarkozy has avoided the name game. The German government dived into it, offering a chorus of besserwisserei or a know-it-all lecturing, to the Americans.
Financial Times Deutschland, a German financial newspaper, described as «droning self-righteousness» an attack by Peer Steinbruck, Merkel’s Social Democrat finance minister, in which he said the United States will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system.
Die Welt went so far as to talk about a «change in course» by the pro-American chancellor herself. In focusing on the Americans turning a deaf ear to calls for more financial regulation, Merkel «took the role of a schoolteacher,» it said, and skipped over the fact «that Germany was one of the top profiteers from the American cheap money policy.»
Other signs of profound European splits, and the difficulty of finding leadership positions to overcome them, were at hand.
An FTD report last week, quoting from a French Foreign Ministry discussion paper presented during a conference of European foreign ministers about three weeks ago, illustrated the extent of divisions between countries increasingly mistrustful of Russia and others wanting to retain a status quo relationship.
The newspaper said the French document argued that Russia’s invasion of Georgia «confirms that our post-Cold War plan to bind Russia to Europe has failed» and that «there is no doubt that Europeans and Americans did not correctly evaluate re-awakened Russian power.»
Asked about the discussion paper, a French spokesman replied: «There are all kinds of different ideas in it. It was just that, something to prompt discussion.»
In that case, its existence points out the distance separating a Europe of multiple positions on the financial crisis, its relationship to America and Russia, and its energy dependencies, from the unity that would make a bid for a role in world leadership more meaningful.
Sarkozy’s interest in standing at the head of Europe looks completely legitimate. But the gap between ambition and the complications of the task is enormous.
Could the European Union of October 2008 offer the world a new, clear handhold on stability as it negotiates a series of dark passages?
Reality says don’t consider the question again until after America speaks on the first Tuesday in November.