Russia, France reassert themselves

Sunday, September 30, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Loory: President George Bush entertained two world leaders this summer at his family’s vacation house at Kennebunkport, Maine. One was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who talked with Bush about world affairs. The other was the new French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who talked with him about improving strained relations between the United States and France. The point of these visits is that France and Russia want to reassert themselves as world powers. Russia’s leverage is its power as an energy-producing country. But Putin is moving to re-establish his country as a world leader through arms sales and improved diplomatic relations. He’s also challenging the U. S. France is trying to re-establish the glory of its Gaullist years by reversing some of the Gaullist policies and by establishing better relations with the U.S. Is Russia in a position to become a world superpower again and, if so, what does that mean for the security of our planet?

Luke Harding, bureau chief, Guardian and Observer newspapers, Moscow: Russia still has a formidable nuclear arsenal, which means that strategically they have to be taken very seriously. Over the last eight or nine months, we’ve seen a reaccession of Russian might by Putin. He has resumed patrols of former nuclear bombers, he’s torn up an arms agreement with NATO, and he has denounced U.S. power despite his summer meeting with Bush. We’re seeing a newly resurgent Russia fueled by oil and gas prices, a Russia that has recovered what from what Putin sees as the humiliation of the 1990s when it was reliant on Western help. Now Russia wants a place at the top table and to be taken seriously. That’s a major challenge not just for the U.S., but also for the European Union and for the NATO alliance as to how they deal with this more uncertain, more hawkish, more aggressive Russia.

Loory: Isn’t Sarkozy trying to do pretty much the same thing for France?

Pierre Rousselin, vice director, Editorial Department for International Affairs, Le Figaro, Paris: Sarkozy is stepping into the French presidency after Jacques Chirac and his very strong position during the Iraq War. He’s putting things back to where they were before Chirac. France is the U.S.’s ally, and it is thinking of the next administration and putting trans-Atlantic relations back in working order. Sarkozy’s priority is Europe, not the U.S., but he thinks that by having good relations with the U.S., a stronger Europe and a stronger France can be built.

Richard Beeston, diplomatic reporter, The Times, London: In Britain, almost the exact opposite is true from what is happening in France and Russia. The British saw 10 years of Tony Blair’s premiership, an assertive, interventionist policy. They saw Blair rise up in the wake of 9/11 side by side with Bush, and they’ve seen British troops closely involved in several foreign interventions, notably Iraq. Now the exact reverse is true. Gordon Brown is far more cautious on these matters. The war in Iraq is extremely unpopular, and England is, if anything, withdrawing from the stage.

Loory: What impact does what is happening in France and Russia have on America’s position around the world, particularly in the Middle East?

Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic reporter, USA Today, New York: The Bush administration is elated to have Sarkozy in France. He’s much closer to Bush’s position on Iran and is talking about unilateral French and E.U. sanctions, whereas Chirac was opposed to them. The question is whether this will be canceled out by Russian obstructionism. Putin is very much opposed to harsh economic sanctions against Iran, and it’s not clear what will happen in the U.N. Security Council. The dynamics in Europe have changed for Bush. He’s lost all his best buddies from the beginning of the war. In some ways, he may be better off now because he has Sarkozy and that takes the pressure off Brown, who doesn’t have to be so pro-American since the French are going to carry the water for him.

Loory: The immigration problem in France these days is a serious one. How is Sarkozy going to deal with it?

Rousselin: It was a major issue during the campaign, and Sarkozy took very strong positions on limiting immigration. The main problem is that France has a lot of people from Algeria and Morocco who are French citizens and who are not as well-integrated as they should be. The second problem is that the people coming in from those countries and from Africa have difficult economic conditions. The French economy is not doing as well as Sarkozy would like, and that’s his major domestic problem. His activism on the international scene is a way for him to change the subject on issues where he is seen in a more positive light.

Loory: What are Putin’s serious domestic problems, and how is he dealing with them?

Harding: One problem is rising xenophobia and nationalism. Students from former Soviet Union countries are being stabbed to death at metros, and support for near-Nazi groups is increasing. Part of the problem is self-inflicted because the Russian government has recently cracked down on migrants, sending home a lot of migrants who worked in jobs that Russians don’t want to do. Economically it’s counterproductive because one of the biggest problems Russia faces is a demographic crisis. It is losing about half a million people a year, and its population is shrinking rapidly, so taking a tough stand on migration is not working. But at the moment, there is a nationalistic groove in Russia, and it plays well with the electorate.

Loory: Putin is also a lame duck, isn’t he?

Harding: No one in Russia thinks he’s a lame duck, and he certainly isn’t behaving like one. Russia has been in a guessing game as to who is going to take over from Putin next March when there is a presidential election and he has to step down. Initial speculation was that he might change the constitution and carry on. That doesn’t appear to be the case now. Putin is going to carry on actively in politics. Many feel that he may come back as president in 2012 or even sooner if he has a weak successor who suddenly falls ill after a year or so.

Loory: French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner recently visited Moscow to talk about possible cooperation between Russia and France on international problems. What happened there?

Rousselin: It was a diplomatic visit. France and Europe want to keep all channels to Russia open. Putin is taking a very strong nationalistic approach. Whether that lasts after the election remains to be seen, but things are getting difficult. The French government is less inclined to put the problems under the table as did President Chirac, who was always very friendly with Putin. Sarkozy is more straight forward. We are in for tougher times, but Europe has to maintain good relations with Russia.

Loory: A recurring theme of this program recently has been the challenge to the U.S.’s standing and the diminution of its role in the world. How well we learn to live with that will determine not only our security but that of all the world for a long time to come.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.

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