France's Lesson for the U.S.: Don't Let Election Politics Ruin Foreign Policy

What America can learn from a reprehensible French bill that would criminalize denying the Armenian genocide

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President Sarkozy and his Turkish counterpart Gul attend a news conference after their meeting in Ankara / Reuters

"Politics stops at the water's edge," Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg reportedly pronounced a few years after World War Two. An admirable aspiration. As a statement of fact, of course, it's demonstrably false. A vote in France this Monday was a stark reminder of that.

The French parliament late Monday approved a bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, the killing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Though the general consensus among historians in Western European countries and the U.S. holds that these killings qualified as genocide, the label is  strongly rejected within Turkey, especially by its government.

Even before the vote, it was apparent that the move could have profoundly adverse consequences for relations between France and Turkey. Sure enough, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called the bill "racist," according to the Associated Press, and has threatened sanctions against France should French President Sarkozy sign the bill into law. Following an earlier French vote towards this policy in December -- on a draft law that didn't mention the Armenian genocide specifically -- Turkey also suspended economic contracts with France, along with military cooperation. Turkey is a rapidly growing economy with ties across Europe, and France could lose out on a number of important trade deals or other badly needed economic opportunities if it approves this law. France could also alienate Turkey at a time when it's becoming an increasingly prominent global player.

Why risk these kinds of foreign policy consequences? After all, the supposed moral high ground here isn't particularly pretty: worth it though it may be to insist on recognizing the suffering of Armenians under the Ottoman empire, this bill legislates against free speech. It's a reprehensible move from a number of perspectives.

"Taking a benign view of human nature in general, and French politics in particular, you might say that this is a clumsy attempt to realise a noble intention," wrote journalist-scholar Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian last week. "That would be naive. There is a remarkable correlation between the appearance of such proposals in the French parliament and the proximity of national elections, in which some half a million voters of Armenian origin play a significant part."

He is not the only observer to make this point. Of course, it may not be just the French Armenians to whom the bill appeals: though some defenders of Turkey, including ethnic

Turks, have turned out to protest the bill, anti-Turkish sentiment is not unheard-of in Europe or France, where there is strong opposition to Turkey's entrance into the EU and issues of Turkish immigrant integration have arisen as they have in neighboring Germany.

But Garton Ash's invective against these political motivations for the bill raises a broader
issue: Sarkozy and his party's support for such a disastrous action, from a foreign policy perspective, with little but election gains to recommend it, should lead us anxiously to reexamine our own democracy.

The United States is not France, either institutionally or ideologically. But the same incentive must operate in any democracy where the people being elected also control the country's foreign policy. It's not all that hard to imagine a U.S. president edging, as election nears, towards a poorly thought out hardline position on Iran, for example, or Afghanistan. This is not to say that foreign policy positions the only ones that might be manipulated: opportunistic policies could also be put on the table at home. But there's something particularly disturbing about the specter of electorally-motivated acts likely to disrupt international relations, not least because they're structurally often quite a bit harder to reverse -- damage done to a country's image in another country isn't always changed by a sudden backtracking or a change of administration.

Politics evidently doesn't stop at the water's edge. Nor do the consequences rebounding from their target stop on the other side of the ocean. There's a real case to be made for scaling down inflammatory election rhetoric. We can't just write it off as candidates knocking each others' castles down in a sandbox, particularly when there's an incumbent in the race: one of
those sandbox players is actually running the country.