Category: French Foreign Policy

The Eclipse of the Ottoman Empire – The End of a Medieval Reality

Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans.  Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam.  This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918.  The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.   


While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead.  Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry.  Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate.  Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne.  To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War.  The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.


The Ottoman Empire at its height and before, 1481-1683

Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe.  It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat.  But the city fell to the Turks in 1453.  If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.

Seige of Vienna, 1683

The second siege of Vienna

Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople.  Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun.  The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome.  One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan.  This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.

The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair

Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse.  Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians.  This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia.  Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised.  Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish.  From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.

It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse.  It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

A modern historic figure steeped in myth: TE Lawrence

The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip.  Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages.  Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth.  Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves.  This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.

Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated.  They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik.  Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised.  When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.”  Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East.  Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon.  The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.

The Middle East after World War 1 - from Paris 1919

The Middle East after World War 1 – from Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919

The British motives were clear.  For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area.  This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area.  Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India.  Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.

Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement.  While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453.  It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”

A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes

Ataturk, 1916

Ataturk, 1916

As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence.  The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians.  By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace.  Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general.  His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed.  In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization.  Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics.  Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.

Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate.  He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means.  Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed.  It was truly the end of an age.


Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.


‘Preparing for the Worst’ – The situation in Mali

Mali’s North has been seized by radicals, among them a branch of al-Qaeda. An African-led Western-supported intervention is on its way. Although this is a promising development, ensuring success requires preparing for the worst.    

Taureg RebelsMali democratized in 1991. By March 1991 massive protests in Bamako, the country’s capital, culminated in the deaths of at most hundreds of protesters. Following mass riots, on 26 March 1991, Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré announced he had arrested the dictator President/General Massao Traoré. The revolution occurred because the army refused to kill its people. Touré would act as an interim president until an elected government received power in 1992. Touré would later enter political life, and be democratically elected in 2002. He successfully won re-election in 2007.

Examining Mali’s recent history, it is easy to make comparisons to the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt. Although the situations in Tunisia and Egypt are still developing, as of yet all three had relatively peaceful democratic transitions, and in all three the army played a critical role in accomplishing this. It is thus with great tragedy that Mali’s stability has fallen into disarray and great irony that the Libyan intervention inadvertently led to this outcome.

Mapping the situation – from The Economist

The conflict’s background
In March Mali’s military, frustrated by the inability of the government to suppress a continuing Tuareg rebel insurgency in the country’s North, staged a coup ousting President Touré. The Tuareg people are akin to the Berbers of North Africa. Colonel Qaddafi employed many Malian Tuaregs in the Libyan army, once he was overthrown these trained militants returned to Mali. The fall of Qaddafi also gave these rebels access to arms. Therefore the Libyan revolution paved the way for Tuareg rebels to seize the strategic cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, effectively giving them control of Northern Mali. Soon after the North of Mali was lost, the Tuaregs in turn lost power to radical jihadist groups including a branch of al-Qaeda know as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali has since fallen into complete disarray. The new president, Diacounda Traore was beaten and left for dead in his office by a mob on May 21, he was hospitalized in Paris and remains there. On 10 December the army arrested Prime Minister Cheik Modibo Diarra and forced him to resign for allowing foreign armies to operate in the country. Not only is Mali’s North been conquered by jihadists, its South is also extremely unstable. Mali risks becoming a failed state.

Mali RebelsThe radicals now controlling Mali’s North are brutal rulers. They have banned music, destroyed historical monuments, and instituted sharia law. Reports of a couple being stoned to death for having premarital sex are not hard to believe. Unfortunately this or the fact that Mali may become a failed state does not mean the West will intervene to reinstate Mali’s democratic government. Situations such as those of the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda among others were and are equally or more brutal, however no or limited Western involvement occurred. That is because these situations did not present a security concern to the West – a harsh fact, but thus is the reality of the international state system.

The security concern Mali presents
However the West is concerned by the situation in Mali, and that is because it does present a security threat. The AQIM now controls a massive swathe of territory covering more than 300,000 square miles. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda thrive in power-vacuums. This area comes complete with airports, military bases, armories  and training camps. It is a perfect location in which to support other terrorist organizations, to attack American interests in Africa, and possibly to launch terrorist attacks aimed at Europe and/or North America. Mali could become similar to the ‘terrorist haven’ of pre- 2001 Afghanistan.

The Intervention
The fact that Mali presents a security threat to the West has dawned on Western leaders. However because or Iraq’s legacy, Washington above all else would detest being involved in another war abroad. A center pillar of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is to avoid foreign conflict. Therefore a NATO intervention, for the time-being at least, is unlikely.

UNInstead, on 21 December, a UN resolution drafted by France (Mali’s former colonial power) passed unanimously allowing for an African-led Western-supported intervention. The Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) has readied 3,300 troops, but an operation is not expected before September 2013. The military force will be known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, and will be backed by Western (mostly American and French) logistics, airpower, intelligence, surveillance (including drones), and possibly special forces.

The West must be prepared for the worst
While the planned operation by ECOWAS forces is promising, it may not be enough. AQIM still has several months to entrench itself in Mali’s North, and although it is likely Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao will be liberated in due course, eradiating al-Qaeda from the Saharan desert may be more difficult. I would not say the intervention’s failure is probable, but it is certainly possible. Thus it is essential that should this African-led mission fail, NATO is prepared to do more.  America must be willing to engage in a foreign intervention should the situation continue to deteriorate.  Preparing for the worst is critical for success. Otherwise Mali risks becoming a failed state. Al-Qaeda would persist and the democratizing force of the Arab Spring would be countered by the collapse of Mali’s elected government.

Works Cited
Balir, David. “Mali: how the West cleared the way for al-Qaeda’s African march,” The Telegraph. 10 July 2012. Mali-how-the-West-cleared-the-way-for-al-Qaedas-African-march.html

“Can the jihadists be stopped?” The Economist. 10 November 2012. diplomacy-and-preparations-un-backed-war-against-branch-al-qaeda

Schneidman, Witney and Brandon Routman. “Stopping Mali from Becoming Somalia,” Foreign Policy. 24 July 2012. _somalia?page=0,1

“Terror in the Sahara.” The Economist. 10 November 2012. right-more-important-implementing-it-fast-terror

“The 400 Coups.” The Economist. 15 December 2012. government-ousted-again-400- coups?zid=304&ah=e5690753dc78ce91909083042ad12e30

“UN backs Mali intervention force to oust rebels.” BBC News. 21 December 2012.

De Gaulle’s Creation: France’s Fiercely Independent International Identity

Of the nations that make up ‘the West’ in the current international state system, France has acted independently from its allies on many occasions. Most recently, on 27 November 2012, France became the first major European power to announce it plans to vote in favor of a Palestinian bid to move from ‘observer’ to ‘non-member observer’ state – a bid for true ‘state’ status would be vetoed by the United States. This may very well be to French President Frances Hollande what opposing the Iraq War very publicly was to Jacques Chirac. France’s autonomous international identity is based on a feeling of independence from the United States and Britain, a feeling that developed with Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power and the creation of the Fifth Republic.

The May Crisis of 1958 would bring Charles de Gaulle to power. This political crisis came about because of the powerlessness of the Fourth Republic combined with the embarrassingly low reputation of the French military. France was governed by the Fourth Republic after World War 2. The Fourth Republic was characterized by its weak institutions, and a political system that favored small parties, both of these weaknesses typified a politically unstable France, in fact France had twenty six governments in fourteen years. No state is able to project itself and possess a real foreign policy in such unstable domestic political positions.

The French military also had a embarrassingly low reputation entering the 1950s. French forces had just been defeated in Indo-China, frustrated by the Suez escapade, and confined to humiliatingly small areas in Tunisia and Morocco, not to mention the fact that France had suffered a German occupation lasting from 1940 to 1944. This caused further instability because of the situation in Algeria. The French army was in conflict with Algerian revolutionaries in order to keep Algeria as an integral part of France. Although the French army felt sure it could defeat the revolutionaries within a few years, it did not believe the weak French government would maintain its resolve against the rebels. Indeed as “government succeeded government” the French soldiers stationed in Algeria perceived “less and less resolve in the State whose authority they were supposed to be upholding” by maintaining Algeria as part of France. (McMillan) In frustration, the French military drafted plans for a coup d’etat to regain its honor, acts that could easily have led to civil war, such was the level of instability in France.

How the French military coup would play out

The May 1958 Crisis, the culmination of French Instability
Because of France’s weak government and its military’s frustration, on May 9, 1958, following enormous demonstrations in Algiers, the army issued Paris with an ultimatum – do not abandon Algeria. French military commanders drafted a plan known as Operation Resurrection. Paratroopers were to be dropped in Paris and take control of the government. This gave Charles de Gaulle an opportunity to return to politics. The army supported de Gaulle’s return to power, seeing as de Gaulle was a French general, and French forces felt de Gaulle would support their desire for Algeria to remain French. Only when French military commanders heard de Gaulle was returning to government did they postpone the operation.

Charles De Gaulle’s Reforms
Charles De Gaulle used the crisis to create a new political system that would provide France with stability. It would also mean French would project itself with a level of autonomy on the world stage. In the wake of a near revolution, President René Coty agreed to make Charles de Gaulle head of the National Assembly in order to make sweeping reforms to France’s political institutions. This action gives de Gaulle the opportunity to create the Fifth Republic in France, perhaps his greatest legacy. The new system is known as semi presidential, which is characterized by two runoff elections which forces bipolarization, depriving small parties of the advantages they had enjoyed in the Fourth Republic. The new system also gave the President sweeping new rights such as the threat of dissolution, emergency powers, and a Cabinet that is controlled by the President. The President is also personally elected by the French people, thus legitimizing his power. A system depriving small parties of power, and a President who is directly elected by the people and is granted with many political rights, added stability to French politics. A powerful President also means France’s leader could speak out on the world stage, as long as he had the backing of the people. De Gaulle’s new system was put to the French people in a referendum which passed on the 28th of September, 1958, he was elected as the first President in December of the same year. Charles de Gaulle gave legitimacy, stability, and integrity to the French government. This allowed de Gaulle project an independent France on the world stage – a move that would regain French pride.

“Not on my watch,” De Gaulle ends the coup

Although de Gaulle came to power with the support of the military, because it believed he would uphold French control of Algeria, de Gaulle “did not consider Algeria to be the most important issue he confronted.” (McMillan) In order to settle the Algerian conflict de Gaulle gave Algeria on opportunity for independence through a referendum in January of 1961. This action did not please the military, and in April 1961 a military uprising takes place in Algiers. Once again plans were drafted for paratroopers to take over Paris. As President de Gaulle was now able to invoke Article 16, thus he granted himself emergency powers, causing the coup to subsequently collapse. Charles de Gaulle had saved France from a second near-rebellion of the military, however this only highlighted the remaining problem of repairing the damaged French military honour.

Restoring French military Pride through a fiercely independent policy
De Gaulle would counter the loss of Algeria and restore French national prestige as a world power by maintaining a strong individualistic foreign policy. Throughout his presidency, de Gaulle would continuously make foreign policy decisions to maintain French independence on the world stage. De Gaulle believed nuclear weapons distinguished a country as a world power. In February of 1959 de Gaulle withdrew the French fleet stationed in the Mediterranean from NATO command because the commanding admiral was British and the system commander was American, thus maintaining the French military’s independence. When the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan met with de Gaulle in December of 1963 to negotiate Britain’s entry into the European Union, de Gaulle vetoed the application. De Gaulle was troubled by Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, he believed that the United States, through a special nuclear relationship possessed more “means to bend certain orientations of English policy.” This special tie was highlighted by the fact that Britain scrapped its own Skybolt device in order to use American Polaris ballistic missiles. De Gaulle realised Britain and France had to stay under the American nuclear umbrella, however his “main concern was that France should not become a mere pawn in the superpower’s game.” (Larkin) This concern would lead to another veto by de Gaulle in 1967 when Britain again applied to be part of the European Union. By independently becoming a nuclear armed power, in addition to vetoing the British request to enter the European union because of its tie to the United States, and by taking measure to keep French forces independent from NATO, de Gaulle restored French honour in its military and maintained pride in its national sovereignty. This proud feeling of French military autonomy remains to this day.

Upholding National Interests; Independence wasn’t just for the military 

Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy did not simply focus on French military sovereignty. De Gaulle would always uphold French national interests in Europe, especially when it came to European unification. When it was proposed that the European Union would decide issues with a majority vote, de Gaulle realised French national interests and French sovereignty could be at stake and flatly refused to agree. If issues went to a majority vote, France could lose out to the other European nations. This sparked the Empty Chair Crisis when de Gaulle withdrew his ministers from the Council of Ministers in June of 1965. De Gaulle’s action worked, in January of 1966 the Luxembourg Compromise was agreed upon. This compromise agreed a majority vote would not be taken in the event that one member of the council claimed a ‘very important’ national interest was at stake. De Gaulle realised France and Germany were the centre of European co-operation, and knew France benefited greatly from this, both economically and politically. France benefited economically because the European Union was founded upon the European Coal and Steel Community (an economic agreement) and politically because it could have influence over other EU members. Therefore, if Britain was allowed to join, this would further divide France’s influence upon Europe. As previously mentioned, De Gaulle bitterly opposed British entry into the European Union, he twice vetoed its attempts to enter, in 1963 and 1967. Although de Gaulle stated this was because of Britain’s ‘special tie’ with the United States, the fact that France would lose its economic and political advantages within the EU also influenced his decision. This same realisation also influenced de Gaulle to sign the 1963 Elysée Treaty with the German Chancellor, institutionalising the French-German ‘motor’ of the European Union. This cemented French influence in the Union; the idea of a French-German ‘motor’ remains to this day. De Gaulle’s foreign policy did not only focus on France’s military, de Gaulle would ensure France remained an integral part of the European Union, safeguarding and furthering French international political and economic influence. De Gaulle’s foreign policy would always be for the good of France, further restoring French national pride. The France that was created by de Gaulle would remain a country that would act with autonomy on the international stage.

Works Cited
Bozo, Frédéric. Two Strategies for Europe, De Gaulle, The United States, and The Atlantic Alliance translated by Susan Emanuel. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001.

Chuter, David. Humanity’s Soldier, France and International Security, 1919-2001. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1996.

Crozier, Brian. De Gaulle. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

Galante, Pierre. The General!. New York: Random House, 1968.

Hay, Colin and Anannd Menon. European Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lacouture, Jean. De Gaulle, The Ruler translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Larkin, Maurice. France Since the Popular Front. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Macridis, Roy C and Bernard E. Brown. Supplement to the de Gaulle Republic. Homewood: The Dorsey Press Inc., 1963.

Mauriac, Claude. The Other de Gaulle translated by Moura Budgerg and Gordon Latta. London: Angus &Robertson, 1973.

McMillan, James. Modern France 1880-2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Menon, Anand. Europe, The State of The Union. London: Atlantic Books, 2008.

Rifkin, Jeremy. The European Dream. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.

Schoenbrun, David. The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle. Atheneum: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1965.