In the desert of the Sahel, European foreign policy has finally come of age. The French intervention, supported by the EU and US and backed by regional allies and international institutions has (at least until now) been a resounding success. Not only that, but this model of intervention – militarily and diplomatically– might constitute a lasting blueprint for European external operations. Europe, the nearly-man of world powers, has got its act together at last.
Lessons from past military misadventures would appear to have been learned. From the start, this has always been a limited intervention. The French clearly have no interest in a long war – they simply want to help the Malian government deal with a threat to southern towns and cities before handing over to an African force. There is little chance of an open-ended counterinsurgency in the mountainous north. Should an Islamist terrorist threat remain once the French have left, drones will likely be deployed to combat the danger (the US has already agreed to send surveillance drones to Niger for counterterrorism purposes). The terrain is too remote, too expansive, for boots on the ground to make a great deal of difference anyway. The Mali operation’s limited, realistic goals set a useful precedent.
The mission benefits, too, from French dominance. France has proven willing – despite its domestic economic woes – to do the initial legwork, leaving Britain, the US and the EU to fulfil the remaining logistical and training tasks, while international donors fund a replacement African force. This has solved the age-old problem of burden-sharing: persuading beneficiaries of military action to pull their weight. Having a clear lead country, whether France, Britain or a collection of smaller states, is a model with obvious benefits. However, we must be prepared to step up when Britain’s time comes.
France has also got its diplomatic campaign just right. It’s easy to be suspicious of any new French intervention in Francophone Africa – old colonial habits die hard. But in this case, not only are the French being welcomed with open arms, but the majority of Mali’s neighbours have also expressed support. It helps that the Islamists are clearly in the wrong, but western rhetoric has a delicateness that has often been lacking in previous military campaigns. This war is, by design, ‘African-led’ due to the upcoming deployment of Afisma (the African-led International Support Mission to Mali). That the French are clearly running the show for the time being is beside the point. The message is clear: the Europeans are only here to help for a limited time. Meanwhile, the EU has acted swiftly to authorise a training mission, and the Afisma donor conference in Ethiopia has yielded results. This, too, might be a blueprint for the future: we should win over the international community and regional players from the start, rather than persuading them of the case for war after the fact.
The Mali operation is the strongest indication yet that a progressive, internationalist European foreign policy is within reach. This intervention will hopefully form a template for limited, clearly led, inclusive future engagements. What a shame, then, that just as Europe steps up, the prime minister places a question mark over our long-term involvement in the broader European project.
For all David Cameron’s positive messages on Mali and counterterrorism in north Africa, the uncertainty over our European future may slow the pace of further defence cooperation and make it more difficult to capitalise on the gains made in the Sahel. That, combined with unprecedented cuts to military manpower, may cause us to be left behind. Europe has waited nearly 60 years for a common foreign policy. Now one has come along, we need to make sure we are part of it.
Greg Falconer is a foreign policy expert and former Whitehall civil servant. He tweets at @gregfalconer
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