Kouchner Without Borders


New French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent several messages to the world and to the French last week when he awarded the post of Foreign Minister to the hugely popular Socialist Bernard Kouchner.

Kouchner, a doctor, is co-founder of the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) . He is described as passionate about human rights, outspoken and charismatic. But he can be impatient as well, especially when bureaucrats obstruct delivery of urgently needed medical care. And he has upset important people. The former UN chief, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, for example, once called him ‘an unguided missile.’

Sarkozy has been busy trying to show that his Socialist rival in the 6 May Presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, was wrong to portray him as a wrecker of almost everything the French hold dear. Royal didn’t exactly call Sarko a ‘psycho,’ but she came pretty close.

The new President’s early moves have been positive. Just hours after taking up his post on 16 May, for example, he flew to Berlin to discuss ways of strengthening the Franco-German relationship, an issue which lies at the heart of the European Union. And Sarkozy’s new Prime Minister, François Fillon,  quickly promised to meet French unions and employers to discuss ways of kick-starting the sluggish French economy.

Almost half of Sarkozy’s slim, 15-member Cabinet will be women. His team includes Rachida Dati, a young lawyer with North African parents who is now Justice Minister. ‘This is not just an Arab in charge of Arabs,’ the French philosopher, Yves Michaud, told the International Herald Tribune. ‘It’s a woman of North African descent running one of the most important ministries in the Government.’

It is the Kouchner appointment, though, that is being discussed in Parisian sidewalk cafés. The talk among the French elite is not just about the fact that, as a Socialist, Kouchner was an opponent of the conservative Sarkozy in the recent elections.

The French love to philosophise and they know their stuff. Memories of Bertrand Russell’s famous 1928 radio talk, The Harm that Good Men Do, echoed in many French minds. Lord Russell, of course, did not suggest that men like Kouchner are likely to do ‘harm.’ He was aiming, instead, at men who the world then simply called ‘good.’ Their equivalent today would be conspicuous churchgoers who oppose gay marriage, but see no moral conflict in the Coalition of the Willing’s blood-spattered prosecution of the war in Iraq.

Image from here

Kouchner is certainly a ‘good man,’ in the utilitarian, Benthamite sense. He has a vast store of good works. Indeed, his brain child, Médecins Sans Frontières , won the 1999 Nobel Prize for its pioneering work among the world’s most desperate people. Kouchner is a man of action when action is desperately needed. And admirable as that is, it does raise issues. Any professional diplomat will tell you that.

There are sharp divisions between the amateurs and the professionals in the delicate-but-dirty world of diplomacy. Australia’s professional diplomats, for example, are silently seething at present over John Howard’s decision to appoint two of his tired loyalists to plum diplomatic posts Amanda Vanstone to Rome and Rod Kemp, reportedly, to Paris.

Sarkozy clearly wants to see some swift action in French foreign affairs. He wants to polish the good name of France in international relations and Kouchner’s appointment is brilliant in that respect.

But how does he line up in the nasty game of diplomatic hardball? In 2004, Kouchner supported the American-led invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds. ‘It was a question of overthrowing an evil dictator and it was right to intervene,’ he said in 2004. As subsequent events have shown, that wasn’t a great call.

But the so-called professionals, too, can make mistakes just ask the CIA and Australia’s own spooks about weapons of mass destruction.

Kouchner’s appointment illustrates the central diplomatic issue of our time: when can intervention be justified and what forms can it take?

Economic sanctions alone might not have stopped Milosevic’s murderous Serbs from ethnic cleansing in Kosovo back in the 1990s. But such sanctions did, however, play a big part in bringing about the downfall of the once apparently immovable Apartheid regime in South Africa. (That success was achieved over Howard’s opposition to sanctions.)

Most Australians would support tough economic sanctions against Iran, too, if the Mr Bean of the Middle East, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, proceeds with plans to give his country nuclear weapons.

Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be too hard on Kouchner. He is now 67. Friends say he has ‘mellowed.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.