Watching Tony Blair and George Bush shower praise on each other in the Rose Garden last week made it easy to believe the current story line on the British leader: He will be remembered as Bush's "poodle" with a legacy defined by a failed Iraq war.
Yet I think history will be kinder to Blair. The conventional wisdom about him is too pat. Similarly, the take on Europe's most interesting politician, new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is too glib. Sarkozy's supposed to be a French neocon who will ape America's foreign policy and free markets. But he's far more interesting - a man of the right who reaches across ideological divides to encourage change.
The thinking on Blair starts with the assumption that his Iraq policy was designed to please the White House. When the books on Blair are written, however, they'll find his foreign policy was based on ideas laid out clearly in a 1999 speech he gave in Chicago.
That speech was delivered in the midst of the Kosovo crisis. Blair emphasized the growing interdependence of the world on political and security issues.
"We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not," he insisted, and proposed a new "doctrine of international community."
Among other things, the doctrine tried to define the circumstances in which NATO (or the international community) should "get actively involved in other people's conflicts." Blair argued that one instance where the basic principle of noninterference must be breached - for reasons of morality and self-interest - was in the case of genocide. He stood ready to use British ground troops in Kosovo, if NATO was unable to get Slobodan Milosevic to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars.
Unlike Clinton or Bush, Blair had carefully thought through a limited doctrine of intervention. The possibility of humanitarian intervention - in Kosovo or elsewhere - was clearly something he believed in, unlike the belated rationale the Bush administration used for the Iraq war.
Historians will argue whether Blair breached his own principles in sending British troops into Iraq. The prerequisites for military intervention laid out in the Chicago speech included being "sure of our case," exhausting all diplomatic options, being prepared for the long term and having national interests involved. Still, had the Brits been in charge in Baghdad - having learned a bit from their own history - the aftermath might not have been quite so dire.
Blair, unlike Bush, was a genuine internationalist, not a unilateralist. He pushed Bush to try for a second U.N. resolution endorsing an Iraq intervention. He pressed Bush, in vain, to make a serious commitment to reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the same time, he committed, with historic success, to advancing the peace process in Northern Ireland.
He urged Bush, also in vain, to fight climate change - which Blair took very, very seriously. He also convinced Bush to get more involved in aid to Africa. Blair's ideas were his own; his mistake was to think he could draw the White House closer to his vision of internationalism and global leadership.
Sarkozy is also his own man, although he will no doubt avoid the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy admires the openness of U.S. society, along with its economic flexibility and ability to create jobs.
But he will not be Bush's French poodle. He wouldn't have sent troops to Iraq. He has made climate change his No. 1 foreign policy issue. His acceptance speech mentioned France's "American friends" but noted that friendship meant "accepting that one's friends can act differently."
What makes Sarkozy even more intriguing is that he doesn't fit the neat stereotype of him as a right-wing ideologue who is anti-immigrant. He himself is the son of an immigrant. But beyond that, he's already shown he's prepared to breach France's left-right divide to pursue social and economic change.
Known for his tough talk on illegal immigration, Sarkozy has made clear he wants to create jobs for poor, legal immigrant slum-dwellers, many of them Muslim. And he advocates "affirmative action," something that has been taboo in a society where you see hardly any brown or black faces in senior positions. In his first cabinet, seven out of 15 ministers are women, one of them of Arab descent.
Determined to change France's restrictive labor laws and tax code - in the face of strong opposition from France's powerful unions - he's appointed as prime minister Francois Fillon, a four-time cabinet member who has good relations with labor leaders. For foreign minister, he crossed party lines to pick the humanitarian crusader Bernard Kouchner, founder of Medecins sans Frontieres.
Sarkozy may admire America, but he looks set to become a French original. As for Blair, the images of poodledom will fade; he may be remembered more for his ideas about global interdependence. Too bad he can't become president of the World Bank.