French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner was on the ground in Tbilisi less than 72 hours after the Russo-Georgian war began and helped negotiate Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial six-point accord. Kouchner, a 68-year-old physician, long took on humanitarian crises as an activist. But now his idealist image is being tested by realpolitik. He sat down with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll in Paris to discuss how the European Union can manage Moscow. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Are the realpolitik demands of your foreign-minister post today alien to the idealism you ' re known for?
KOUCHNER: The word realpolitik is a little pejorative. I don't believe our policy deserves that qualifier. We completely changed transatlantic relations, which have become a lot more trusting, easier. I was very proud to be with the U.S. Congress when Sarkozy described our relations with America. Is that realpolitik? No. It's what we really thought. Was stopping the war in Georgia realpolitik? You could say that. But above all it was urgent. We had to stop those tanks rolling toward Tbilisi. We had to demand an immediate ceasefire, otherwise Tbilisi was taken and Saakashvili's regime would fall. Was that realpolitik? It was crisis policy. Realpolitik would be deciding things against one's own convictions.
Until recently the top threat seemed to be Iran acquiring a first nuclear weapon. Now the talk is of avoiding a new cold war.
I think cold war is a very poor term—that trying to reason in terms of bloc against bloc isn't right. The way the Russians reacted to Saakashvili and invaded Georgia wasn't right either. And we condemned it strongly.
Should we embrace Russia? Counterbalance it?
I don't know. For now, we have the ceasefire, a partial withdrawal of troops that isn't complete and access for humanitarian aid. We've sent a lot of aid, and we'll continue. We've succeeded in getting 27 EU countries with us, which is very powerful. It's 500 million people, the biggest economic power in the world. We'll send an observer force. And the emergency EU summit was a big success because, for the first time, in a time of crisis, in an emergency council meeting, called during the month of August, we also obtained unity. We said we would postpone all decisions on partnerships with Russia, until Sept. 8. Sarkozy and I, along with European Commission President Barroso and Javier Solana, are going together to Moscow and Tbilisi. We'll see if President Dmitry Medvedev has kept his word and if all forces have been evacuated from the so-called buffer zone in Georgia, to be replaced with international forces, OSCE and, I hope, the EU, too.
How do you reassure Central and Eastern Europe?
We might not have reassured them, but there were no other options. The important thing was stopping the war, withdrawing the troops. We'll see on Sept. 8. If it isn't finished, we'll have to be more firm. One reaction could be a European gas-buying unit, meaning solidarity among consumers. That's a priority of the French EU presidency. We're working on it. European defense is a priority of the French presidency, too, but will take years. The former Soviet bloc countries fear a return to a certain Russian imperialism, I understand. But we also know, and there are 27 of us, the costs of a cold war. I hate that term, but nobody wants a policy of confrontation with Russia. Now, we'll see. If the Russians say they hold Ossetia and Abkhazia dear and continue to covet re-establishing themselves within [Soviet-era] borders, that's very dangerous. But we hope, we believe, we want to believe, that Medvedev will want to integrate his country into the world, in its place as a great country, a very great country, with regard for international law.
Is Russia ' s behavior the price of pushing for NATO ' s expansion?
This big country, Russia, had the impression it was being besieged. Sure, the batteries of missiles for the new U.S. missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic aren't directed at Russia, but the Russians imagine they are. But some [reactions] are unacceptable.
Was the emergency summit a sign of how few cards are playable?
Let the 27 countries decide together. That's already something. No one wanted to go further.
Economic sanctions were never on the table?
What sanctions do you want against the country supplying you? You want us to cut off its atmospheric gases? Medvedev said, "Be careful, we can impose sanctions, too." You remember when they did that for Ukraine. What sanctions? We cut off commercial relations? It's possible, but we have the WTO and we want a market economy. If the market economy tries to cut relations with a big market like Russia, it will be difficult. No one proposed serious sanctions.