Has France Become America’s Closest or Most Important Ally?
The state visit by French President Hollande to Washington has raised the question of who is America’s most important ally – Britain or France. Obama dodged the question during the visit by comparing the relations to the two countries to his affection for his two daughters. He responded, “They are both gorgeous and wonderful, and I would never choose between them. And that’s how I feel about my outstanding European partners. All of them are wonderful in their own ways.”
The fact is that the relations between America and France have gone through many ups and down since France was the first country to recognize the fledgling nation during the American Revolution, And, while relations with Britain haven’t always been cordial, they have remained very close as the English and Americans have more shared values (and language) than with France.
Given that history, is it possible that France is headed towards replacing Britain as America’s closest and most important ally, or is this just a more cordial period brought about by politics?
Chances are that the current warm relations represent political expediency for both Hollande and Obama.
Franco-American relations have generally been about political expediency rather than shared values. France recognized America in 1777 in order to neutralize British influence in North America. However, that recognition and military support would have never happened if the Americans hadn’t beaten the British at the Battle of Saratoga – thus showing the French that the Americans could actually win and reduce British influence in the New World.
Political expediency rather than gratitude quickly became the common currency in US/French relations. When France had its revolution and went to war with Britain, the US remained neutral. They also signed a treaty with Britain at the same time (Jay’s Treaty) in order to remove British troops from America’s Northwest Territory. This was viewed as a hostile act by France. This was soon followed by a quasi war between the US and France.
The 237 year history of Franco-American relations is replete with ups and downs. President Thomas Jefferson (who was a Francophile) had considered war with France to neutralize their control of the Mississippi – only to get an offer by France to sell what was to become the Louisiana Purchase. France broke off relations with the US over payment of damages to American property during the French Revolution in 1834, but supported the American expansion west in order to offset Britain’s influence.
The 20th Century saw serious disagreements between the two nations on German reparations after WW I. While the US lent money to Germany, they demanded repayment of the war loans made to France. And, although France joined NATO, the two countries disagreed frequently on many issues ranging from colonialism to Vietnam. This seesaw has continued in the 21st Century as there was considerable disagreement on the War on Terror.
This most recent warming of relations appears to be a continuation of the past behavior. America needs France’s help in the Middle East. Then there is the political consideration of two presidents desperately in need of improving their political fortunes at home.
From the French President’s perspective, Hollande’s approval rating is at a historic low and the prestige of a state visit to the US is the type of event to boost his approval. French unemployment has reached a record high with 3.3 million Frenchmen out of work. Foreign investment in France declined by 77% in 2013. And, although much of the glamour of Obama has rubbed off in the last five years, being seen with the US president and having the president praise him can only help him with disgruntled Frenchmen.
Obama is also in need of the political boost of the state visit of Hollande. His approval rating is also the lowest of his presidency, his party is in serious danger of losing the Senate, and he is perceived as being weak on foreign policy by both Democrats and Republicans. Standing side by side with the French President and being praised for improving US/French relations provides a bit of luster to an otherwise weak foreign policy resume.
France Does the Heavy Lifting
Certainly Obama has benefited from the improving relationship with France. Many of Obama’s foreign policy problems are in the Middle East and Northern Africa, which France has historic links with. And, since the French President has more political freedom than a US president, Hollande has more flexibility to act in the region.
The greater constitutional power of the French presidency also allowed Hollande to send small arms to the Lebanese Army without review by the French Assembly – which helped improve stability in the Levant. This was something Obama couldn’t do without congressional approval.
France has also been important in the war on terror in Northern Africa, where France has many interests and historical links. The year old intervention in Mali has been critical to ousting terrorists in that region. French troops have also recently been sent to the Central African Republic.
French operations are expected to expand in the future. During a visit to the US a few weeks ago, French Defense Minister Le Drian spoke about the French operations. “We want to be more reactive, more available and have one commander for the force,” he said. “This is a long-term mission. It will cover the whole region with several bases. In all, there will be 3,000 soldiers in that zone permanently.”
The French soldiers are to be positioned in Mali, Niger, and Chad, with the logistical base in Ivory Coast’s Port of Abidjan and Special Forces in Burkina Faso.
Although the US is providing logistical support to the French operations with tankers, cargo aircraft and intelligence, the ground forces are French because Obama couldn’t deploy that number of American soldiers without congressional approval.
Disputes Remain – Agreeing to Disagree
Although the Hollande visit highlighted the positive aspects of Franco-American relations, there are still serious problems that could cause a downturn in relations in the future.
One of those problems was mentioned in the Obama/Hollande press conference this week when the conversation moved to Iranian sanctions. Obama warned international businesses that might try to sign contracts with Iranians before the easing of sanctions on Iran. “Businesses may be exploring: Are there some possibilities to get in sooner rather than later if and when there is a actual agreement to be had? But I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now. We will come down on them like a ton of bricks.”
Obama’s comment was aimed at 100 French businesses leaders who went to Tehran last week to position themselves for the possibility that trade will resume. This upset US State Department and NSC officials, who said the trip sent the wrong message. It also opened up old wounds from previous times when France and French businesses didn’t conform to American sanction demands.
Hollande didn’t back down. Instead, he commented. “The president of the republic is not the president of the employers union in France, and he certainly doesn’t wish to be.” He did remind businesses that the sanctions remain in place and they should not sign contracts before a nuclear deal was signed.
The” Arab Spring” has shown the dichotomy in French and Obama administration interests. France has sided more with the moderates in the Arab Spring, while Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Similar to its partnership with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Washington favored Nahda in Tunisia and the more radical Islamic forces in Morocco. France, on the other hand, was relieved that Tunisia has moved away from Nahda’s radical regime and is happy that Morocco’s real power continues to be in the hands of the King, not his radical Islamic cabinet.
There have been many other areas of disagreement. On Syria, France displayed more determination than Obama to support the opposition, particularly in the earliest stages of the revolt in 2011. Over the three years of the “Arab Spring”, Paris worked hard at the U.N. Security Council and with Gulf Arab States to support the opposition, mostly the Free Syria Army, to topple President Assad.
Last summer, the French stood staunchly by the Obama administration when it appeared to be readying for a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons. Hollande was disappointed when Washington made an about face and asked the Russians to find a political solution. France found itself abandoned by Obama – a situation that will be remembered by the French sometime in the future, when Obama will ask for help from Paris.
Obama also pulled the rug from under Hollande on Iran. France was surprised with the speed with which the Obama administration declared its initiative for a nuclear deal. As was the case with Syria, France remained tough on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program only to find itself politically abandoned — as did other Arab leaders.
Even in Northern Africa, where France and the US are cooperating militarily, there are differences. The Obama administration wants to go only against what it calls “the core” of al-Qaida, i.e., the men who actually worked with bin Laden. That is where US military support ends.
What Hollande wants, and will not receive from Obama, is support for a war against the al-Qaida branches, affiliates, and ideologically motivated militants in this strategically critical area for France.
The issue of NSA spying on France also remains a sore subject and Obama, while making conciliatory remarks about respecting the privacy of the French at the Obama/Hollande press conference, was adamant on the right of the NSA to continue surveillance. When asked if he would commit to a “no spying” agreement with France, he replied, “There’s no country where we have a no-spy agreement. You know, we have, like every other country, an intelligence capability, and then we have a range of partnerships with all kinds of countries.”
The Future of Relations
The French/American relationship has undergone a multitude of ups and downs as the politics and policies of both countries have changed. Unlike the relationship with Britain, which is founded on a commonality of language, legal system, political system, and culture, the relationship with France depends primarily on the separate needs of the two nations. There are also many more Americans with English/Scot/Irish roots than Americans with French roots.
The current good time is based on the political needs of the two presidents, who are both in need of a diversion from bad approval ratings. It is also based on common interests in the Middle East at this time. Yet, it’s important to remember that France is not as important in US relations with the rest of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. If Obama ever “pivots” towards Asia, as he frequently promises, France’s importance to Washington will quickly diminish.
France and the US will remain close allies, but not the best of friends. There are wide differences in policy that could cause a quick chill in relations. Nor, are there any new factors in this 237 year old alliance that give any indication that France is on the verge of becoming America’s closest or most important ally.
U.S.–Baltic Military Cooperation in the Persian Gulf
By Luke Coffey
February 13, 2014
Issue Brief #4148
The three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—have contributed greatly to overseas military operations, especially Afghanistan, in recent years. Although they are small in size, the Baltic states demonstrate a willingness to contribute to NATO and the political will to deploy their militaries in a way notably absent across most of Europe. A major concern of the Baltic states is that military cooperation with the United States will decrease when the mission in Afghanistan winds down. As the U.S. works with its Baltic partners to find new areas of military cooperation, one area that should be considered is maritime security in the Persian Gulf.
How to Ensure That a U.S. Troop Drawdown Does Not Destabilize Afghanistan
By Lisa Curtis
February 11, 2014
Issue Brief #4147
The Obama Administration has lost confidence in the government in Afghanistan, and it is easy to understand why. After the loss of nearly 2,300 U.S. troops in 12 years of military operations and the investment of over $90 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a security pact allowing for a residual U.S. force presence post-2014 and continual rants and conspiracy theories about U.S. policy are inexplicable and unforgiveable. But allowing frustration with Karzai to lead to a total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this year would be a monumental mistake. The recent increase in al-Qaeda violence in Iraq should serve as a warning that failure to maintain a residual force presence in Afghanistan post-2014 would increase instability throughout South and Central Asia and embolden a vast network of Islamist terrorists with global ambitions. Moreover, renewed instability in Afghanistan would also likely spill over into Pakistan, where terrorist attacks are on the rise and the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns over the safety and security of its nuclear weapons arsenal are growing.
Obama’s Foreign Policy: An Epic Fail
By Stephen Blank
American Foreign Policy Council
February 11, 2014
College students call something that has gone completely wrong an “epic fail.” Today, the foreign policy of U.S. President Barack Obama fully merits this label. In the last few months, it has become exceedingly clear not only that the administration has no idea how to relate the use of force to diplomacy but also that it is safer to be America’s adversary (or even its enemy) than to be its ally. The fiasco in Syria – in which Obama drew “red lines” against President Bashar Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, only to erase them in the absence of both an acceptable political goal and popular support – is well known. The administration’s vacillation opened the door for Russia, which bailed out the White House with a diplomatic deal that the administration was only too eager to seize. Since then, Moscow has concluded major energy and/or arms deals with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, while steadily flooding Syria with arms. Syria’s pledge to disarm, meanwhile, remains unmet; at last tally, the Assad regime had shipped out less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons, ensuring its lengthy tenure in office.
Assad Strikes Damascus
By Valerie Szybala
Institute for the Study of War
Damascus is the Syrian regime’s center of gravity. The capital of Syria has long been viewed by the rebel forces as the key to winning the war in Syria, and its loss is unthinkable for Bashar al-Assad. Thus the struggle for Damascus is existential for the regime as well as the opposition. An operational understanding of the battle for Damascus is critical to understanding the imminent trajectory of the war. This report details the course of the conflict as it engulfed Damascus in 2013; laying out the regime’s strategy and describing the political and military factors that shaped its decisions on the battlefield. As the seat of power for the Assad regime, Damascus has always been heavily militarized and has hosted a high proportion of the Syrian armed forces throughout the war. It became a battleground relatively late in the conflict. In July 2012, rebels advanced into areas of the capital previously thought to be impenetrable. In response, the regime escalated operations in the capital in late 2012 and consolidated forces from other parts of the country. Meanwhile, rebels in Damascus worked to improve their organizational structure, and implemented a shift towards targeted attacks on infrastructure and strategic assets. In addition to redistributing forces, the regime in late 2012 began augmenting its forces with foreign fighters, namely Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi‘a militias, and professionalizing pro-regime militias. This influx of manpower, in addition to increased levels of support from Iran and Russia, has been critical to the regime’s military strategy in 2013.
Pivot on the rocks
By Michael Auslin
American Enterprise Institute
February 11, 2014
Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.