The beautiful friendship between France and America is important

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President Macron’s state visit with President Trump in Washington has been shaping up as a media spectacle. The press will likely scrutinize any grand gestures the two maverick leaders display for evidence of their so-called “bromance.” In assessing the significance of this visit, one should not get carried away by each president’s personality traits. The fact is that the relationship between France and the United States historically rests, more than anything else, on a strong geopolitical complementarity.

The strength of this friendship has its roots in shared values, but also in coolly calculated national interests. When France lost its territories in mainland North America under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the country realized that its influence on the continent was gone forever. The French then made a pragmatic decision to support the struggle of the American revolutionaries to harm British dominance on the world stage. A thick layer of values solidified the bilateral relationship, which was further strengthened by the common cause in World War I and by the U.S. rescue of Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Such strong foundations have helped the transatlantic friendship survive for generations.

{mosads}France has long lost its pretense to rule the world, but as an independent power it strongly upholds its freedom of action. The United States, which offered security guarantees to the Europeans during the Cold War while asking little in return, was always skeptical about France’s quest for autonomy. As a result, observers in the United States often scrutinize French policies with perplexity, if not incomprehension or anger. Glimmers of these old concerns resurfaced when France recently proposed building a “stronger European Union.” Even though the move was in line with the U.S. government’s requests, some in Washington criticized the move as an attempt to diminish American influence.

Yet, the French perspective is different. In Paris, the debate is mostly about how to fill the gap left by American retrenchment, rather than about balancing U.S. power. While the United States sometimes is tempted to bulldoze problems it can’t solve, France is attempting to reinvent itself as a “startup power,” combining its moderate size with agility. As both countries struggle to find their place in an increasingly unstable environment, their relationship on the world stage is worth reexamining.

First, France is no challenger to the United States, be it at the strategic or economic levels. Under Trump’s “America first” doctrine, the French cocktail of military potency with a lighter economic weight than Germany has become an asset. France has a relatively small trade surplus with the United States and a sizably large deficit with Germany. At a strategic level, Paris is militarily able but also aware of its interdependence with the United States to balance a revisionist Russia and an emboldened China. The country’s full reintegration into NATO and its insistence on preserving the world order are telling signs of such an awareness.

Second, where the United States displays strength and unparallelled firepower, France brings agility and determination. Washington’s role in world affairs comes with cumulative constraints and a recognition that it is impossible to intervene against every threat. Paris has sought creative ways to stabilize Europe’s periphery resting on regional assets, for example, in the Sahel after its decisive intervention in Mali in 2013. France is capable of limited but often decisive diplomatic moves.

Third, the two countries approach security challenges according to their size. As a global power, the United States is sometimes tempted to eschew diplomacy as it ultimately aims to defeat its perceived adversaries. France, living in a challenging European environment where power is dispersed, must weigh nuances carefully. France’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal aims to ensure the durability of agreements, while separately attempting to address Tehran’s destabilizing actions in the region. It seeks to strengthen European resilience toward crises, a stance that echoes Trump’s will to see the Europeans increase their defense spending and bear more of the transatlantic defense burden.

It therefore is no surprise that the bilateral relationship looks stronger than ever, despite disagreements on several foreign policy issues. Beyond the media hype surrounding the visit, advancing dialogue on critical bilateral issues such as Iran, Syria or trade will be the real challenge. On the world stage, the alliance between France and the United States is a crucial stabilizing force. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not there is a “bromance” between the two leaders, despite the fact that they have had 20 phone calls in just one year. Common interests, rather than infatuation, are the best recipe for successful cooperation on the international stage.

Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served served at the nuclear nonproliferation office of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump Foreign policy France Global Affairs United States

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