On Monday, US President Barack Obama greeted French President François Hollande in Washington, DC, before making the short trip to Monticello, located outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and known admirer of France. The trip, which would be spent discussing issues of shared importance and capped off by a state dinner at the White House, served to reflect and reinforce Franco–American relations.
However, a cursory glance at French–US history would suggest that relations between these two countries are complicated and always evolving.
The Gallic touch
It could be argued that the United States would not have come to be without France. Without French assistance, America’s revolutionary war and struggle for independence against the British could have turned out much differently. For all that is American, there is a faint but influential Gallic touch.
When drafting the Constitution of the United States, the Founding Fathers drew inspiration from the philosophical works of Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, most importantly the need for separation of powers. Montesquieu believed that government, if left unrestrained, would inevitably become despotic as it amassed powers over time, thus giving birth to the system of checks and balances in the US government.
And, of course, most famous of all gifts from the people of France to the US is none other than that most iconic and American of landmarks, the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated on October 29, 1886. This symbol of freedom and independence, which sits in New York Harbor, would welcome millions of immigrants who left their home country behind for untold possibilities in the new world that was the United States.
Yet, not long after America’s independence from Britain, relations between the new country and their French compatriots quickly soured. Following the toppling of the Bourbon government in France and the onset of another French war with Britain, the US elected to remain neutral in both France’s revolutionary struggle and its war with Britain. America’s neutrality and its signing of the Jay Treaty with Britain was seen by France as a betrayal.
An undeclared war between the new French Republic and the nascent US, known simply as the Quasi-War, took place on the high seas between 1798 and 1800. The Aliens and Seditions Acts, passed by President John Adams, largely targeted French sympathizers in the US. The four offending bills would propel the pro-France Thomas Jefferson to presidency in 1800, who then allowed the Acts to expire.
Relations between the two countries settled but were never without headaches. Napoleon III and his supporters favored a Confederate victory during the American Civil War. The United States celebrated Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla, commemorated annually in the US and Mexico as Cinco de Mayo for the date on which the battle took place, May 5, 1862. In both world wars, the US hesitated to intervene on behalf of France. Following the ascension of Charles De Gaulle, relations between both countries deteriorated once more over a series of issues, such as France’s nuclear arsenal, leading to France’s withdrawal from NATO.
Most recently and perhaps most memorable was the split between the US and France over the Second Iraq War, and the (wholly ineffective) backlash by some parts of the American public, such as renaming French fries as “Freedom” fries.
All of this, of course, serves to undermine the true accomplishments achieved by both countries, and those accomplishments not yet achieved but within reach.
Division of responsibilities
President Hollande’s state visit to the White House largely encompasses such pressing issues as the Syrian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and other security-related concerns in Africa and the Middle East, as well as climate change and economic opportunities.
In agreement though they may be on many security-related issues, the US and France have differed with respect to response. President Obama drew a “red line” in Syria over the use of chemical weapons, but failed to act when said chemical weapons were used. Conversely, France demonstrated little in the way of hesitation in striking Gaddafi’s Libyan forces and intervening in Mali to assist government forces against Islamist militants.
What can account for these different responses? Different priorities, perhaps. President Obama has made clear his intention to withdraw from the Middle East and focus instead on Asia-Pacific. Largely as a result of domestic challenges and other foreign concerns, Obama has been unable to focus on America’s pivot to Asia-Pacific.
France, on the other hand, has demonstrated its willingness to return to Africa and the Middle East when the situation called for it. Given this, perhaps a division of responsibilities is in order. Leave Africa and the Middle East to France and her allies, and allow the US to proceed with its affairs in Asia.
President Obama has shown his unwillingness to dive headfirst into the muck that is Africa and the Middle East after having campaigned his way into the White House on the promise to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq (which is not to say that he has gone soft in the War on Terror; far from it). On the other hand, President Hollande, despite public pressures at home, is more than willing to flex the required muscle to protect French interests abroad.
A new Franco–American security framework, in which both countries share resources to focus on their theatre of interest, can help France and the US get what they want. All that is required is an understanding between the leadership of both countries, and a willingness to cooperate on matters of mutual interest.
The US is not the world’s policeman, a reality understood in many circles in Washington, DC, but a role that is nevertheless heaped upon America’s shoulders. Failure to respond to crises around the world in a timely manner will be judged as a decline in American supremacy—a ridiculous assertion by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet, even with the knowledge that the US is not and cannot any longer be the world’s policeman, it has been the default for Washington to ask itself in times of crisis, “What can we do?” Sometimes one cannot do anything, but that does not mean nothing can get done.
France is not a soft power. It may no longer be a world power, but it is nevertheless capable of projecting force abroad. If Washington can incorporate France into a new security framework, respecting those realities facing the US today, it may well prove possible for the US to maintain its supremacy abroad without the need to be everywhere at once.
(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a research associate at the VDK Law Office, focusing on foreign policy, strategic planning and South China Sea security issues.)