Pierre Vimont is the French ambassador to the United States. He has served in his country’s foreign service for more than three decades. I had the opportunity to get his thoughts on some key issues of interest to the Atlantic Council community.
1. In a recent Atlantic Council appearance, you noted that President Obama has so far made more outreach to other parts of the world than to America’s European allies. What would you like to hear him say? Does he need to make a clear break with President Bush’s policies in some areas?
As you know, the election of President Obama has been greeted with enthusiasm in many countries, all over the world, and in mine as well. One of the reasons for that is that most of the international community had been longing to see the United States reshape its traditional role of leadership in a way that can attract a large consensus. President Obama has also shown a willingness to have discussions with friends and allies on all the main international folders, whether it be Afghanistan, or the Middle East Peace Process, or Iran. Europe and France have been engaged in thorough discussions on all these issues with the new administration. There is not a specific message we expect from President Obama but a new attitude of openness to the rest of the world, and a readiness to work with other nations in the relevant international frameworks, from the UNSC to the G20.
2. France is rejoining NATO’s integrated command after more than four decades. What vision does France have for the Alliance?
President Sarkozy stated several times his conviction that European and international evolutions, the evolution of our Defense as well as that of our position in NATO over the last 20 years called for a renovation without delay of France’s relationship with the Atlantic Alliance. This is why he decided that France had to resume its full place within the Alliance’s structures and henceforth fully participate in them. This choice is in support of an increasing role for Europe in the world and in the Atlantic Alliance. Europeans must play a greater part in it and must develop their military capabilities, for the benefit of both the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance. The European Security and Defence Policy and the Atlantic Alliance are complementary and constitute the two sides of the same policy. This is in the interest of all Allies.
But this is also a choice for a renewal of our Alliance. The Alliance has transformed itself greatly since the end of the cold war, but it must still adapt to the new strategic environment and to new threats. An in-depth discussion free from taboos on the conditions of our common security is necessary. It is therefore our wish that the Strasburg-Kehl summit initiate the ambitious work on a new strategic concept. It means in particular that the Allies will have to discuss several issues, and notably : a genuine cooperation between NATO and the EU, based on their necessary complementarity; the commitment to assist an ally under armed attack, flowing from article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which still constitutes the very essence of the Alliance; our commitments in Afghanistan; the partnership with Russia; the military nature of the Atlantic Alliance, which means that its members have to ensure they have exactly the right military capabilities for their security imperatives and the missions they take on; and a responsible security policy that, taking on board the future risks, must in our opinion retain nuclear deterrence for the foreseeable future.
3. The global financial crisis has highlighted the differences within the EU, not only between the traditional great powers but also between East and West. What long term impact do you see on the EU? Might we see an end to eastward expansion and concentration of power in Brussels?
First of all, let me point that there has been no political rift within the EU because of the financial crisis. The European Countries participating in the G20 have coordinated themselves with the rest of the EU countries. The differences the press is pointing between Eastern and Western Europe are on the impact of the crisis on their economies. There I think that the distinction between East and West simplifies somewhat the picture. In Eastern Europe, some countries are doing better than others. We will continue of course to assess the situation there and take the appropriate steps on a case by case basis.
It is certainly too early to say what the institutional consequences of the crisis will be for the EU. But it is true that there have been calls for more coordination of the authorities of fiscal policies. We are experiencing once again the old debate among Europeans on the need for adding an economic dimension to the management of the Euro, which is, as you know, France’s position but which is not entirely shared by all our partners within the Union.
4. The Obama administration is seeking to redefine the mission in Afghanistan. What end state do you believe would constitute success there that is achievable, given the political and economic realities in both Afghanistan and within the NATO countries?
First of all, let me say that we have been very pleased by the way the Administration has worked on the review of its Afghanistan strategy. There have been discussions between France and the US at several levels, with Richard Holbrooke, Jim Jones, General Petraeus, as well as Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton. We feel our vision has been taken into account. One important aspect of the announcements made by President Obama last Friday was the fact that he recalled the reasons why the Alliance was present in Afghanistan. Our first goal is to protect our citizens and our allies and make sure that no new attack can be perpetrated against one of us by Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups. For that of course, we also need a stable Afghanistan. That is why alongside our military action there, it is important that the international community strengthens the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces, helps build a viable Afghan economy and supports a political process leading to national reconciliation.
5. Your country has experienced a recent wave of strikes and demonstrations, some violent, in opposition to reform measures sought by President Sarkozy. Some other countries in Europe have experienced much worse. Does this trend threaten to paralyse elected governments? Or is this simply a part of democracy that must be respected?
President Sarkozy has said that the anxiety of the French people is understandable, because the economic crisis has struck us, maybe less than others, but it has struck us too. At the same time, the French Government is of the view that we will find our way out of this crisis through investment and reform. That is why our stimulus plan is mainly focused on investment. That is also why we will go ahead on the reform agenda the President has fixed. Much has been done already : in less that two years, we have reformed our pension system, our universities, our labour laws. We have reduced the fiscal burden on individuals and companies and have engaged in investment that will allow us to remain at the forefront of the fight against climate change. It is only by conducting more reforms that we will increase our competitiveness and find the way of a robust growth. So the French government will keep on this course and act to convince the French public opinion about the merits of these reforms.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.