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Report November 11, 2020

Sovereign solidarity: France, the US, and alliances in a post-COVID world

By Jeffrey Lightfoot and Olivier-Rémy Bel

What allies does the United States need to compete in the emerging post-COVID geostrategic environment? And how can the United States best engage its allies to advance its national interests in this new environment? These are questions of major importance to a new US administration within a competitive geopolitical environment.

Three consensus ideas are likely to shape not only the US foreign policy debate among experts, but also the political debate in Washington.

  1. China’s rise is the preeminent geopolitical and economic challenge to US power.
  2. The United States wants to limit and draw down its involvement in so-called “forever” wars, particularly in the Middle East.
  3. To compete in a great-power competition environment, the United States needs allies. But, for alliances to be strategically useful and politically sustainable, allies must assume a greater share of the security burden.

France offers an interesting case study as the kind of ally that can help the United States address these foreign policy challenges. France brings to bear global ambition, aspirations to international leadership, relatively full-spectrum military capabilities, and the will and decision-making structure to deploy those assets at speed.

Over the last decade, US-France bilateral military relations have reached historic levels. Close collaboration grew in the 2010s through relatively intensive operations against al- Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the Middle East and Africa. Examples abound: the Charles de Gaulle filled the US carrier gap and assumed command of TF150, the coalition’s maritime component; French CAESAR cannons shelled the last ISIS stronghold; and intelligence exchanges were intensified and structured around an interagency Lafayette Committee. Ties formed through this deep operational cooperation paved the way for a deeper relationship in additional domains like space. This movement has also been facilitated by the growing familiarity resulting from France’s return to NATO’s command structure in 2009 and assuming command of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation (ACT) based in Norfolk, Virginia. Franco- American defense cooperation has come a very long way from the interoperability issues that plagued the first Gulf War or the political trauma surrounding the Second Gulf War.

Yet, working with France is sometimes a headache for US policymakers. History reveals more than two centuries of a tumultuous relationship, sometimes marked by deep cooperation and, at other times, marred by mutual suspicion, rivalry, and misunderstanding.

At a deeper level, Franco-US cooperation is hampered by a lack of familiarity and lingering stereotypes on both sides. Precious few US defense officials are deployed to France, in contrast to Germany or the United Kingdom (UK). A mismatch between different decision-making systems generates frustration. Overall, the depth of Franco-US cooperation is often insufficiently known in both Washington and Paris, despite its advocates’ best efforts.

In recent years, tense political relations have come to overshadow gains in military cooperation. President Donald Trump’s withdrawals from—and attacks against—major multilateral accords and institutions of profound importance to France have deeply harmed the foundations of the relationship. The United States’ oft-uncoordinated decisions on its participation in multinational counterterrorism operations around the world—particularly Syria—have eroded trust for it in the French defense establishment. On the French side, President Emmanuel Macron’s outreach to Russia, disruptive comments about NATO’s “brain death,” and pronouncements about strategic autonomy are viewed as neo-Gaullist pretensions in Washington. France and the United States are engaged in highly political burden-sharing debates at NATO that Alliance officials thought were relegated to the past.

However, there is much to gain in deepening the relationship with France at the bilateral and multilateral levels. France is the only US ally that is a nuclear power, a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, and a founding member of the European Union (EU) and NATO. It is also the only US ally to operate the same type of catapult aircraft carrier as the US Navy, or to track objects in low-Earth orbit. The third-largest NATO force, spending 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, France has the will and capability to share the security burden outside of Europe. French forces are actively fighting terrorism in the Middle East and the Sahel, while sending ships to the South China Sea (on average twice a year) and the High North. France’s high-end military investments, domestic presence in the Indo-Pacific, and wider vision for a sovereign Europe are distinct among US allies in Europe.

Moreover, within the transatlantic space, France’s vision for a more sovereign and autonomous Europe can be turned into a potential US asset. France’s vision of strategic autonomy has been poorly understood and largely rejected by the US political class. Macron’s vision has also struggled to gain wide acceptance in Europe. Yet, a strong and sovereign Europe responds to calls from US officials for Europe to both take on more of the security burden and more effectively challenge Chinese and Russian influence. The EU’s expansive economic, trade, technology, and regulatory powers are key to Europe’s ability to assert its sovereignty and meaningfully shape world affairs. Rather than reject Macron’s vision out of hand, the United States should engage with France and others in Europe on the concept of a sovereign Europe, as a means of bolstering Europeans’ resistance to predatory influences.

The US-France relationship is also a lesson in alliance management. Going forward, the United States will need allies able to provide security in their near strategic environments, invest in the high-end capabilities required to maintain allied interoperability in high-intensity conflict, and, above all, be resilient against coercive economic and political influence.

France is an example of such an ally—and the main lesson is that the capabilities and the vision that make it valuable are intrinsically linked to what makes the relationship difficult. France’s drive for sovereignty underpins both its deployment of an aircraft carrier to support US troops and its ability to say “non” to Washington.

Understanding this dynamic can provide inputs into sketching a type of US leadership fit for the post-COVID-19 world. It informs a new approach that allows allies greater room to maneuver, pays greater attention to their constraints, political narratives, and objectives, and spends the time to build the necessary familiarity to get there. This is not an easy task. It is one that will likely require investing in and strengthening US diplomacy. Yet, the prospect is attractive: a coalition of likeminded allies able to be security providers in their region of the world, while supporting US coalitions with robust diplomacy and high-end capabilities.

As policy leaders from both parties in the United States seek enhanced contributions from allies in a strategic environment marked by the return of great-power competition, much can be achieved with France. To this end, this report has identified five high-level recommendations for US engagement with Paris.

  1. Preserve current operational cooperation, especially around counterterrorism in Africa and the Middle East. France’s extensive counterterrorism activities in these regions are a model example of burden sharing from a US perspective.
  2. Enhance bilateral defense and security cooperation in three promising areas: space, cyber, and the Indo- Pacific region. These are the areas that match priorities set in the National Defense Strategy, and in which France can offer interesting avenues. In those three areas, France has published strategies and developed a mature conceptual framework, restructured its internal organization, and committed financial resources.
  3. Reduce frictions on the four outstanding political misunderstandings—Russia, China, burden sharing and the role of NATO, and strategic autonomy—by elevating the conversation. This means, first and foremost, giving the benefit of the doubt to initiatives that are designed to ensure a European voice on the world stage, independent from, but not antagonist to, the United States, so as to be able to engage on the real points of divergence. In particular, the next administration should constructively engage France on its agenda of a “sovereign Europe.” A sovereign and geopolitical Europe, notably able to resist destabilizing influences and hybrid threats, could be an asset for the United States in a major-power competition environment if shaped accordingly—and a strategic liability if Europe is constructed in opposition to US power. US diplomacy with France and other allies should seek to realize the former and prevent the latter. Conversely, France would greatly benefit from the United States’ buy-in and encouragement for other allies to embrace the idea of a more sovereign Europe. Both sides stand to lose from continued antagonism on this front.
  4. In the medium term, create greater familiarity among policymakers to provide more opportunities to dispel future misunderstandings through a structured 2+2 dialogue between the defense and foreign ministers, expanded fellowships for policymakers, and a deeper intelligence relationship at the strategic and operational level.
  5. “Neither vassal, nor enemy.” Adapt the method for managing the relationship with France by engaging it earlier and more meaningfully, while understanding that some amount of divergence and independence will be necessary, especially with regard to the political narrative. This entails trusting that France will end up backing the United States when it matters, as the historical track records suggests, even if disagreements persist in other areas. Lessons learned through engaging France in this fashion could offer insights for managing other capable, yet independently minded, partners and allies—arguably the kind the US will need in the future.

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Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (July 1st, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), foreground, and the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R 91) are underway in the Mediterranean Sea. Dwight D. Eisenhower is on a scheduled deployment supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Julia A. Casper/Released) 120701-N-RY232-217