Foreign Policy Shocker: France and U.S. are Allies

David Ignatius is shocked to learn that the United States and France hold high-level diplomatic exchanges, trying to work toward common goals.

Once every five or six weeks, a French presidential adviser named Maurice Gourdault-Montagne flies to Washington to meet with his American counterpart, national security adviser Stephen Hadley. They spend several hours coordinating strategy on Iran, Syria, Lebanon and other hot spots, and then the Frenchman flies home. In between trips, the two men talk often on the phone, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Welcome to the French Connection. Though the link between the top foreign policy advisers of Presidents Bush and Jacques Chirac is almost unknown to the outside world, it has emerged as an important element of U.S. planning. On a public level, France may still be the butt of jokes among American politicians, but in these private diplomatic contacts, the Elysee Palace has become one of the White House’s most important and effective allies.

During a visit here this week, I had a chance to talk with French sources who know some of the closely held details. It’s an intriguing story of back channels and secret missions, but it illustrates a larger change in America’s approach: Bruised by the war in Iraq, the administration is now working hard to conduct its foreign policy in tandem with international allies and, where possible, through the United Nations.

America’s key intermediary in this search for international consensus has been France. Sen. Hillary Clinton may have been using political hyperbole last month when she charged that the administration has been “outsourcing” its Iran policy to France and other European countries, but she wasn’t entirely wrong. An administration that was blasted during its first term for being overly unilateralist has indeed decided to work more closely with allies. Contrary to Clinton, I think that’s a positive development — and one that’s likely to make U.S. policy more effective.

Here’s a news flash for you: The Bush administration, as with every U.S. administration going back to the War for Independence, has always tried to work with France. They spent months trying to rally French support for the war in Iraq but without success.

Perhaps more than any other major power in Western Europe, French aims occasionally diverge from American ones. Going back at least as far back as Charles de Gaulle’s presidency, the French have reveled in being independent from Washington and making a show of being contrary. Nonetheless, both countries are run by adults and we constantly work together–even on Iraq policy–whenever our interests intersect. Which is to say, most of the time.

The current crisis involving Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a classic case. France has no more desire to see the Iranian mullahs armed with nuclear weapons than the United States. Because the United States is “the Great Satan,” it is far easier for the French to handle negotiations. French diplomacy is backed, not only with the common knowledge that they are backed by a consensus on the U.N. Security Council but with the full might of the U.S. military.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    In light of Chirac’s recent comments on terror and the use of nuclear weapons, it would be interesting to see France nuke IRan.

    Would that then make them ‘The Little Satan’, or ‘Satan’s Little Helper’?

  2. RA says:

    France is not our allie. They are our ex-allie. Just because we are cobaligerents on several issues does not make them our allie. We should never forget that.

  3. jimbo says:

    France is a democracy and semi-capitalist. France and the US are bound to have common interests. The French like to be perceived as a world power. They resist US leadership in public for status reasons; but privately realize that a threat to US democracy is a threat to French democracy. As far as Iraq goes, the French had an economic interest in Saddam’s regime.

  4. McGehee says:

    France is not our allie.

    The sad truth is, France did invent modern diplomacy, in which they can be an ally with anyone whose interests of the moment are aligned with theirs.

    For the moment, their interests are aligned with ours. Thus, they are again our ally.

    For the moment.