France and the United States: Allies and Rivals

France, while a key ally, has developed policies in pursuit of its national interests that challenge the United States on issues of importance to both countries. The end of the Cold War has altered a balance that once placed security above political and economic competition. The leading European Union members, including France, are enhancing political cooperation, raising questions about traditional areas of U.S. leadership in Europe. At the same time U.S. and French interests often intersect, and the two countries cooperate in important endeavors. France, like the United States, believes that it has a special role in the world. For many years, French leaders have believed that France has a "mission" to encourage human rights and democracy. For the past half-century, a version of France's mission is that the country must play a key role in shaping the European Union. Key French leaders are critical of U.S. culture and the U.S. government, including Congress. They have described Congress as isolationist and "unilateralist" on such issues as sanctions and national missile defense. They also believe that U.S. leaders have a tendency in foreign policy to seek to "fix things," or find a full solution, when at best in their view a particular problem can only be managed but not eliminated. Some French leaders and intellectuals view U.S. cultural and economic influence as materialistic and insidious. The European Union is central to French political and economic life. France wishes to see institutional reforms in the EU to make the Union more flexible in decision-making. To wield greater influence in the world, the EU, in the view of France and some other member governments, must have a military capability. To this end, France and Britain have taken the lead in building a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). While some U.S. officials believe that ESDP could enhance burdensharing and encourage stability in Europe, others fear that it may marginalize NATO by assuming current NATO tasks and reducing the role of the United States in Europe. In addition, some Congressional and Administration critics believe that ESDP will create a "hollow force" that borrows U.S. assets and degrades the readiness of U.S. forces. A range of regional issues are on the U.S.-France bilateral agenda. France often buffers U.S. interests by assuming peacekeeping responsibilities in different parts of the world and through other means that encourage stability. At the same time, the two countries sometimes compete for political and economic influence in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. The common interests of the United States and France remain greater than their differences. In instances where the two countries' interests have been seriously challenged, they have tended to work together. In European security issues above all, France is seeking to bear a greater burden, with the trade-off that Washington must, in the French view, cede a greater measure of influence to Paris.