The 2022 French U.S. summit: How will the historical allies manage the growing discord?
In this briefing, 3rd year BSc International Relations student Morgane Lecomte reviews the French-US summit and its international implications. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).
From the 29th November to the 2nd December 2022, the White House hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron for three days of meetings, dinner galas, and presidential visits to the country. Biden’s choice of France for his administration’s first state visit is significant; an official state visit is conducted on a much grander scale than any other standard bilateral meetings at the state level, and underlines the trust, friendship and strategic importance that the U.S. accords to France. The visit was highly anticipated and scrutinised after last year’s AUKUS debacle. Washington joined the AUKUS deal, blind-sighting France, which had expected that Australia would be purchasing French submarines. The lack of consultation with Paris caused outrage and the deterioration of diplomatic relations not only with Canberra but also with Washington. The U.S. has been making efforts since to re-establish the trust and collaboration with its historical ally. This state visit also highlights the Biden administration’s need to secure European support and acquiescence in light of recent geopolitical and economic events, notably the Ukrainian war and the global energy crisis.
The grandeur of the event has marked the definite return to pre-pandemic diplomacy and has attracted wide media attention. Macron and Biden, whom he affectionately calls “dear Joe”, demonstrated their close friendship, from the exchange of highly personalised gifts, to regular reminders of the historical France-U.S. partnership, Biden repeated assurances that both countries would “work out some of the differences that exist”. Macron, on his part, expressed confidence in their ability to “resynchronize” their agendas. Given the strength of the personal relationship between the leaders, the historical cooperation between France and the U.S. and the importance of the security and trade issues they discussed, expectations placed on the outcomes of the summit were high. Macron had already been invited to the White House by former U.S. President Donald Trump, where the French President had also made a show of their partnership at a time when many other Western leaders were wary of Trump. However, the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and other brash actions and rhetoric, caused dissent between the two leaders. Therefore, despite Macron and Biden’s friendly rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the summit and future cooperation will deliver effective results on issues of core national interest where they are strongly opposed.
Topping the agenda for the summit was a discussion of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and its consequences on EU-US trade relations, the sore point of the event. France and the EU accused the U.S. of deploying protectionist measures, which would negatively impact European electric car manufacturers. Trade tensions shared the stage with the war in Ukraine, as Biden and Macron held different views on whether Putin should be approached via diplomatic channels. Prior to the meeting, Biden had stood firm in his no-contact approach. Furthermore, they discussed the global economic disruptions the war has caused, Europe’s energy crisis and how the U.S. may become a more important provider of natural gas to European countries. In the background looms the EU’s dependence on U.S. support for its security, a tension that both look to resolve. They also focused on defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and their approach to countering China’s influence. Bilateral cooperation in the areas of defence and space, technology, climate, and education were also discussed, but trade, security and energy remained the most contentious and pressing issues for both countries.
Ukraine and European security
During the summit, Biden’s expressed support for European leaders in their condemnation of Putin’s “brutality”. In this vein, the President also thanked France for welcoming “over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees”. However, Biden and Macron´s discussion of the war in Ukraine was primarily focused on whether and how Putin should be engaged with in finding a diplomatic solution. The war in Ukraine has triggered a range of global disruptions, the brunt of which has been borne by Europe. With the fast winter approaching, European leaders have become more vocal on their desire for the war to end. The US and France have both lend their political and military support to Ukraine, as well as providing aid.
Although there have been critiques of both countries’ approaches to Putin, and calls for France to provide more assistance, the summit served to reassert the united front Americans and Europeans want to show, and may have marked the start of a change in the U.S. approach. Biden announced during the press conference that he would now be “prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war”. While this poses demanding conditions on future diplomatic talks, it marks a shift from Biden’s prior rejection of any communications with Putin. This stance had long been opposed by France. Macron was one of the only major Western leaders to open the channels of communication with Putin at the beginning of the war, taking a more moderate and heavily criticised stance. Both Presidents however repeated their desire to support the Ukrainian people; in light of this, they promised to reconvene at a conference on December 13th in Paris.
Discussions on the war in Ukraine inevitably involve European energy security and the sensitive topic of American military aid to Europe. In terms of energy security, U.S. shipments of liquified gas have served to partly cushion the effects of the war, which has affected Europe’s supply of gas from Russia. However, as U.S. gas and shipment prices are comparatively higher than were Russian natural gas prices, Macron and Biden announced that negotiations would continue after the summit. Regarding U.S. military assistance, Europe’s push for strategic autonomy in defence, led by Macron, has been opposed by the U.S., claiming the EU should not be overlapping with NATO. The U.S. have also expressed concerns about European reliance on American military assets (a sentiment shared by Europeans) and the disproportionate contributions of the U.S. to NATO, compared to European countries: the goal for every member of the Alliance is 2% of GDP committed to NATO, an amount that has yet to be reached for the majority. The Macron-Biden joint statement made a point of highlighting the topic of European defence. These issues have been reflected in the tensions between NATO, EU members and the U.S. on ways to counter Russia.
EU-US trade relations and the IRA
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a core feature of the Biden administration´s approach to tackling inflation domestically and to boost manufacturing jobs in the U.S. The IRA offers tax incentives and subsidies to “Buy American” on electric vehicles, as the U.S. automobile trade deficit with European countries has reached around $22 billion. This in particular has been opposed by Europe, who accused the U.S. of employing protectionist measures which would disadvantage the European carmakers. Macron told American lawmakers that “this is super aggressive for our business people”, while Biden asserted that the U.S. made “no apologies” for the act. He however tempered the statement and suggested his administration would be open to “tweaks” as the legislation “never intended to exclude folks who were cooperating with us”. Thus, while both leaders expressed a certain confidence in their ability to find a middle ground considering their respective climate pledges and desire to counter China’s presence in the tech and manufacturing markets, it is still uncertain what Biden could do to stop the legislation from hurting European manufacturers. The EU-US Trade and Technology summit that followed did not make any progress in finding an agreement between Brussels and Washington, and while US and EU officials have engaged in discussions concerning the implementation of the IRA, there have not been clear results either.
The last core issue this briefing will address is U.S.-France security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. After the AUKUS tensions, this was a necessary discussion point, yet one which may not cause much change in each country’s current approach to the region. In their joint statement, the Presidents indicated that they wanted to increase practical coordination, in particular in areas such as the Taiwan Strait. The common issue they are both dedicated to is countering China’s influence in the region, although here again, France and the U.S. tend to have different approaches. For example, Macron’s France has been pushing concepts such as “freedom of sovereignty” in the region, in a strategy which could be interpreted as offering an alternative to the US-China competition. Moreover, while both France and the U.S. have a considerable stake in the Indo-Pacific due to strategic interests, territories and military personnel, their past cooperation in the region has been limited. In their respective national security documents, neither cites the other as a core partner for the Indo-Pacific. The region is therefore an area outside Europe where we can see Macron’s ambitions for France’s global status, which could lead to tensions between the U.S. and France, rather than cooperation.
The summit allowed the French and American administrations to discuss a much wider range of issues than those core themes, but for the most part both countries were able to draw upon their previous agreements, partnerships and especially their shared norms and perception of the international system. In Biden’s words: “If I listed all the areas where cooperation between France and the United States (...) were delivering meaningful progress, we’d be here until dinnertime.” The two leaders clearly showed their strong personal friendship. They also explicitly asserted their desire to cooperate on issues that are of interest to both, even when concrete solutions have not been proposed. Despite their differences, France and the U.S. perceive each other as major political and diplomatic partners, if not economic. Biden inviting France for his first official state visit is not insignificant; it reflects the Biden administration’s understanding of Macron’s France as not only a historical friend but also as the leading European country on security and geopolitical issues. This impression has been encouraged by Macron’s foreign policy efforts, focused on expanding the French presence and influence globally, and taking advantage of its powerful position in the European Union.
However, the few points of contention between them could touch core interests, prompting the question of whether their differences could fundamentally change the dynamic between the U.S. and France. At the moment, France and the U.S. have developed a historically anchored relation that they both see as still being advantageous, on a strategic and normative level. As we have seen with AUKUS, it is therefore unlikely that occasional tensions, even major disagreements, will result in long-term damage. However, after Trump and AUKUS, France will not have fully restored its trust in the U.S. It remains to be seen whether the divisions highlighted during the summit will be resolved or continue to add fuel to the frustration France already feels towards the U.S.