Written by Charles Kolb and Ioanna Kohler
Can American president Barack Obama and French president Nicolas Sarkozy strengthen the ties between our two great nations? We think so and urge them to make rapprochement a high foreign-policy priority when they meet in Washington on March 30.
Along with the Free City of Ragusa (now called Dubrovnik), and Morocco, France was among the first sovereign states to recognize American independence in 1776. France helped by secretly providing much-needed weapons and supplies as the British colonies rebelled. For nearly 250 years, France and the United States have been close allies and partners -- and only occasionally adversaries. De Gaulle and NATO; Chirac and Iraq come to mind.
But generally, there has been solid collaboration between our leaders who did not always share ideological or political views. Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, without prompting and without a quid-pro-quo, gave conservative Republican president Ronald Reagan vital intelligence from a KGB defector being "run" by French intelligence about Soviet theft of American scientific know-how.
President Obama has emphasized the importance of repairing and restoring America's international image, and President Sarkozy seeks a more global role, especially in diplomatic and economic crises. These two leaders' temperaments, predilections, and challenges make them likely allies with common aspirations.
Many Americans cheered when the energetic, pro-American Sarkozy succeeded Jacques Chirac. They were stunned to learn that Sarkozy loved American pop culture -- including Westerns and Elvis Presley -- and vacationed in New England. The French gave candidate Obama a hero's welcome to Paris months before the 2008 U.S. election. Sarkozy's physical embrace of Obama conveyed warm support and a welcome to the international arena.
The George W. Bush administration's missteps -- "Freedom Fries" and a last-minute, January 17, 2009, tariff on Roquefort cheese -- obscured the serious mutual interests of both countries. These interests go beyond membership on the U. N. Security Council, the reintegrated NATO military command structure championed by Sarkozy, and in the various annual economic summits. At a more "granular" level, French and American citizens and their leaders share similar concerns, policy problems, and future goals that suggest benefits from a concerted effort to learn from each other.
A potential common working agenda might include:
With younger leadership and serious pressing challenges, our countries can pursue a common agenda based on mutual interests and experiences that will reward both nations and their leaders. Globalization has shortened time horizons, created new challenges, and brought new players to the world's stage. It affords us opportunities to build upon and strengthen bonds that, although perhaps a little frayed in recent years, have served our two countries well.
Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C., that also helped develop the Marshall Plan. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. Ioanna Kohler is director of policy programs at the French-American Foundation in New York where she leads an effort to examine equal opportunity practices in France and the United States.