American and French Interests Do Not Align in the Middle East


The French came to Washington. They saw, but they did not conquer. America’s relationship with France may be its oldest, but it is certainly not its strongest—and no amount of creepy kisses and awkward hugs between French President Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump could ever change that reality. This is particularly true now that Paris embraces the rhetoric of globalism (while still acting in fiercely nationalistic ways) and the United States, which used to sometimes put the interests of other countries, like France, ahead of its own (and suffered the consequences for it), now acts strictly in accordance with its own national interests.

The Franco-American division is especially pronounced in the Middle East and it is likely that it always will be.

According to Fernand Braudel, the preeminent French historian, the borders of Europe do not end where the Mediterranean Sea begins. Instead, Braudel observed that the southernmost frontiers of Europe extended down into the Sahara Desert. Thus, France, unlike the United States, is disproportionately affected by what happens in the Middle East and North Africa. Further, France has taken an almost paternalistic interest in these areas since the colonial period. So, the French obsession with the Mideast and North Africa is informed by its unique history and geography. Whatever noble sounding universalities to which the French may appeal while hoping to hock their policy initiatives vìs a vìs the Middle East, the truth is that when Macron advocates for continuing—and expanding—Franco-American military engagement in the region, he does so because he believes doing so is in France’s national interest.

It is not necessarily in America’s interest, however, to further enmesh itself in the morass of Mideast politics.

To complicate matters, France is a great power in relative decline. Since Charles de Gaulle, successive French leaders have believed that, “France cannot be France without greatness.” To mitigate the loss of France’s traditional power, the French tried to enhance what Pernille Rieker refers to as their “symbolic power.” According to Rieker, France’s symbolic power is based on cultural capital—and the French belief that their country has a unique role to play in the world. French leaders desire to utilize this symbolic power through multilateralism, trade, as well as a small—but potent—independent, nuclear-armed military, dedicated to upholding universalist French values. In essence, France may be a middling power, but it retains the capacity (and the desire) to punch above its proverbial weight—especially when used in conjunction with American power and supported by America’s dime.

The American view of the Middle East is similarly informed by its own history and geography. The United States traditionally favored playing the role of offshore balancer in the resource-rich (though culturally quite divergent) region. And, since the United States is separated from the Mideast by a vast ocean, it in no way feels the violent dislocations of the region as France does. Further, when the United States  fought its enemies in the region following the 9/11 attacks, it did not fare well. In both Afghanistan and Iraq America saw more cost than benefit from our interference.

As Stephen M. Walt wrote in 2013:

The three strategic interests [for operating in the Middle East] are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensuring Israel’s survival.

Considering Stephen Walt’s list of American interests in the Mideast, it’s clear that, while a few interests converge, the American and French national interests—and strategies—are demonstrably divergent. Yes, the United States and France want to keep the energy flowing. France also contributes to America’s counterterrorism mission (and the two will continue cooperating in that limited area). However, neither Paris nor Washington can agree on what to do in Syria. And, France supports the unpopular Iran nuclear agreement. As for Walt’s moral interests: the United States cannot afford to nation-build any longer, and Israel’s survival is not at the top of France’s priority list.

In Syria, France wants the United States to maintain its military presence on the ground. Those who argue for keeping American troops in Syria believe that America’s presence there will roll back Iranian and Russian influence. Unfortunately, no amount of American troops in Syria could prevent Iran or Russia from capturing the country if that is what they are determined to do. After all, Syria has long been a quasi-vassal state for both Iran and Russia. Remember, large numbers of American forces have been fighting in Syria since Donald Trump took office. Their presence has not dislodged either the Russians or the Iranians. And if American forces tried to remove Iranian and Russian elements, a major war would likely erupt. The longer U.S. forces operate in Syria, the greater the chance for this kind of a miscalculation. Besides, America’s mission in Syria—killing terrorists—has mostly ended.

As for Iran, the Joint-Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran Deal”) that the Obama Administration brokered in 2015 is a disaster. It runs counter to the stated American goal of denuclearization, while undermining traditional American allies in the Sunni Arab states and Israel. Paris also wants the JCPOA upheld, so as to trade with the resource-rich Iran—something that the French could not do under the previous sanctions regime (and that only benefits France). Make no mistake: Washington cannot accept the JCPOA as it is. It is also highly unlikely that Iran would countenance reopening negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.

Trump wants to put American interests first in the Mideast. Therefore, he should abrogate the Iran deal and withdraw American forces from Syria (while at the same time empowering American allies in Israel and the Sunni Arab states to stand up to Iran). Paris will never see eye-to-eye with Washington on these matters. Historically, Paris and Washington rarely agree. C’est la vie! The transatlantic divide over the Mideast is real and it will not get better anytime soon. It looks like Emmanuel Macron will have to shower Germany’s Angela Merkel with awkward hugs and creepy kisses from now on (c’est dégoûtant!).

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Talk about awkward.

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