France has long been celebrated as America’s oldest ally, going back to 1778 when the French monarchy recognized the independence of the United States. It provided military and economic assistance during the American Revolutionary War which was crucial to the American victory. Symbolizing this long and supposedly strong Franco-American friendship was the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who fought in the war. He commanded American troops in several battles, including in the siege of Yorktown, and is considered an American national hero who was granted honorary citizenship by Congress in 2002.
Yet both as a colony and an independent nation, America would end up fighting five wars with France, including the French and Indian War. France itself attempted to conquer Mexico in the 1860s, motivating Washington to intervene to prevent such from happening.
In a way, and contrary to the myths perpetrated by Lafayette’s American admirers, the main motivation for the French assistance during the Revolutionary had nothing to do with common ideals—France was, after all, then ruled by a reactionary monarchy—and more by French interest in recouping some of its losses in the French and Indian War.
Indeed, it was French national interests, rather than President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to “make the world safe for democracy” that drove Paris to draw the United States into the Great War. It ended with French prime minister Georges Clemenceau encouraging the imposition of Germany’s humiliating surrender agreement, which helped sow the seeds of the next world war.
As the historian Michael Neiberg suggests, America’s post-World War I European strategy was based on faith in the French military. Its strength was supposed to prevent Germany from dominating the continent, reflecting the assumption in Washington that France would serve as a “protective barrier for the United States from the conflicts in the Old World.”
Instead, France’s abrupt military armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940, leaving its British ally isolated, forced the United States to re-establish the balance of power in Europe after being drawn once again into another war there.
It was not a secret that the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which continued to work with the Vichy government despite its pro-Nazi tendencies, had very little trust in French resistance figure Charles de Gaulle. The Americans rightly suspected that de Gaulle would attempt to rebuild the decaying French Empire and challenge American global interests after the war. In fact, during much of the Cold War, French interests collided with those of America which, de Gaulle believed, was intent on forming a European condominium with the Soviets while marginalizing France and the Western Europeans.
After the 1956 Suez Crisis, during which the Americans forced the French and their then-British allies to withdraw their military troops from Egypt and the return of General de Gaulle to power, tensions between Paris and Washington grew. French foreign policy, aka Gaullism, led to the decision to remove all French armed forces from the integrated military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966.
But Gaullism, as a coherent foreign policy, proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of the old general. He fantasized about drawing the Soviets into a European confederation and of Europe serving as an intermediary between Washington and Moscow. He rejected Britain, which he regarded as America’s lackey, as a member of the European community and tried to win Arab support by distancing the French from Israel.
But the Americans didn’t need French help in managing their relationship with the Soviets, while the 1973 Middle Eastern oil embargo demonstrated Paris’ continuing dependency on America’s military presence in France’s strategic backyard. That reality was the product of France’s post-Gaullism foreign policy: asserting its “independence” from the United States while recognizing that its national security interests required sustaining the alliance with Washington.
Hence the need to count on the massive U.S. military machine that made the difference in Desert Storm as well as in the military campaigns against Serbia during the wars in the Balkans. The French could have their croissant while biting into the American hamburger.
One major example of this French approach has been its post-Cold War strategy in the Levant and North Africa, where France needed to secure core geostrategic and geoeconomic interests. That included French access to the energy resources in the region, the threat of terrorism, the challenge of a nuclearized Iran—whose would-be weapons of mass destruction would pose a direct threat to southern Europe. And all this is without mentioning the need to deal with the flow of Muslim immigrants from that part of the world.
The French economy, unlike the American one, is dependent on oil imports from the Middle East, and what happens in that region directly affects its interests and those of its southern European neighbors in the same way that developments in Mexico and Central America affect U.S. interests.
Yet the French government, with the exception of the occasional attention to Lebanon and its former colonies in the Maghreb, has refrained from embracing a strategy that would employ French military and economic power and that of the European Union (EU) to advance its interests in the region.
Instead, it has expressed criticism of U.S. policy in the region, including its policy towards Israel, and by opposing President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. These steps helped the French win diplomatic brownie points with Middle Eastern players while continuing to depend on the United States to secure the oil resources in the Persian Gulf and to contain potential aggressors.
This Machiavellian French approach of relying on U.S. military power was underscored in 2011 when the Obama administration agreed to back a French-British plan to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi without any guarantee that the Europeans would send troops to establish order in Libya after regime change. The result has been chaos across Libya. In that case, the notion that France, Italy, and the other southern European governments should have taken the lead in dealing with the upheaval in Libya made sense. It explained why President Barack Obama was initially reluctant to get the U.S. military involved in Libya. Instead, Obama decided that Washington would take the lead role in launching military action in Libya while hoping that France and other governments would end up “taking over” leadership of the operation.
They didn’t. Obama ended up playing directly into the hands of then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who succeeded in drawing the United States into a military campaign aimed at protecting French and European interests.
Current French president Emmanuel Macron, who likes to compare himself to the legendary de Gaulle, entered office stressing French efforts to win “strategic independence” for the EU and enable the Europeans to compete with the Americans on the global stage; he has insisted that Paris and Brussels shouldn’t follow the more assertive U.S. position towards these two powers.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted those grand designs. Macron tried, but failed, to reverse President Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war and to reach a deal between Moscow and the United States.
If anything, the war only highlighted the European dependency on American military and economic power in containing aggression and maintaining stability in Europe. That has strengthened America’s leadership role in NATO. And with the United States replacing Russia as Europe’s largest natural gas supplier, the French and the Europeans have found it difficult to challenge the Biden administration’s decision to provide subsidies to electric vehicles and other kinds of U.S.-based manufacturing.
Likewise, another example of the way the changing geostrategic and geoeconomic balance has weakened France’s hand has been the American decision to pursue a technological cooperation agreement with Britain and Australia—a move that wrecked a French submarine contract with the Australians. Paris complained and recalled its ambassador from Washington, but there wasn’t much that the French could actually do to reverse that decision.
Yet Macron continues to pursue his Gaullist dreams. He insists that France and the EU need to distance themselves from the Americans in their dealings with the Chinese, telling reporters recently that “the paradox would be that overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers;” he believes that contrary to the U.S. position, it isn’t in Europe’s interest to “accelerate” a crisis with Taiwan, that it need embrace neither “the US agenda” nor “a Chinese overreaction.”
But instead of working together with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to project European unity and “balancing power” vis-à-vis Beijing, Macron’s recent visit to China, where he was joined by a contingency of French business executives, only underscored that his policies are driven mainly by French interests. As they should be, and were under the original Gaullism, with its similar pretensions to remake France into a great power like it was during the age of Lafayette. But France wasn’t such under de Gaulle, and it isn’t today.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz.