New Challenges in the French-American Relationship

21 octobre 2012
Nicholas Dungan - L’ENA hors les murs
The “new” challenges in the French-American relationship result as much from the changed nature of that relationship as from the challenges themselves. In the second half of the 20th century, France and the United States deserved — and received — recognition as largely successful countries. Since the beginning of this 21st century, their success has greatly dimmed.

The French-American relationship frames two facets: the direct bilateral relationship between France and the US and the deployment of that relationship when the two act together on the world stage. The new challenge that France and the United States must address in their bilateral relationship concerns the need to restore their competitiveness. The new challenge that the two countries face in their global role consists in retaining their relevance.
The compulsion to compete

In the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Survey for 2012-13, France dropped to number 21 among 144 countries in the measure of total competitiveness, where it ranked fifteenth only two years ago. The United States dropped from fourth two years ago to seventh in the current survey, released in September 2012.

Competitiveness constitutes a topic of strategic national importance reaching all sectors of society. For France and the United States to enhance their 21st-century competitiveness, they need to include representatives from government — local, regional and national; legislative, judiciary and executive and military — from industry and business, finance and the law, academia and the policy community, not-for-profit and civil-society organizations, media and other thought leaders and influencers.

Competitiveness resonates well in the French-American relationship, for many of France’s strengths represent areas of American shortcomings, in addition to which the two countries share certain common problems. In terms of industry sectors, both France and the US must maintain cutting-edge, high-technology, largely domestic defense and security industries. France has globally leading companies in areas where America has failed to invest or re-invest: nuclear energy, water and environmental services, infrastructure and transport. The United States, on the other hand, excels in information technology, the global industry in which France holds the weakest position.

With respect to policy issues, America can claim excellence in entrepreneurship, in university and post-graduate education and in collaboration among academia, business and government in fundamental research. France out-classes the US in primary and secondary education, especially science and mathematics, and in the delivery of universal healthcare. They share an enormous problem which ranks high among the“most problematic factors for doing business” for both countries in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Survey: the complexity of their tax systems, different in each but harmful in both.

As regards competitiveness concepts, France is an organized country, planned and thought-through, while the US seeks order, if at all, ex post facto. This leads to greater efficiency in France than in the US, not only in the functioning of government institutions, but for example in healthcare, where, although the quality of individual treatment differs little per se, France delivers longer life expectancies than America at half the US cost, measured both per capita and as a percentage of national output. At the same time, in terms of the functioning of institutions, in the US, not-for-profit and other civil society organizations contribute hugely compared to their relative role in France.

Assisting each other to achieve increased competitiveness will benefit France and the United States not merely in their national performance but also in their knowledge of each other. The professionals in the French-American relationship — senior ministers and diplomats, military officers, terrorism specialists, trade representatives —are often well acquainted. Yet despite a handful of exchange and leadership programs, the vast majority of elected officials, senior civil servants, policy makers, business leaders, academics, media commentators and other influencers simply do not know each other as well as the postwar generations did. Pursuing a joint goal of competitiveness therefore makes sense also from the standpoint of building the French-American relationship for future generations.
Standing for something

France and the United States are condemned to be important. The two great Enlightenment democracies are expected to embody and to promulgate universal values and big ideas. They are among the few countries in the world to be complete, with economies spanning a full range of agriculture, industry and services as well as possessing international power in the form of broad-based diplomatic representation and a full-spectrum military capability. Without question, France remains the indispensable country in Europe and the United States remains the indispensable country in the world. This obliges them to move beyond the crisis management that has become a wearying habit and once again invest in addressing vital, long-term, global policy issues. This generation of leaders must show itself to be unafraid of taking on the Herculean labors borne by the postwar generation which bequeathed us so much.

Today’s global challenges could hardly be more clear: Europe, international institutions, development and the environment. The European Union must evolve into a series of concentric circles, pursuing deepening and enlargement simultaneously, with an inner core of countries and societies approaching an ever closer union, a ring around that of the free-trade area the UK has always wanted and a larger transatlantic community of like-minded peoples incorporated into the Council of Europe, which today is comprised of 47 countries and 800 million citizens and welcomes as observers Canada, Mexico and Japan as well as the United States, well over a billion people with shared humanist western values.

France and the US occupy privileged positions in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the G20 and scores of other organizations. We need to reform global governance both to reflect the rise of the rest and to respect the uniquely valuable contributions from traditional global powers. We cannot clutch yesterday’s privileges; we must shape tomorrow’s realities.

Global development not only fulfils the humanitarian goal of lifting our fellow women and men above poverty and subsistence, it also completes in a modern manner the work of decolonization, of providing opportunity without patronizing, of offering access to the benefits of globalization without westernizing. Intelligent development serves the interests of France and the United States, and the West as a whole, by promoting opportunity and inclusiveness. If we do not empower them, we risk their alienation, resistance and repugnance of the values we believe we defend— or worse.

The environment and the need for science to confront the threats and, perhaps, exploit the opportunities arising from climate change, equally require French and American leadership. After the abject failure of negotiation at Copenhagen, not only must we admit that these problems will fester and enfeeble our species, our habitat and our planet if not addressed, we must recognize that there exist no other forums to confront such problems than among the national authorities of our still Westphalian international organizations. And if such duties thus fall into the domain of sovereign states, without France and America nothing can be done, whereas with them acting together nothing can be discarded.

In the final analysis, whether in cultivating competitiveness in the bilateral relationship or in reasserting relevance in their joint action in the world, the stark choice arises again and again between the desire to be exceptional and the duty to be exemplary. France and America each, because of their singular and superior standing in history, cede too readily to the temptation of imagining that exceptionalism contributes to their interests. The new challenge for France and the United States consists in deserving — and receiving — recognition as successful countries in the 21st century by virtue of their exemplary, not their exceptional, character and achievements.
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