The Limits of US-French Coordination in the Middle East

There was a sigh of relief in Paris when Joe Biden was elected president in November 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron, who rushed to congratulate his new American counterpart, is hoping to rebuild a more stable and symmetrical partnership between Washington and Paris, most notably on common Middle East issues. This transatlantic honeymoon, however, will sooner or later face a reality check.

A post-Trump boost in US-French relations was expected. Macron and Biden spoke by phone on November 10, and the French president became the fourth leader to talk to Biden after the latter’s inauguration on January 20. Moreover, Biden’s Climate Envoy John Kerry, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Iran Envoy Robert Malley all speak fluent French; in fact, Blinken and Malley spent part of their childhoods in Paris and attended the École Jeannine Manuel school. Hence, the expectation is that a US-French coordination, most notably on the Middle East, should thrive under Biden. There are three reasons why this momentum might slow down moving forward.

Reverberations of the Trump Era

US-French relations under former President Donald Trump were like a roller coaster, to say the least. Macron initially led a charm offensive to secure Trump’s cooperation on international issues, which contrasted with Trump’s tense relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A French diplomat recounted to this author that in early 2017, both Washington and Paris set up working groups and were in daily contact on Middle East issues. However, the personal rapprochement between the two leaders, once described as a “bromance,” faded with Trump’s protectionist measures and withdrawal from multilateral agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Macron recently asserted in an interview that French companies were penalized by the Trump Administration for violating US unilateral sanctions by doing business with Iran. He added that “this means that our companies can be condemned by foreign powers when they operate in a third country: that is a deprivation of sovereignty, of the possibility of deciding for ourselves, it weakens our position immensely.”

Trump’s antagonistic approach toward European and NATO allies has left a scar in Paris and encouraged Macron to cling to his long-held plan of French neutrality in international relations.

Trump’s antagonistic approach toward European and NATO allies has left a scar in Paris and encouraged Macron to cling to his long-held plan of French neutrality in international relations, a move that can simultaneously advance his country’s interests abroad while improving his poll numbers at home. Simply put, courting Trump was not popular in France and had no strategic benefits for Macron. The French president’s views are predisposed to be closer to those of Biden than Trump; the relationship between Biden and Macron is expected to be steady and based on strategic interests. Macron’s messages to the new US administration show that France is not over the reverberations of the US decisions during the Trump era.

France’s Assertive Europeanism

Since Biden was elected, the French president has reinforced, at least on two occasions, the Macron doctrine and his ambitious plan of European autonomy, explicitly pitching this idea as an attempt to decrease reliance on the United States. Macron has shifted away from the humanitarian intervention inclinations of his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, and restored the traditionalist French foreign policy of Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac.

In two interviews with Le Grand Continent on November 12 and the Atlantic Council on February 4,1 Macron relayed three messages to Biden on transatlantic relations: the strategic autonomy of the European Union to take charge of its own defense; the need to rethink the concept of NATO; and France’s relative neutrality in the United States’ rivalry with China and Russia. When Macron had raised these issues in public in November 2018, Trump described his statements as “very insulting”—that was the time when the relationship between the two began to turn sour. Now, Macron is testing Biden.

First, the French president noted on February 5 that Europe’s “strategic autonomy” is “definitely in the interests of the United States” and questioned the deployments of US troops in Europe “without clear and direct interests.” On the same day, Biden formally halted the planned withdrawal of US troops from Germany, which had been ordered by the Trump Administration in 2020. There is no consensus in Germany on the issue of US withdrawal even though German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote in an op-ed in November 2020, which was subtly critical of Macron, that “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” Indeed, Macron’s post-Trump agenda of European autonomy will pose a challenge for the Biden Administration and also for Macron, who might not find enthusiastic allies in Brussels to achieve this objective.

Second, Macron seeks to redefine NATO’s mission and adopt a “clear rule of conduct between member states,” an objective that was primarily driven by the Turkish-led incursion into Syria in 2019 and into Libya in 2020, both occurring with Trump’s tacit consent. In July 2020, Paris suspended its involvement in the NATO naval operation in the Mediterranean after the alliance failed to endorse France’s claims that Turkish warships were aggressive toward a French warship, which had tried to inspect a Turkish vessel for potential violation of a United Nations embargo on arms to Libya. Even before this incident, Macron called NATO “brain dead,” given what he considered Trump’s weak commitment to the transatlantic alliance. The French president wants NATO to focus on jihadists in Africa and the Middle East rather than strictly on deterring Russia.

Third, Macron aims to keep France relatively neutral in the US rivalry with China and Russia by continuing to engage—instead of isolate—Beijing and Moscow to prevent conflicts in the international system. He noted that “our view is that China is altogether a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival” and that “it’s impossible to have peace and stability in Europe, especially at our borders today, if you are not in a situation to negotiate with Russia.” Trump pressured Europe to confront China and not to award contracts to Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build a new 5G infrastructure, and Biden might be expecting France and NATO to be more assertive on Russia. Biden will have to navigate this challenge: he will have to determine what his administration expects from France and whether an understanding could be reached in this context.

Divergent Middle East Interests and Priorities

The Middle East is important for French foreign policy, in addition to being a matter of geography; Macron explicitly said that the Middle East and Africa “are our neighbors. It is not the US neighborhood.” While US foreign policy in the last four years has enabled Turkey to increase its clout in the region, often at the expense of French influence, Macron has benefited from Trump’s confrontational approach toward Iran. This has enabled the advancement of French interests in Lebanon and Iraq, for instance, even though Paris’s ability to make inroads remains limited.

The first overarching difference between the French government and the Biden Administration is regarding the extent of US engagement in the Middle East.

The first overarching difference between the French government and the Biden Administration is regarding the extent of US engagement in the Middle East. While Macron hopes the United States ultimately withdraws its troops in Europe, he is asking the Biden Administration to increase its military presence in Iraq and Syria.

Macron insinuated what he expects from the Biden Administration: “Get rid of Turkish troops from Libya. Get rid of thousands of jihadists exported from Syria to Libya by Turkey itself, in complete breach of the Berlin conference. Fixing the Syrian approach with the rest of the coalition.” Macron believes that deterring Turkey can be accomplished by revitalizing the US role and engaging Russia. Biden, however, is expected to continue to limit the deployment of US troops in war zones in the Middle East. Moreover, while there is an anti-Turkish mood in the Biden Administration, the White House will most likely not intentionally pick a fight with Ankara.

In January 2020, while visiting Washington, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said that “France is okay with a larger European role in the Middle East, provided this means an enduring US commitment.” France has been already active in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa but continues to rely on the United States for intelligence and logistical support. It is not clear yet if Biden will expect allies in France, and in Europe, to share or even expand some of the burden in the Middle East.

Second, Washington and Paris have different priorities when it comes to Middle East conflicts and traditional allies in the region. Macron is shifting away from the traditional French role of upholding human rights principles to a more realpolitik approach. He hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Paris in December 2020 and is planning2 a visit to Riyadh next March to discuss Iran and Lebanon. For its part, the White House is keeping a distance, for now, from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The French president said he wants “to find a way to involve” Saudi Arabia and Israel in the US engagement with Iran, while the Biden Administration might prefer a less complicated mechanism at this stage. These moves signal a contrast with a White House that is publicly claiming the adoption of a human rights agenda. Macron’s focus on Turkey aligns him with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, which incidentally makes him closer to Trump than Biden on this issue, even though the former US president was rather driven by an obsession to deter Iran.

Furthermore, the White House’s statement on the Biden-Macron call on January 24 was less enthusiastic about coordination in the Middle East, without referring to any specific issue. The Elysée Palace’s readout3 seemed to portray Paris as more eager to work with Washington, naming specifically the Iran nuclear deal and Lebanon.

There is, however, little Paris can do when it comes to Tehran. The French role as a broker between the United States and the Islamic Republic was not successful during the Trump Administration and is no longer valid under Biden. Restoring direct US-Iran communication makes the French role less relevant on the nuclear talks. Yet, the Biden Administration can further enable the French initiative in Lebanon, hence making both Washington and Tehran more inclined to compromise within this French initiative rather than directly with each other. The joint US-French statement on the six-month anniversary of the August 4 Beirut port explosion was noteworthy in that it showed the United States is willing to back the French initiative and let Paris lead on an issue that the Biden Administration does not see as a priority. The United States has scaled down its rhetoric on Lebanon under the Biden Administration and has inched closer toward the French approach.

What to Expect Moving Forward

Biden and Macron can work together on climate change, COVID-19, and global economic recovery but their efforts might be less synchronized on China and Russia. US and French interests and priorities in the Middle are also not fully aligned, which is not all bad news. Previous US involvements in Libya and in West Africa have been a disaster as both sides have different degrees of commitment and appetite for long-term intervention. France sees that similarly to Trump’s impulsive approach; Biden’s withdrawal tendencies offer France an opportunity to fill the vacuum and compete for eastern Mediterranean energy while making sure to preempt terrorist attacks in France and prevent an additional flow of refugees to Europe.

Macron’s assertiveness might be the answer for the United States and France to work together on a when-needed basis, rather than a full-fledged alliance, which decreases the burden sharing and the strings attached for both sides.

Macron’s assertiveness might be the answer for the United States and France to work together on a when-needed basis, rather than a full-fledged alliance, which decreases the burden sharing and the strings attached for both sides. It is not clear yet how Macron could combine this European assertiveness with his eagerness to cooperate with the United States on the Middle East, and how France could be relatively neutral toward China and Russia while benefiting from its alliance with the United States. The question is whether the Biden Administration will carry the guilt of the United States’ questionable treatment of its European allies over the past four years and try to be more accommodating toward Macron. An American diplomatic source summarized what to expect for the US-French relationship under Biden: “I don’t think everything reverts back to normal but we will have more normalcy in transatlantic relations.” Indeed, Trump shook the confidence in this transatlantic partnership to the point that it might not swiftly and fully recover.

1 The quotes throughout this analysis are from the transcripts of these interviews.
2 Source is in Arabic.
3 Source is in French.