Before Philippe Etienne became France’s ambassador to the United States in September 2019, he had an outstanding career at the highest levels of the French government, most recently as diplomatic advisor to President Emmanuel Macron and as ambassador to Germany. He is widely recognized as an expert on European Union and EU political affairs. Etienne spoke with us on Monday Foreign policy on the extent to which transatlantic ties with the new Biden administration can be mended after the Trump administration’s disruptions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign policy: Can you elaborate on what President Joe Biden and Macron discussed in their first meeting on Sunday, particularly on the Iranian nuclear deal?
Philippe Etienne: I’m not sure I can give you any further details on Iran. It’s a little early. We want to leave the new administration for a while.
FP: But do you see the EU, especially the E3, which helped negotiate the Iranian nuclear deal – France, Great Britain and Germany – and a more or less common approach with the United States towards Iran and the Middle East? Biden has talked about re-joining the Iran Pact but expanding it to include missiles, while Iran has said it will only stick to the previous deal.
ON: There are very clear signs that concerted action is being taken with the new government. We do not want to anticipate exactly how the new government will proceed and act. On this Iran issue in particular, the nuclear issue has become more complicated with the United States’ decision to withdraw from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and Iran is choosing to be more and more out of compliance. But we’ve kept that baseline, especially the E3. The goals that we have stated are the same, namely compliance with the JCPOA guidelines and Create a stronger and broader framework for other issues, especially ballistic missile proliferation. It seems to be very convergent with the United States.
FP: Do you think there is any real chance of returning to the transatlantic relationship as it was before the Trump administration?
ON: We know the world has changed. We know it’s not the same as it was four years ago. However, we consider it possible to return to a very substantial and fruitful result [relationship] between Europeans and the United States, particularly on issues that are most important on the agenda, such as the fight against the virus and climate change.
FP: Did Macron and Biden also find similarities in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?
ON: Yes, they discussed the strategy that we are pursuing not only in our countries but also worldwide because we are in a global community. It’s a global challenge. It’s a global threat. As you may know, France, along with other Europeans, created ACT-A [Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator], including a vaccine pillar called COVAX [to promote global access to coronavirus vaccines]. And we were very happy that not only did the United States choose to rejoin the World Health Organization – it is very important that the United States work within WHO to reform it to function as it should – , but also said it would support COVAX and other elements of the ACT-A initiative.
FP: On Monday, Biden signed a new “Buy American” ordinance to strengthen US manufacturing, reflecting growing populism and the turn of the great powers and making future US-EU trade deals difficult. Her thoughts?
ON: My priority would be to resolve the disputes that have arisen in recent years because they are not helping any of our economies and are bad for our jobs. I think there will be a common desire to resolve these problems within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as quickly as possible – for example, to reach a common agreement on this issue [digital] Taxation. Then we have to discuss the consequences of the pandemic in world trade across the Atlantic, especially with regard to the question of how supply chains should become more sovereign. It is understandable that each of us would prefer our middle class and shape our politics for them. On the other hand, we can of course do it cooperatively.
FP: Biden’s new national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, had reportedly called for a postponement of the new EU-China investment pact that was announced late last year. Seven years later, China appeared to be pushing to close the deal before the new government took office. Is this a problem for the US and the EU in light of Washington’s new confrontational approach to China?
ON: I don’t know about the Chinese, but for us in Europe that timing has nothing to do with the elections here in the United States. As you rightly said, the negotiations had been going on for seven years. Point two: In contrast to other trade agreements recently signed with China under the Trump administration or by Asian powers, the regional comprehensive economic partnership is a focused instrument that for the first time makes improvements, including in part for Americans, in terms of climate, environment and workers Rights regulations within the framework of the International Labor Organization. The European Union used its leverage to get things that no one else got. After all, it wasn’t signed late last year; it was politically completed. There is still the ratification process. It also monitors how it is implemented. Yes, we will of course discuss this with the new US administration. We just set up a US channel to discuss this and other issues – for example, forced technology transfer and investment screening, and political and human rights issues.
FP: Do you envisage a common EU-US approach to China?
ON: In March 2019, the EU established its doctrine on relations with China with three pillars: rivalry, competition and cooperation. The way the new US administration describes its own policy towards China shares some common ground, including the need to address global challenges. There are many similarities in terms of political, human rights and economic challenges. For example, I think we will have a good opportunity to reform the World Trade Organization to level the playing field for the world economy.
FP: The WTO has been widely criticized both within the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the United States for favoring China, among others.
ON: I agree. That’s why we should reform it.
FP: Is there an agreement on how?
ON: We have made some progress on industrial subsidies with Japan and the European Union, for example, and we have only been stopped by what I would call bilateralism by the former US administration. Now we have a new administration that has taken a more collaborative approach. Not only to the WTO, but also to other organizations. The point is we now have the United States ready to do this within these organizations.
FP: Macron has advocated greater “strategic autonomy” for the EU. Will this continue with Biden in office, especially against the opposition from Germany?
ON: When we talk about strategic autonomy, we mean a stronger European Union and European democracies. I think it is deeply in the interests of the United States to have a strong partner because that makes us all stronger together and because Europeans can take on more of the burden of their own security. Since his election and even earlier, Macron has placed the European vision and politics at the forefront of its actions. We will continue to work with all Member States, as he has not only developed a closer relationship with Germany but also with all other European countries and institutions. The EU is growing and getting stronger through various crises including the pandemic – for example last year when Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel first decided that the EU would raise money in the market to give money to member states. It is a positive development in European integration. We need to get stronger and more sovereign, but remain in alliance with the United States, including NATO.
FP: France has historically been somewhat reluctant to join NATO.
ON: But honestly, who else in Europe has a military that can project outside the region? Take a look at what we are doing as a force in the Sahel. We were the first European country to pursue an Indo-Pacific strategy. And we have a stronger partnership in Asia with many countries. I think we are reliable and capable not only in the fight against terrorism but also in many other areas. In NATO, for example, we were part of the increased presence in the Balkans. The point you are making relates not only to history since France left NATO, but back again. It is also related to the criticism Macron expressed a year and a half ago against NATO for the lack of coherence in its political vision. And in all honesty, it was entirely justified since there was no consultation with the previous US administration. Above all, however, since Turkey’s actions against our own allies in the fight against Islamic State, NATO has started a process of reflection, and we have a France that has not only committed itself to starting this exercise, but also to making it a success to lead.
FP: After the pandemic, it is interesting to see to what extent even some rights in the US point towards the European model in terms of health care and middle class protection. The political axis has partly shifted to the left.
ON: When it comes to social protection, there is a model in Europe that has evolved and it was clear how the US Congress reacted that you had to create mechanisms that weren’t there but were in the EU. I don’t know if there will be longer term convergence, but I think we need to learn some longer term lessons – for example, the issues of inequality that need to be addressed.
FP: In the nearly year and a half that you have been ambassador, you have had the opportunity to witness some of the most turbulent events in American democracy, culminating in the January 6 attacks on the Capitol and the inauguration of the new president. What makes you think about the sustainability of American democracy?
ON: At the end of the day – literally at the end of the day on January 6th – democracy prevailed with Congress convening again on the same day and restarting voting certification. It was an honor for me to represent my country with my wife at the inauguration. And to be honest, we saw democracy’s real success in that. We have the same challenges in our democracies.