Recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warmly referred to France as America’s oldest ally. Our friends in Britain may have taken umbrage, but this is – technically and historically, at least – true, going back to Lafayette and Washington in the War of Independence that created the United States in the first place.
Yet, why do we feel the need to qualify this friendship as “technical” or “historical”? Despite some challenges over the years – including cultural and political differences, unfortunate stereotypes, and discord such as that seen in recent news – the relationship between the United States and France is a strong and fruitful one across strategic, economic, and social fronts. However, persisting barriers and a fading historical memory prevent the cooperation and mutual understanding between the two countries from being as deep and profitable as they could be.
At Meridian, we are using a series of programs and high-level convening opportunities called the U.S.-France Leadership Dialogue to further cement this oldest of friendships and explore new avenues for collaboration and shared gain. Although the Dialogue events held last month in Paris were largely off-the-record, I am happy to report that on the person-to-person level, the bonds of bilateralism remain healthy and largely optimistic about the potential for future growth through innovative and cooperative endeavors. Yet there is an obvious need to develop this collaborative energy and translate it into more comprehensive policy and strategy, as well as learn from one another’s successes and challenges.
In Paris we heard, for instance, about the 40-year partnership between GE and Safran on an airplane engine that has been highly successful. (Interestingly, we heard about this from a French representative for GE, the American company, and an American from Safran, the French group – proof positive of the existing exchange and possibilities.) With this engine, GE and Safran were able to do more – faster, better – than they could have done individually. After all, it’s often just as hard to “go it alone” in business as it is in geopolitics. This may not be the only transatlantic partnership out there – but there could almost certainly be more. There are those companies, organizations, and entrepreneurial individuals that might like to act similarly, but are stymied by a regulatory environment not conducive to partnerships of this kind.
Some of this may be addressed by the U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently under negotiation, though it remains to be seen whether this will be allowed to develop as robustly as many hope. It is already developing slowly – perhaps too slowly. The transpacific trade agreement will likely be completed first, potentially undercutting these historical (and historically lucrative) trade relationships across the Atlantic. It has been suggested that to allow the TTIP to become watered down or languish in this way would be shortsighted on the United States’ part. Those historical transatlantic bonds and the already massive trade bloc – not to mention the opportunity to turn similar value systems into wholly aligned standards, setting the tone for the entire global marketplace – should inspire leaders on both sides of the ocean towards a fully realized agreement.
But what about the less tangible barriers to innovation and partnership? While agreements like the TTIP may take time (and considerable back-room wheeling and dealing) to secure, we could continue to make progress on the individual level. Programs like the U.S.-France Leadership Dialogue employ the people-to-people exchange tools that Meridian has been using to create and foster vital cross-border and cross-sector relationships for over 50 years. In Paris, with the 70th anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasions approaching next year, we were reminded that those bonds of friendship don’t just have practical economic value for cementing trade deals – they mean something. Yet when a French person tells you they’ll never forget the American people’s efforts and sacrifice in that conflict, that person is increasingly likely to be part of an aging generation. A young person in the U.S. or France today does not commonly bring these poignant references immediately to mind in their interactions, and both countries run the risk of losing a vital sense of common cause as a result.
That’s why this Dialogue not only aims to hear from the established leaders and give them a chance to have key conversations in a neutral setting, but also brings emerging leaders to the table. We must prepare this next generation along both the practical and the personal fronts in order to produce valuable and long-lasting results. As we saw, collaboration often produces greater profit and lasting success than independent action. Solid partnerships – especially those that cross geographic and cultural borders – provide countless opportunities for learning, immediate access to diverse resources, and the unique expertise to accomplish mutual goals in more expedient ways. While we have many important bilateral and multilateral relationships, there is a reason why the U.S. and France have a long shared history – and there is every reason that we should have a shared future as well.