By Ambassador Stuart Holliday, CEO of Meridian International Center
When President Biden welcomed President Macron of France for December’s State Visit, the United States recommitted to a key, foundational component of our approach to foreign policy: strengthening alliances.
The visit is remarkable in the greater timeline of U.S. – France’s long relationship as it is the first state visit of the Biden-Harris administration — a return to the traditional diplomacy paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state visit also marks the first time one French leader has been invited for two U.S. state visits, the last being in 2018.
The historic nature of the visit is not to be overlooked or coincidental despite the Biden-Macron relationship’s ruffled start when France briefly recalled their ambassador to the U.S. last year. Additionally, energy, trade and economic differences are emerging as France seeks to charter its course as a leader in Europe with its ties to the U.S. It is a token of the great respect between the two leaders, the deeply shared allyship, and a year of incredible collaboration from the response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and partnership in the G7, U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the European Union.
The agenda was twofold – filled with strategic conversations on new challenges posed by China, Iran, and Africa’s Sahel region, as well as Ukraine at the foreign policy talks, but tied throughout flashbacks to the countries’ long shared history. Additionally, there is a focus on finding solutions to our shared global challenges and differences like the Inflation Reduction Act, energy, our economic ties, food security, and job creation.
During the arrival ceremony on Thursday, Biden referred to France as the U.S.’s “oldest ally” and an “unwavering partner,” referencing the history of the relationship from Lafayette to the beaches of Normandy. Macron said the two nations are “sisters in the fight for freedom,” and even calling for more communication between Biden and Putin.
Nevertheless, we should remember that the glamour and foreign policy elements of a state visit are one form of diplomacy and one that often forget to amplify the powerful work of people-to-people exchange and public and cultural diplomatic efforts between the two countries. Especially in times where foreign policy visions are shared but are not identical.
Cultural and historic ties remain a source of strength and importance to our bilateral relationship as it is often the first and easiest barrier to cross when opening the aisles for conversation and increasing the capacity for global collaboration.
Vice President Kamala Harris referenced our cultural ties during her remarks at the State Luncheon, calling out shared values on the battlefield, but also business, technology and science advancements made today including the mRNA discovery which led to the COVID-19 vaccines.
We must remember that bilateral diplomacy can only accomplish so much when today’s issues are more global than ever. Governments must remember to dedicate resources to NGOs and the private sector to ensure our foreign priorities and shared values go beyond government and into our next generation of leaders. President Macron’s upcoming visit to New Orleans exemplifies this, as he reaffirms his commitment to preserve Francophone culture in Louisiana by developing plans to expand French language learning.
His comments at the State Luncheon further solidified the U.S. and France’s commitment to public diplomacy from the first Franco-American Business Council, new initiatives regarding better conservation of our rainforests and oceans, and new collaborative efforts with NASA and the space sector from their signing of the Artemis Accords.
State visits provide a significant and tangible opportunity and ever-important reminder that diplomacy can be helped with a White House spotlight but cannot only live in its halls. But right now, the hope that the next generation of U.S. and French leaders will further this collaborative, diplomatic ethos based on cross-cultural acceptance and relationships is strong.