President Sarkozy’s Long-awaited Oval Office Tête-à-tête with President Obama

  • photo courtesy of Downing Street www.flickr.com/photos/25062009@N05/3093007050
    Mar 26, 2010

    Q1: Why is President Nicolas Sarkozy of France meeting with President Obama on Tuesday, March 30?

    A1: As the last of the so-called EU-3 (the United Kingdom, Germany, and France) leaders to have a formal Oval Office meeting 14 months after President Obama took office, this is a much anticipated event for President Sarkozy. Although Obama had a working lunch with Sarkozy in Paris during commemorative events surrounding the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in June of last year, he publicly sidestepped an invitation for the Obama and Sarkozy families to have a get-together, which was interpreted as a snub and fueled rumors of a lack of a close personal relationship between the two leaders. To dampen such speculation, there will be an informal, family dinner in the White House residence between the two transatlantic “power couples,” with Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama in attendance.

    The leaders come to this meeting from very different political positions. Fresh from his domestic health care reform victory and international win on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, President Obama approaches this bilateral discussion with renewed political strength and confidence. President Sarkozy on the other hand has just concluded a disastrous political week where his party lost 21 out of 22 regional elections; he has had to reshuffle his cabinet, postpone one of his signature domestic policies (a carbon tax), and concede to German wishes that the best way to address a major European economic problem (the Greek financial crisis) is with the IMF rather than a European-only solution.

    Q2: What will be the main topics of discussion during their meeting?

    A2: The agenda will be quite robust. On March 24, President Obama had a conversation with the EU-3 leaders to discuss next steps on enhanced Iran sanctions. President Sarkozy has been a strong advocate for a new set of tough sanctions and has grown impatient with the slowness of the process thus far. There is also likely to be a discussion about the upcoming U.S.-hosted Nuclear Security Summit when Sarkozy returns to Washington on April 12 to participate.

    Protectionism will be a topic of mutual interest but for dissimilar purposes. Sarkozy will raise questions regarding the U.S. process to replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. The French—along with the British, Germans, and Spanish—view that process as completely flawed with the specifications precluding Europe’s defense industry, specifically the European Aeronautical Defense and Space (EADS) company, from successfully participating in the tender. Obama will raise European protectionism when it comes to freezing out American hedge funds and private equity funds from participating in the European market. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently wrote a blunt letter to the commissioner of the EU’s Internal Market strenuously arguing against possible financial services regulatory action that would de facto penalize American firms.

    Other topics to be discussed will likely include the Middle East peace process, relations with Russia, NATO’s activities in Afghanistan (Sarkozy has so far declined to send additional French troops to complement the American surge strategy), climate change, and perhaps a discussion of the Greek financial situation.

    Q3: What is the current state of the U.S.-French relationship and what does it say about the broader U.S.-European relationship?

    A3: U.S.-French relations are very good, but there are clouds on the bilateral and transatlantic horizon that bear watching. The protectionist theme will be one that will continue to play out, and not in a helpful way. Europe’s vision of preventing another global economic crisis is to add sweeping regulatory and taxation requirements and a go-it-alone attitude, if it must. The U.S. approach is more ad hoc and less restrictive as it seeks a balanced, global solution. This difference will be on full and open display when the French take the chairmanship of the G-8/G-20 next year.

    The more fundamental question is what kind of relationship with Europe does the Obama administration really want? At present, Europe, and specifically the European Union, is undergoing profound institutional changes at a time when the continent finds itself under significant economic and domestic political unrest. These changes and challenges will have considerable impact on U.S. policies—whether it is the European Parliament rejecting a major agreement to combat terrorism financing or the Dutch withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan. Mr. Sarkozy, as a representative of one of the central transatlantic pillars (along with Germany and the United Kingdom), must ensure that Europe remains strong and relevant as a global actor and as a partner to the United States. Equally, the United States needs to more fully appreciate that the enlarged Atlantic community remains the foundation of international trade, financial markets, and philosophical vision—despite the complexities and overrepresentation—and that it is well worth Obama’s time to work to get the bilateral relationship (with Sarkozy), as well as the multilateral relationships (with the European Union and NATO), right.

    Heather A. Conley is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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    © 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.