Justin Vaïsse

February 8, 2013

Young Leader talks America, transatlantic relations


Justin Vaïsse

Foundation Young Leader Justin Vaïsse, Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, spoke with the French-American Foundation about today’s French-American relationship, U.S. and French foreign policy, his current intellectual pursuits, his new position at the Quai d’Orsay and what he’ll miss most about the United States.

From his initial interest in U.S. history to his passion for academia and public affairs to his participation in the Young Leader program, Vaïsse brings a true transatlantic perspective to issues facing France and the United States.


What sparked your interest in transatlantic relations, and specifically the United States?

First, I guess, came the thrill of studying U.S. history when I was in college – especially the mid-20th century, from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War. What a fascinating period. This was reinforced by my interest for international relations in general and how best to approach them than by studying U.S. foreign policy? One thing led to another. From a year spent at Harvard to three stints at the Brookings Institution and the publication of several books, I became an Americanist, and more specifically a specialist of U.S. foreign policy. At a deeper level, there might be other reasons as well. My grand-father was liberated from Buchenwald by Patton’s Third Army in April 1945. And the echoes between French and American history are troubling. I’m still struck that in international forums, only the American and the French representatives speak in universalist terms – they really do. Thus in the U.S., I also see a mirror of French identity, probably the best mirror we have.


What did you gain from your participation in the French-American Foundation Young Leaders program? Was there one take-away from the program, whether personal or professional, which has proven particularly valuable?

The best thing about it, I found, was the opening to other horizons it provided. I already had many friends in academia and in politics, quite a few in the military and the media, on both sides of the Atlantic. But I didn’t know any Episcopal priest, any music composer, any museum curator, any dancer, and even worse for a specialist of the U.S., I admit I knew very few entrepreneurs! For me, that was the highlight, more than the discovery of America and Americans… Even though the visit to Silicon Valley and the discussions with venture capitalists were eye-opening, I have to say.


You have been appointed Director of the French Policy Planning Staff at the Quai d’Orsay (le Centre d’Analyse, de Prospective et de Stratégie*), effective March 1. What will this position entail, and what new perspective or mandate do you hope to bring to it?

*Name under review. For someone who can’t make up his mind between academia and public affairs, becoming director of the CAPS is like getting the dream job, and I do feel like the luckiest fellow around. It was created by Foreign Minister Michel Jobert in 1973 and modeled after the American Policy Planning Staff of George Marshall and George Kennan. Its main mission is to look beyond the day-to-day crises and advise the Minister on his long-term diplomatic strategy. It is also to bring the rich expertise which exists in academia and think tanks to the attention of decision makers by making it policy-relevant (which it generally is not). When Laurent Fabius offered me the job, he told me he had time before him and no more presidential ambitions, so that he could focus on leaving a deep and personal imprint on French foreign policy and the Quai d’Orsay. It’s now up to me to feed that ambition with smart counsel –perhaps even wise counsel, who knows?


You’ve had extensive experience in both France and the United States. What lessons can your expertise in American politics and your experience in the United States bring to your work at the Quai d’Orsay?

I like the way Americans can sometimes think outside the box, and actually, I like the expression itself, which doesn’t translate well. It’s always difficult to generalize, but there’s sometimes a lack of precise expertise on foreign countries in the U.S., while France is doing better on that count. And there might be more creative thinking on the U.S. side than in France.


You are currently working on a biography of former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, to be published this year. Tell us more about this work. What can today’s statesmen and politicians learn from him?

Brzezinski, who was National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, is a fascinating figure, and also someone who thrived at the intersection of expertise and strategy. Until the 1960s, American foreign policy was dominated by what is called “the Establishment” – WASP bankers or lawyers from New York who knew about foreign affairs by virtue of their business and advised the President, no matter from what party, as a matter of public service. But America’s global responsibilities, and the large-scale production of expertise by the Cold War university system, led to the promotion of professional strategists. Suddenly, at the highest levels of government, the Establishment was replaced by ambitious PhD-holder immigrants with thick accents and strange names like Heinz (later Henry) Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. They knew how to use the media and pick the right presidential candidate to advise during the campaign in order to reach, one day, the White House. Once there, Brzezinski was involved in issues of historical importance like the normalization of relations with China, the Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel, the Iranian revolution, and the support for the Afghan mujahidin. Beyond this, Brzezinski is the ultimate policy-oriented scholar. In one capacity or another, he advised all nine U.S. Presidents since Kennedy except for George W. Bush and published dozens of books. And when I told him about my new job, he wrote back with a long email, which started with the words: “Give Fabius some good advice: he should not…” and offered specific policy recommendations. No, I won’t tell you what these are.


In 2003, you published Washington et le monde: Dilemmes d’une superpuissance. In the decade since this book was released, do you think the United States maintains this status of a superpower? Do you believe the United States is trying to shed this role with the exhaustion of two major wars in the past decade (Afghanistan and Iraq)? Are powers shifting? Can France’s recent intervention in Mali and leading role alongside Great Britain in the intervention in Libya be construed as a step toward re-establishing French or European relevance as a superpower?

I share Brzezinski’s view of the Bush years: they accelerated the relative decline of the U.S. While a whole new world was emerging in Asia and elsewhere, Americans were busy chasing terrorists in Afghan caves and Iraqi Sunni strongholds, expending precious treasury and political capital in the process. Obama, to his credit, set priorities straight, including with the pivot to Asia. And we are now in a different phase of the traditional cycles in U.S. foreign policy, a phase of introversion and retrenchment, where the public is reluctant to support foreign interventions – which the President is trying to translate in actual policy. But it’s hard to resist calls for intervention, as Syria demonstrates. Still, for Europeans, it means the U.S. will be less present in Europe’s neighborhood. We saw that in Libya in 2011 with the “leading from behind” attitude (which worked well), and we French saw that in Mali, where the White House was reluctant to provide military support – even if in the end, the U.S. did provide very helpful support. The problem, of course, is that the U.S. is retrenching at the worst possible time, when Europeans, because of the financial crisis, are cutting back on their defense budgets and could have a hard time making up for this retrenchment.


Alongside Hans Kundnani, you spearheaded the annual European Foreign Policy Scorecard. How has it impacted European (and perhaps global) foreign policy making? What criteria are best suited to assess the success of foreign policy?

The Scorecard is a very exciting intellectual and political experience. By grading European foreign policy – that of the EU institutions and that of the 27 member states together – we set out to do two things. First, we make the point that it exists, even when it’s not very coherent or effective. Second, we position the debate as an issue of outcomes and impact rather than institutions and processes, which is the traditional way to approach it. In other words, we politicize the issue, asking the crucial questions of objectives, resources, trade-off between ideals and interests, effectiveness and efficiency. We have had increasing impact in the main capitals, but we’ve not reached a sufficiently large public yet.


What do you do in your spare time, if your endless intellectual and professional pursuits allow such a thing?

As far back as I can remember, I have tried to stretch my days to more than 24 hours, with little success. In the past, there have been a few brief periods during which I managed to strike a good balance between work and leisure. But as the family grew, personal spare time disappeared, and I stopped playing soccer or reading fiction. I also started working after dinner. And that is not even enough to devote sufficient time to our three kids. It’s very frustrating, very banal, and might get worse in my new job.


What will your family and you miss most about life in the United States?

Many things, actually – the open sky, the outdoors, the foliage in autumn, Halloween, the endless Christmas season, the kindness of people in our neighborhood, Elmo, and The Washington Post at our door every morning.