Gérard Araud, Diplomatic Sharpshooter

The former French ambassador in Washington D.C. is a realpolitik supporter, world history connoisseur, admirer of Kissinger, and avid Twitter user, and sees the United States as both a friend and a competitor.
© Greg Kahn

“Virtuous citizens refuse all compromise with the Russian president, whom they see as the devil. Meanwhile, diplomats realize that they have no choice but to make concessions to Vladimir Putin.” Concessions! This inflammatory excerpt from an opinion piece by Gérard Araud, published in Le Point on February 5, 2022, caused quite a stir. Brandishing the moral high ground, the relentless defenders of Ukraine berated the former French ambassador to the United States for what they saw as cynicism disguised as realism.

But when asked about the war between Ukraine and Russia, which has been fought for more than a year on the borders of Europe, Gérard Araud is quick to point out his worldview. Having spent 37 years working for the French Foreign Ministry – including five in Washington D.C., from 2014 to 2019 – he is careful to distinguish between diplomats and citizens. The latter are of course on the side of morality, and “confuse the realms of desirability and possibility.” This is a far cry from the stance taken by governments, whose foreign policies logically prioritize the defense of their country’s interests – a form of coexistence, even if this means “accepting the despicable to stave off the unbearable.” Caught between the two, a diplomat’s job is quite humble. They must act, “not to save the world, but to avoid the worst,” by compromising with the eternal forces of fear, self-interest, and honor – “an undefinable halo hovering over foreign policy, far more than the defense of purely material interests.”

With regard to Ukraine, which is the victim of “intolerable aggression indiscriminately targeting civilians and soldiers,” Gérard Araud thinks that the priority is to “avoid an uncontrollable escalation founded on an inexplicable scenario” and resulting in an endless massacre. In his view, the focus should therefore be on “practicing empathy, but not sympathy.” This means trying to understand what the adversary might feel and want, and therefore what they might do. In other words, recalling that most Russians see Ukraine as being part of Russia since 1667. What’s more, as Putin considers that the shrinking of his country’s borders following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was “the worst political disaster in history,” Russia will not accept being “set back several centuries on the global map.” The conclusion is that tipping the scales in favor of the “good” will be difficult to impose on the “bad.” As a result, we have to negotiate “with parties who share neither our interests nor our values. Not in pursuit of some extraordinary moral goal, but to achieve partial, temporary, and unsatisfactory compromises.” Hence the reviled term, “concessions.”

From Science to Politics

Realism versus morality, ethics of responsibility versus ethics of conviction, this debate is to continue in a world torn by passions. Faced with this eternal conflict, Gérard Araud’s personal equation is a paradox. Nothing in his social background or initial education destined him for his role. Born in 1953 to a middle-class family in Marseille, the young man was passionate about history. “But I am from a generation in which children obeyed their fathers,” he says. “Mine thought that I should pursue a career in the sciences. I therefore studied math before attending the Ecole Polytechnique.” However, he later refused his “destiny as an engineer or a researcher” promised by the prestigious institution, and instead turned to politics and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, another elite school.

He emerged a diplomat, and became a renowned expert in the Middle East – working as the ambassador to Israel in 2003-2006, then as a negotiator in the nuclear pact with Iran – and the United States, where he has lived for the last 15 years. While in the U.S.A., he was the permanent representative of France to the U.N. Security Council and head of the permanent mission of France to the United Nations in New York (where he delivered memorable tirades against Bashar al-Assad after the president used chemical weapons on his own people), before becoming the French ambassador. He is an admirer of Henry Kissinger, who helped end the Vietnam War, opened America to China, and soothed relations with Moscow. He met him on several occasions, and even wrote a book about him, Le diplomate du siècle.

In Washington D.C., Gérard Araud’s commanding tone and incisive comments gave him a reputation for having a strong character. It is no mean feat to defend French interests, especially when they often clash with those of its longstanding ally. In his book Histoires diplomatiques, he explains that relations between France and the United States have not always been free and easy – far from it. Just think of the 1956 expedition to protect French-British control of the Suez Canal, which was criticized by President Dwight Eisenhower. Or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which France vehemently opposed in a staggering turn of events.

A Problematic Tweet

While he passionately campaigned for France to rejoin the NATO Command Structure, this social media fan – who enjoys sharpening his knives on Twitter – struggled to accept Donald Trump’s victory. On November 9, 2016, neglecting his duty to remain discreet, the ambassador immediately took to the platform to post a tweet that almost ended his career: “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes. Reeling.” In Paris, the pro-Trump Front National party demanded his resignation. But the then minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, refused to heed the far-right party, and Gérard Araud kept his job. He used this reprieve to refine his stance on the French-American “love-hate” relationship.

In Histoires diplomatiques, he also develops his broader theory, suggesting that, since 1945, Europe has emerged from a historical narrative largely thanks to the United States. For more than 70 years, it has reaped the benefits of peace guaranteed by America. The war in Ukraine waged on its borders has “brutally forced Europeans to experience tragedy, not just a bourgeois drama.” They have also simultaneously discovered a new world order in which the balance of power is stacked against the West. Could it be that the “Age of the West” is behind us? Faced with the challenge of China, which is threatening its security and superiority, the United States is looking to Asia and “tip-toeing out of Europe,” even though the war in Ukraine has forced its return. In the search for a new balance, in which the U.S. is refusing to play the world police, what could France’s – and Europe’s – role be? In Gérard Araud’s words: “We are friends, but also increasingly competitors.” This is the philosophy behind the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022; the 369 billion dollars allocated to American businesses lowering carbon emissions are seen by European companies as subsidies that will be to their detriment.

So, is this the age of “Make America great again”? Fundamentally, every country harbors the same obsession – and this does not prohibit shared interests. Examples include climate change, managing the Internet, artificial intelligence, and the future of the oceans. Gérard Araud, 70, who now works for several think tanks and consulting firms, believes that all these pressing issues require a joint approach. Meanwhile, his best memory of the United States is seeing the countless flowers left at the doors of the French embassy in Washington D.C. following the fire at Notre Dame in April 2019. As he says himself: “The Americans are a profoundly kind people.”

Histoires diplomatiques : Leçons d’hier pour le monde d’aujourd’hui
by Gérard Araud, Grasset, 2022.

Nous étions seuls : Une histoire diplomatique de la France (1919-1939) by Gérard Araud, Tallandier, 2023.

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.