EU & U.S. — Partners in Shaping World Order
Name: Gérard Araud | Age: 65 | Hometown: Marseille, France
Ambassador to the U.S. since September 2014
Tell me a little bit about your family and personal background.
I was born in Marseille on the Mediterranean Coast, which means that I am a southerner. My family was a very middle class family. In French we say, “I’m not the son of the archbishop,” which means I’m not from the upper classes, I’m not from a diplomatic family. I am, as we say also in France, “I am the son of my deeds.”
How did you become interested in an international career?
I am a history buff. I love history and have been studying history since my early youth, as long as I can remember. My parents decided which studies I was supposed to follow–in my generation the parents were in charge. They decided I needed to attend a school of engineering because it was the most prestigious curriculum at the time. I was convinced that I did not want to become an engineer, so I switched to political science.
What was your path to the French foreign service?
In the French system you enter a special school which prepares you for French administration. From there, you can choose to go to the treasury, the budget office, the social ministries, or the foreign service. And I chose the foreign service.
Your foreign service career has spanned 40 years. What was your most memorable posting that shaped you in some way?
I have served twice in Israel and in human terms, this certainly had a strong influence on my vision of the world. It was the late ’70s, early ‘80s — I was young and Israel was my first diplomatic posting. It was there that I discovered the reality of what the genocide meant, beyond the history books. It was a profound experience for me. You realize how much evil is part of human nature. I discovered another side of life, which is how much of foreign policy is basically to handle tragedies. Looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a real tragedy, in the Greek sense of the word, in which two groups of people are trapped in an endless conflict. It didn’t make me particularly optimistic about human nature and about foreign policy.
What do you think is the most important quality that a diplomat needs to be successful?
You should, first of all, forget the idea of saying someone is right or wrong because in a conflict both sides believe they are right, so it’s totally useless to talk in terms of right or wrong. You have to look at the conflict from the other side to understand why there is a conflict or to understand also where there could be a possible compromise.
If you were not an ambassador or in the foreign service, what would you be?
I think I would be a teacher and I would teach history.
You’re very active (and outspoken) on Twitter. Why did you start tweeting and in what ways do you think social media has transformed diplomacy?
The real question, for European ambassadors in particular, is how to make a difference. The two sides of the Atlantic are linked by so many things — thousands of companies, hundreds of thousands of people shuttling in between. So what does it mean to be an ambassador in Washington? You can work 14 hours a day and at the same time wonder whether you have made a difference. Maybe it’s arrogance to want to make a difference, but when I arrived here I wondered how I could really try to transmit what my country is and what my country thinks. Frankly, twitter is not my generation. I started a twitter account in April 2014 at the request of my ministry, though maybe now they regret it (laughter). I discovered very quickly that there was no set thinking about what the twitter account of an ambassador should be like — I would be the test of what an ambassador should do on twitter. I tried an idiosyncratic approach and made mistakes, but at the end of the day I think it has been a sort of success because I have created a network with journalists and think tankers and I can send messages. I’m not sure when I leave my job if I will still be tweeting, but there is an addiction to the exercise.
Shifting a little to the EU, why do you think a country like France needs the European Union?
For my generation, this question has no sense because it’s obvious. I am the generation which has been bred in the memories of the wars. When I was a kid, not only did people talk about the German occupation during Sunday lunches, but there were also people who were survivors of the First World War who would talk about the absolute horror of the trenches.
Afterwards, you can of course speak about the influence in the world, and how for European countries the EU is a way to have more weight in negotiations. Now it’s also about creating among the youth and the following generations, a European vision of their existence beyond their national vision. I have never felt that national identity would disappear. And by the way, I would be devastated if the French identity would disappear, but I think on top of our national identities we need to create a European identity.
And why does the U.S. need the EU?
And of course, it’s much easier to have one European partner on major issues such as trade, but also for creating liberal norms in a world order where this idea of norms actually is contested by a lot of countries.
You’ve traveled quite a bit during your posting here in Washington. Do you have a favorite U.S. city?
This country is a continent. And the fact is that Washington, D.C. is largely a bubble because it’s not a financial or economic capital, it’s only the federal political capital. It’s a limited world, so it’s very important to travel a lot to understand the U.S. The Americans are really nice, welcoming, and warm people. Everywhere you go you are welcomed in the nicest way and it’s always a pleasure to feel it when traveling. Every city has its own genius, I would say. I’ve been quite impressed by Chicago as a real city with a lot of potentialities, a very active cultural scene, and extraordinary universities. I like Chicago very much. Not the weather, by the way, I avoid the winter very carefully (laughter).
You’ll be retiring from the foreign service at the end of this posting. Thinking back, is there anything you would change if you did it all over again?
As a good Frenchman, I am not very good in foreign languages. I think I would work harder on this. At the end of my stays in Israel, I was speaking a sort of Hebrew, and I think I should have invested more in my Hebrew, for instance.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I will tell him, “Know your shortcomings to know your strengths, and work on both of them.” You can be a diplomat in twenty different ways. There is no set manner of being a diplomat in the modern world. It’s very personal; it’s a job of projecting your personality.
If you could only pick one thing to share with Americans about French culture, what would it be?
There is something a bit lacking in American culture. Americans are not very ironic. They are always in the action, which is part of their attributes. They are very serious in their vision of the world, but I think that you should take a step back from the world and look at it with a sort of irony. This is a very French idea, so it’s difficult to explain.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I look very self-assured and actually I’m not. I’m full of doubts all the time.
What do you like to do for fun?
I am an avid reader and from time to time, when I am not lazy, I write history articles. But I am lazy. I go to the gym like everybody else. I love classical music.
Any favorite authors?
I am a fan of Henry James. It’s really difficult for me to read in English, but really I love it. In a very strange way as I’ve aged, I find that more and more I love books where nothing happens. I don’t like action. With Henry James, things happen so slowly. In some books you don’t even know whom is sleeping with whom, you don’t know why somebody apparently dies, I love it. Of course in the same vein, I love Jane Austen. I remember when I discovered Jane Austen 40 years ago, I was in New York by myself for a few days. By chance, I bought Pride and Prejudice and I read it in Central Park. I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books.
You’re a big fan of Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from either?
I don’t want to look so old, but in my youth we had only one TV channel in black and white and so we had one cartoon — Tintin. I remember waiting all year to be given a Tintin book for Christmas. It’s the sort of book that you read again and again until the books are torn apart. That was my youth in a sense — beautiful, sort of sophisticated, but simple. The stories are sophisticated but there’s a sort of simplicity in the storyline. In my generation, youth was much more innocent. Money was not a problem because we didn’t choose our clothing, everybody had, more or less, the same clothing. That’s my nostalgia of my youth, Tintin.
I love Calvin and Hobbes, especially when it gets metaphysical. There is one where Calvin wakes up thinking about the afterlife and says to Hobbes, “Suppose there’s no afterlife and this life is all you get,” so that’s the metaphysical. And then suddenly it switches to, “Do you hear the TV on?” I love that. I love this French-style irony — really knowing how serious the world is, but at the same time not caring really for how serious it is.
So, what’s next for you?
Actually, after 40 years of diplomatic life, it will be quite a leap into the unknown. I have to build a new life and that’s quite a challenge. It’s a challenge in the sense of more than simply finding a new job or activity, or renting a new apartment. It’s a challenge of simply defining yourself in a very different way. The problem of the job of the ambassador is that it’s not only a job, it’s really a social status — the residence, the style of life, and also how you are viewed in the eyes of other people. I’m quite sure that a lot of people who really love me now, the day that I’m not an ambassador, they won’t look at me anymore. The social status side is very important. It will be a challenge to redefine myself not only in a professional way but also in a social way.
What are you looking forward to most about this next chapter?
That’s a very good question. You always have this idea of traveling after you retire, but no, I don’t really want to. I don’t want suddenly to become a retired person going to retired clubs — I want to be part of real life.
What are you most proud of?
My country. When you are a diplomat, you have a very strange relationship with your own country. You are defending its interests and saying how great your country is all the time, but at the same time you are also an outsider to your own country because you spend most of your career abroad, so you are taking your vision from an outsider’s view. Reading articles and books about your country written by foreigners, you are also in a sense discovering your own country from a very different angle. It’s sort of an ambiguous relationship that you gain — you are the most ardent defender of your country but at the same time you have an outsider angle. I do love my country and I am proud of it. During its own long tragic history there were a lot of mistakes but at the end of the day when I look at what we brought to world literature and world art, I am proud of it.
Interview by Michele Bendall, Editor of Delegation of the European Union to the United States