The View From Washington and Paris: Perspectives of a Diplomat

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Ecole Nationale d'Administration
Paris, France
March 9, 2015

French language version (PDF)

Thank you, Madame Loiseau.

Madame Director Loiseau; Madame Blaison and Monsieur Goffette of ENA; Messrs. Uri and Dorandeu, and Madame Cimonard of ENA-Dauphine; professors and students, past and present, it’s a great honor to be with you.

I must confess to being a little nervous because sitting in the audience right now is Madame Viant, who taught me French seven years ago. I am eternally grateful to her and hope she will be kind in her judgment!

As Madame Loiseau told you, I now work as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

My priority is to elevate economics as a governing principle of U.S. foreign policy, and to make the case that economics is central, timely and relevant.

More and more people recognize this principle. We have come a long way from the days when economics was considered boring, ineffective and even something of a joke.

Even economists made fun of themselves. Walter Heller, who was President Kennedy’s chief economic advisor, used to say that an economist is someone who, when he sees that something is working in practice, wonders how well it would work in theory!

Today, I want to reflect a little bit on the personal journey that brought me here, and how my experiences in France have not only endeared this country to me forever, but have informed and deepened my perspective ever since.

Let me start by saying how wonderful it is to be back in the city that I came to know and love during my extraordinary four and half years as U.S. Ambassador. I came at a special time for both our countries.

I had the opportunity to see the transition between political parties, and to observe French politics on a cellular level.

I was also honored to represent my country in such an important and enduring friendship, one that has lasted since that rather urgent matter of our national independence more than 200 years ago!

Not only do we believe fundamentally in the same rights and freedoms, we love and respect each other’s cultures. The list of Americans who have professed their affection for France has ranged from Thomas Jefferson to Josephine Baker.

Baker, who dazzled Parisian audiences as an entertainer, helped the French Resistance in World War II, received La Croix du Guerre, and eventually became a French citizen, had this to say: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.”

To her sentiments, I can add two words: Me too.

As Ambassador, I addressed every issue in the world as it related to one thing, which was America and France. My new job has to do with one issue, economics and business affairs, as it relates to every country in the world.

The combination of those two is actually unique in the State Department. It’s rare to have a bilateral ambassador create economic policy – and equally rare to have a former businessman do the same.

As ambassador, my job was one of immersion. I didn’t just get to know the city. I also spent time travelling around the entire country, visiting every single region, and learning about the people of France, as well as its culture and history and traditions.

If my job in France was about going deep, my position as Assistant Secretary is about going wide.

Under Secretary Kerry, our objective is to build economic environments that contribute to economic growth, political stability, and regional integration.

This stems from the recognition that almost every challenge we face today is, in some way, economic. Therefore, we should develop robust responses that address those challenges in systemic and sustainable ways.

In any given week, I might find myself promoting the multilateral trade deals we are negotiating with the E.U. or countries in the Asia Pacific; meeting with young entrepreneurs from Doha to Dhaka; talking to Chinese investors about inward investment in the U.S.; or urging Algerian government officials to support a business friendly atmosphere for our own companies.

In almost everything I do, France is a key player; and in some way, my four and a half years here richly informs my perspective.

For example, my Bureau is a key part of the negotiating team in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP – the ongoing trade and investment deal we are seeking to arrange between the U.S. and the European Union.

One of the key issues in France regarding the T-TIP negotiations has been the protection of French culture – and “geographic indications.”

This is where I learned the difference between the “deep” mission of the ambassador, where understanding the culture is absolutely fundamental, and the “wide” agenda of the trade official, where economic realities are supposed to trump and explain everything.

At le Salon de l’Agriculture, a farmer asked me to hold one of her Lacaune sheep, which came from Roquefort. She explained how the caves in Roquefort are unique in the world, and how this sheep was the product of several hundred years of breeding.

As she pointed out, there is something unique about cheese being made in her region, and Wisconsin farmers had no right to market cheeses from their state and call them “Roquefort.”

Of course, there is something unique to celebrate in every culture’s cuisine or produce, and the United States has its proud share.

But without an awareness of cultural context on all sides, our trade deals cannot move forward. I am pleased to report that the U.S. certification trademark system does exist to adequately protect these unique cultural products. I can also say that our system is compliant with all of our international treaty obligations.

Another example in which my French experience has deepened my perspective was the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

I believe it would be remiss of me not to say, right now, that we stand with France, and all civilized people, for a free and open press, and to underscore the message that it is unacceptable, no matter what one’s disagreement or philosophy or religion, to slaughter the innocent.

As Victor Hugo once said: “Tolerance is the best religion of all.”

When those events took place, I wanted to join Ambassador Hartley in Paris to show our support. But I had responsibilities in Washington. So I was honored to be invited by Ambassador Araud to take part in a moment of silence with members of the French embassy in Washington.

I was proud to be among the first people, along with our Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, Victoria Nuland, to sign the book of condolences in the French Embassy.

This mattered to all of us, especially me, and not only because Charlie’s my name too.

Ultimately, it is for the French people to address the broader issues that have been discussed regarding Charlie Hebdo. But when I think about these tragic events, I will always remember my experiences visiting the suburban neighborhoods.

In August of 2009, I went to a town called Villiers de Belle to inaugurate a mural of Dr. Martin Luther King. But the children that I spoke to that day were angry. Even though they were French citizens, they didn’t feel like they were being treated equally.

I changed the topic and asked them what they liked about America. They mentioned celebrities such as, Will Smith, Woody Allen, Jodie Foster, and Samuel Jackson. I told them that I would come back with some of those people.

There is a saying in English: “It’s better to be lucky than good.” In that category, one week later, LaTanya Jackson, who is Samuel Jackson’s wife, called to say that she and her husband were coming through Paris, and would I like to have lunch?

I said, “We’re only going to have lunch if you come with me to les quartiers sensibles.”

We went to a place called Bondy. As we got out of the car, young people yelled out to Sam Jackson: “Big Mac! Big Mac!” because of his role in the movie “Pulp Fiction.”

Jackson spoke to them. He told them he had a tough life, growing up with little hope. But he had worked hard and believed in himself.

Before he came to Bondy, he was Samuel L. Jackson, a two dimensional movie star. After he left, he was a real person who had lived through some of their same experiences.

Those children were so moved, they told me: “Monsieur l’ambassadeur, vous êtes un homme de parole,” a man of your word.

That’s when I knew that I had to do more. Before I ended my term as Ambassador, I actually went back to these areas with every one of the celebrities that they had initially named. We held seminars, and meetings with people like, Woody Allen and Jodie Foster.

We tried to show that the American dream isn’t unique to Americans. It exists everywhere and, here, people in France can also realize their dreams through hard work, dedication and self-confidence.

That is just one of many memories that will stay with me. I may have left France, but France will never leave me.

As I look back, I remember the atmosphere when I arrived.

President Obama had just been elected on a wave of good will, but the world economy was in near freefall. The financial system was on the verge of collapse; as was our automobile industry.

Those were challenging times but now the global economy has been preserved, America’s economy is back on track, and we are trying to negotiate trade deals that could bring prosperity to middle classes everywhere.

Through those deals we are also trying to set global standards with regard to working conditions, consumer safety and our environment.

Trade and investment between the United States and France remain strong, with more than $78 billion in imports and exports – or $213 million a day.

The United States remains the top destination for French investment, and the United States is the largest foreign investor in France.

This is the world, and the strong relationship, that you are inheriting.

As I look out at you, I realize I am looking at the stakeholders of tomorrow. And I would like to conclude with a story that Steve Jobs used to tell young people.

Long before he knew he would be one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, he decided to take a calligraphy course at a community college. It seemed like a silly idea. But years later, he used those skills to create the fonts, logos and images of Apple, which would become the fabric of everyone’s lives.

As Jobs put it to his audience: “Every one of you has a series of dots that might not make sense at first, but trust in them. Take risks. Keep moving forward. It might just fit somewhere. What you can’t do is say: ‘This isn’t going to work’ or ‘This is doomed to fail,’ or ‘This is not done it this way.’”

I haven’t had time to look back. I’ve visited 23 U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world so far.

I will have probably visited three times that by the time I am done, everywhere from Tokyo to Trinidad, from Myanmar to Mumbai, from Bangladesh to Beijing.

I am trusting those dots as I move forward. I am trying to use everything I have learned, not only in public service, but as a businessman for 20 years in the entertainment industry.

As a former businessman, I am determined to encourage and institutionalize even more innovation in public service. Government can and should respond ever more efficiently and nimbly to challenges, demand more accountability, encourage greater innovation, and tell its stories better – all for the greater public good.

In the other direction, I know our businesses can learn a lot from public service. For example, my Bureau honors corporate excellence with the annual prestigious “ACE Awards” for corporate social responsibility.

The awardees are the ones who successfully answered these questions: Are they enriching the communities where they do business? What is their ecological footprint? Are they working for long term sustainability or short term profit?

If there is one thing today that I hope you will always remember, it’s the power you have – with a modicum of technology and a maximum of imagination – to move the dots forward, to bring a responsible and entrepreneurial approach to anything you pursue from public service to private business.

As Victor Hugo also said: “There is nothing in the world – not even mighty armies – as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

As long as you think creatively and act honorably, you will always do the right things. You will always connect the dots.

Thank you.