An Interview with Charles H. Rivkin, U.S. Ambassador to France
Charles H. Rivkin is the U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco. He was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama and sworn into office on August 3, 2009. Prior to his current post, Rivkin worked in the media industry for twenty years, serving as CEO of award-winning companies, including The Jim Henson Company and Wildbrain. Rivkin received his Bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1984 and his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1988. In July of 2013, French President François Hollande awarded Ambassador Rivkin the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honor, making him the first sitting U.S. Ambassador in more than 45 years to receive the decoration from a sitting French President. Rivkin is also the youngest U.S. Ambassador to France in 60 years.
The Politic: How did you get involved with the Foreign Service?
My history is as follows: My father served as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Kennedy, and U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia under President Johnson. Actually, my godfather was Hubert Humphrey, and when my father passed away — unfortunately he was only 48 and serving as Ambassador to the mission in Dakar when he passed away — Vice President Humphrey helped the U.S. establish an award at the State Department called the Rivkin Award in 1968. And every year since 1968, it has been given to a mid-level Foreign Service officer who exhibits intellectual courage and constructive dissent. In fact, the award that bears our family’s name is the only award in the U.S. government that honors people for disagreeing with the U.S. government. But I had a chance to give the award every year and, in fact, I wrote in my application to Yale about becoming an ambassador one day. I never thought I would. But I wanted to follow my father’s footsteps and I wanted to one day maybe serve my country like he did. But I never have dared to dream I would be in Paris. So it is certainly a case of living above my wildest expectations.
The Politic: You established the first Facebook and Twitter accounts for the Embassy in Paris. How has social media affected diplomatic work and what future effects do you see it having?
It’s interesting. I have the distinction of being the youngest ambassador to serve here in about 50 years, I’m told, and, it’s strange, but I’m probably the first ambassador in Paris to even use a computer. So you can imagine, they have not, until recently, taken advantage of some of the new tools that are available for diplomats, including social networking and social media. So we’ve made it one of our priorities. We have about 30,000 Facebook followers, so that’s been huge. And we’ve got about 10,000 or 11,000 Twitter followers. So when you think about it, the Embassy in Paris is reaching more than 40,000 people with our messages. Where else can we do that? Before engaging social media, it would be pretty darn hard for our embassy to have that kind of impact on a daily basis.
What’s more, our embassy is trying to reach out to the next generation of leaders in France, and you’re not going to be able to reach out to the youth of France if you don’t communicate where they get their information. So it’s been a very effective tool and we are just beginning. We should have a lot more people. If you look at President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s Facebooks, they’re reaching millions. So our hope is that there’s a targeted increase in how many people we can reach so that we can be more effective at our jobs.
The Politic: Your embassy is known for its visits from a myriad of prominent Americans, including movie stars, musicians, and government officials. What makes these visits important for outreach to French youth?
I’m very lucky to serve in France at this moment in time. I’m an American ambassador, not a Democratic or Republican ambassador, though I’m obviously a Democrat. But my embassy works all over the country, and we deal with whatever facts we have. And the fact is that the positive opinion of America rose 77 percent here in France the day President Obama was sworn in in January of 2009, and 93 percent of the French people wanted him reelected this last cycle. So it’s a lot easier to serve as ambassador in those circumstances. It’s a lot easier for me than for some of my predecessors. But you could also imagine if the popularity of the President rose 77 percent overnight, it wasn’t particularly strong prior to the president being sworn in. And there are a lot of people in certain quarters, or various banlieues, who have a different opinion of America than I have. But when you take a media icon and introduce them to their fans and have them talk about what they like about America, it has a big impact. If you can change one life, you can change the world. And I got very lucky.
Just to tell you a very quick story: when I first came out to the suburbs and disadvantaged communities in 2009 in the fall, a lot of kids I spoke with were of North African descent. They were feeling not particularly well-integrated into French society. And I changed topics and asked them what it is they like about America, and they said to me: Sam Jackson, Will Smith, Woody Allen, Will.i.am, etc. So I said, “I’m gonna come back here with one of these guys.” And in the category of “it’s better to be lucky than good,” the next morning I actually got a call from LaTanya Jackson, Sam Jackson’s wife, and they said they were in Paris and wanted to get together. And I said fine, I’m taking you to the banlieues. Sam Jackson gave a real tough-love message out there and it was very impactful. What’s more, when I got out of the car, they said [in French], “You’re a man of your word.” As such, I was actually able to get every single one of the people on that list they asked for over time. I spent a day with Will.i.am out in the banlieues. We held other seminars, etc. And it’s been a very effective program.
The Politic: U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 criticized France for not doing a better job of integrating minorities, specifically Muslims. You said in a cable that, “French institutions appear insufficiently flexible for a population that is growing more diverse.” Do you see the French government making more of an effort to try and engage and assist these communities, or banlieues?
Well first of all, as you can imagine, we don’t comment about WikiLeaks cables. But I can tell you that every one of the programs that we’ve done has been with our French partners. I was in Bondy that day when the kids were telling me about who they wanted to see on a program that was put in place by a French council. I was in the 20th arrondissement with the socialist mayor of the arrondissement. We have created here an award called the Washburne Award for Equal Opportunity, and that was put in place by our embassy and the French Minister for Youth. You know, nothing would be effective if we weren’t working hand-in-hand with the French government, and I don’t think anyone would suggest otherwise.
The Politic: Your tenure as Ambassador began with Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France, and now we have François Hollande. How has this shift affected or how will it affect your work and the overall relationship between the U.S. and France?
The administration had very good relations with Sarkozy and his administration. My embassy had an interesting challenge. The election took place just before last year’s G8 conference and NATO summit in Chicago. So, in fact, we had to contemplate, if Hollande won (which he did, but we didn’t know that at the time) he would only have ten days to be oriented on issues that matter to Americans before they go to the G8 and NATO. And that’s not a lot of time. So our embassy was tasked with trying to predict who would win, and then also trying to introduce members of the U.S. government to unnamed socialist ministers, meaning people who might one day serve as ministers in a theoretical Hollande administration.
We were fortunate to have predicted the election correctly, and also to have brokered these meetings with people who ended up becoming ministers of the Hollande government. As such, our policy was completely coordinated prior to these summits. But that being said, there isn’t a single issue in America foreign policy where America and France aren’t on the same page. There is, in my opinion, very little difference between the Sarkozy foreign policy and the Hollande foreign policy. So whether it be the position on Iran or on Syria or on North Korea or where we stand on Afghanistan, France is either at our side or even ahead of us.
The Politic: Unlike many ambassadors, you are not a career diplomat. How has coming from a media/business background informed and shaped your role as ambassador?
My answer to that question is that there are extraordinary career ambassadors and extraordinary non-career ambassadors, or political appointees. It isn’t that one is one way and one is the other. I think there are a variety on both sides. I think there’s about 70 percent career ambassadors and 30 percent non-career or political appointees. But in my opinion, what a hard-working political appointee as “chief of mission” brings to the table are three things. One: access to the White House. Seventy percent of the career foreign service offices really can’t pick up the phone to call the White House about an issue. The non-career ambassador can straddle that divide. Their relationships by definition are stronger with the White House — otherwise they wouldn’t be in office. There are many cases where having the White House weigh in directly on issues that matter to a bilateral relationship can greatly help a mission.
The second benefit to political appointees as ambassadors is, as you mentioned, business. I’ve run organizations. My embassy has 1,000 people. Some 51 agencies are represented in seven cities. So that’s actually managing a mid-size company. Having an M.B.A and having managed businesses — that comes easier to me than it does to others. And thirdly, I have less to be fearful of. What I mean by that is, it’s sometimes the case where a career ambassador would not necessarily want to anger someone in Washington over a decision because he’s going to be looking for his next appointment. But a political appointee usually serves their four years and moves on. So you cannot be afraid of challenging policy and even shaking a few trees and getting some people upset. And I think that’s healthy for American diplomacy. I believe it’s a good system, as long as you have people who are dedicated and committed and want to have a bilateral relationship.
The Politic: Back in November, the cover of The Economist was titled, “The Time-Bomb at the Heart of Europe.” The European Commission has warned France to cut its spending and President Hollande faces tough choices in how to go about economic reforms. How do you assess France’s economic state and what will be the ripple effects on the U.S. and the EU if reforms are not successful?
Well, let me just say that as the fifth largest economy in the world, France matters tremendously to America. There’s approximately $1.2 billion a day in trade investment and affiliate sales that take place between our two nations. There are approximately 600,000 French who work for American companies doing business in France, and around the same number — another 600,000 or 700,000 — Americans working for French companies. The relationship is incredibly deep and complex, and our economies are interlinked. We are trying, as you know, to push forward a European-American transatlantic treaty and trade partnership that would further increase global trade and harmonize policies between Europe and the United States. Every nation — France included — needs to balance austerity with growth. I think France has the same philosophy as America on how to do that, and we are confident that they are on a path to make that work. Certainly, France and Germany are drivers of the economics inside the Eurozone, so a lot of attention is placed on them. But we are confident the Hollande administration will succeed.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
I can’t necessarily think of one person who’s had an enormous impact on our mission to represent the President’s and the Secretary of State’s vision on foreign affairs. We work at all levels of French government and French society, so I can’t really think of an individual or an event. France is our oldest ally and we’re engaged in so many ways and on so many levels. There’s never one person or one event that’s going to change the oldest diplomatic relationship we have.
The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
The only thing I can tell you is bilateral lane; you can ask others about how we’re represented in other countries. But as I mentioned, America and its president enjoy great popularity here in France. I mentioned 93 percent of the French wanted the president reelected and you really do feel a tangible warmth towards America. The D-Day anniversary was on June 6 and the visceral warmth and feelings the French have towards America were on display on the anniversary of D-Day. It’s just extraordinary, and it’s something you should definitely witness if you have a chance someday.
Our nation is well presented here and our relationship is the best it has been in a generation. As far as policies that I disagree with, I don’t have the right to do that, as you know. I’m the president’s personal representative in France, and my opinion is the American government’s opinion. So I’m not entitled to have an opinion that differs from our policy. I will tell that, fortunately, I agree with everything we’re doing. So that has never been an issue for me.
The Politic: You’re expected to step down from your post soon. Do you plan on continuing?
Secretary Kerry is a friend. I worked on his campaign in 2004 and he’s been to Paris many times during my time here. If an opportunity arose to work for him [while he is] Secretary of State and continue working in government, I would do so, but I don’t have anything to announce yet.
Embassy of the United States to France: http://france.usembassy.gov/index.html