39. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Summary of the President’s Meeting with French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing


  • President Jimmy Carter
  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman, U.S. Ambassador to France (Notetaker)
  • President Valery Giscard d’Estaing
  • Foreign Minister Louis de Guiringaud
  • Secretary General Jean Francois-Poncet
  • Ambassador Francois de Laboulaye, French Ambassador to the United States

Horn of Africa

The President began by recounting his conversation with Prince Fahd in Saudi Arabia2 who said that Siad Barre had just been there [Page 87] and had expressed a desire for peace. He wants us to ask the Soviets to restrain their activities there. The President said we are concerned about Cuban and Soviet actions but we are reluctant to act because Somalia is in the position of being the invader. We have already asked the Soviets to be restrained and, while their actions have not changed very much, Gromyko has told us that the Ethiopians will not cross the border into Somalia.3 In addition, we have talked to the Nigerians to urge some African help in seeking a solution but frankly we are looking for advice about what can be done.4

De Guiringaud said that he had discussed the problem with Vance and that in his view little could be done now. Somalia is the aggressor and the French are refraining from sending arms. We should continue to press the Ethiopians and the Soviets not to move into Somalia and we should speak to the Somalians to persuade them to negotiate. Perhaps they could agree to something like self-determination or just consultation with the population of Ogaden. De Guiringaud did not think the Nigerian effort would amount to anything.

The President thought it would be useful for the French to approach the Soviets as well.

Dr. Brzezinski said that was only one half of the problem, i.e. how to get some negotiations started; the other half of the problem is what happens if the Cubans and Soviets remain in Ethiopia and use it as a base of operations. Perhaps it would be better to show the Soviets that their continued presence there would be costly by making some effort to get other States in the Middle East and Africa to aid Somalia.

Secretary Vance thought the first thing was to move toward negotiations and that might help with the second problem but we certainly have to keep in our minds that our objectives are to dislodge Soviet and Cuban influence from the area.

President Giscard then gave a rather general and philosophical statement of his concern about Africa similar to the one he had made in [Page 88] London.5 He said we need to have a general view of the African situation. He believes it to be a zone of danger. He said that we must convince the Soviets that some things which they would like to pursue with us, such as defense and disarmament matters, could be menaced if the situation to the south becomes difficult. By and large, these countries in Africa are unstable and conflict there could lead to difficulties in the whole world. Basically, President Giscard does not believe that the Soviets really desire to intervene in Africa but they tend to be called in by the more radical States and then they cannot resist the temptation to take advantage of a favorable situation. We must convince the Soviets that this kind of irresponsible behavior on their part is not compatible with detente.

He continued that there is also a problem of the psychology of African leaders. They now see a situation where they can get arms easily from the Soviets but all they get from us are rather vague statements of problems but no immediate response. Therefore, these African leaders, even the moderate ones, begin to feel that they have no support from the West in the face of very real dangers, particularly with the activity of as many as 25,000 Cubans in various places. It was for this reason that Giscard decided to intervene in Zaire—to show moderate African leadership that they could resist these Soviet inspired efforts. He also said that Algeria gets what it wants but Mauritania has difficulty in getting support from us. Giscard said that he understands why it is difficult for us to countenance intervention—it is also difficult for the French—but we must find a way to restrain the Soviets and to give aid, not just military aid, but economic and political support. Otherwise, we will not be able to change the mental attitude.

With respect to the Horn, President Giscard said that Somalia is a very unstable place—a few years ago they told us they were not getting aid from the Soviets and that there was no base at Berbera. Now they admit it. Ethiopia is a perfectly horrible place—if one talks about human rights they don’t exist there. If the conflict goes on for a long time, eventually Ethiopia will win because they have 40 million people but Somalia is basically on our side. But if we support Somalia we are probably supporting an aggressor and a loser. If we do nothing there will probably be a bad result as well so we need some initiative to try and get peace and some fair solution to the Ogaden problem. We must avoid a crushing defeat for Somalia. We need a diplomatic move. The Saudis are giving some limited support but we have refrained while hinting to the Soviets that we may have to act in time.

[Page 89]

The President asked whether France had discussed this with the Soviets because he felt French interests, particularly in Djibouti, were important. President Carter mentioned in this connection that he had heard from Sadat that Siad Barre had offered Berbera to Egypt. He asked what French reaction would be to that.

President Giscard replied that he felt there was mainly weakness in the African States—in Morocco, in Algeria and in Egypt and, therefore, he couldn’t really see that Egypt would be a very powerful force there. He thought it more profitable to examine what the next steps should be diplomatically, not militarily. He thought it hopeful that Siad had indicated he wished to have better relations with Kenya.

Dr. Brzezinski asked about Eritrea and President Giscard indicated that the Eritreans were good fighters and probably would gain ground, although Masawa was held with Soviet help against the Eritreans.

Secretary Vance indicated that Siad Barre had written a letter to the President of the Ivory Coast expressing a willingness to enter into a treaty with Kenya so that Kenya would be less nervous about its border with Somalia.

President Giscard said he knew of this move and, in fact, Siad Barre had asked to meet with him secretly in the Ivory Coast later this month.

Dr. Brzezinski said that two things were necessary—first, a diplomatic move to prevent a victory of either side; second, some move to prevent a Soviet-Cuban presence in Ethiopia.

The President asked if Giscard had approached Castro and Giscard replied that he had but that the response was largely negative. He offered to show us the account of Poniatowski’s conversation with Castro.

M. Francois-Poncet said that he wished to differ with certain of the views already expressed because he believed some action must be taken or else the Saudis and others are going to feel that we cannot act.

President Giscard indicated a lack of enthusiasm for any military moves and said that even if these should be contemplated it always ought to be through African States.

Dr. Brzezinski said that we should encourage African States to help out.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Horn of Africa.]

Djibouti and the Horn

The President asked if the French intend to keep their troops in Djibouti and Giscard replied that they do although obviously it is expensive and they would like to withdraw. President Carter welcomed this assurance because he thought it was a restraining influence on the situation. He said that the Saudis had told him that if the Soviets [Page 90] establish a presence in South Yemen they would have to act and we know from our intelligence that the Saudis are building up forces along the border.

President Giscard concluded that the French were in very close contact with the Saudis on the problems in the Horn of Africa but eventually the French would want to get out of their force commitments in the area.

Secretary Vance asked what the next steps should be on the diplomatic side. First there could be a diplomatic initiative coming from the Ivory Coast. Second, there should be a cease-fire and some diplomatic negotiation but who is in the best position to initiate such a move—an African country?

The President thought that Nigeria was willing. He also mentioned that Gromyko had asked to consult with us on this.

President Giscard thought that the African countries were too weak and, therefore, we perhaps should look to the Permanent Members of the Security Council plus any African Members of the Security Council.

Secretary Vance mentioned Yugoslavia and India as well.

De Guiringaud again raised the question of the Soviet presence and asked if they wish a permanent base in Ethiopia from which they could influence events in East Africa and the Middle East. That is the key problem. He thought if that was their objective the United States would have to use its leverage because of all the things the Soviets want from us; but perhaps this was not a good idea.

The President said that it would still be useful for the French to explain their concerns to the Soviets.

Dr. Brzezinski said we should make clear to the Soviets that their staying in Ethiopia would be costly. We, therefore, ought to see whether not ending the conflict might also be in our interest until the Soviet position changes. Iran and Saudi Arabia might help.

De Guiringaud thought this was dangerous because it might lead the Soviets and Cubans to put more effort into Ethiopia but Brzezinski thought that would just be making the situation more costly.

President Giscard concluded that we must find a way to support Somalia to show the Soviets that this will be costly. He mentioned some of the indirect actions France had taken in this direction.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Horn of Africa.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, Subject File, Box 36, Memcons: President, 1/78. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Carter met with Fahd on January 3. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, January 1977–August 1978, Document 184.
  3. See footnote 5, Document 36. Vance and Shulman also met with Dobrynin on December 28, 1977, and were assured of the Ethiopian pledge not to use Soviet arms outside Ethiopian territory. Shulman’s memorandum for the files is in Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 3, CVDobrynin, 12/28/77. Vance informed Carter of the Soviet assurances in a December 28 memorandum. (Carter Library, Plains Files, Subject File, Box 13, State Department Evening Reports) In another meeting with Dobrynin on January 14, Vance again expressed the continuing U.S. concern with Soviet actions in Ethiopia. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 72.
  4. In telegram 14354 from Lagos, December 12, 1977, the Embassy reported on approaching the Nigerians to speak out against Soviet intervention in Ethiopia. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770462–0352)
  5. See footnote 2, Document 34.