Donald et Emmanuel?
"Franco-American relations have been, and always will be, both conflictual and excellent. The US finds France unbearable with its pretensions; we find the US unbearable with its hegenomism. But deep down, we remember that the 'boys' - came to help us two times, just as the Americans remember that the French helped them with their independence. So there will be sparks but no fire, because a real bond exists."
President Jacques Chirac
Alphen, Netherlands. 25 April. This week’s state visit to the United States by President Macron of France is already a success. Still, the body language is fascinating. Macron is clearly doing all he can to charm Trump, whatever his real personal feelings. Trump is clearly glad to have any ‘friend’ amongst the leaders of the European allies especially one who seems willing to take action in his support. Just how deep does this new Franco-America ‘special relationship’ go?
Now, I suppose as a Brit I should be in full on snipe from the side-lines mode. Forget it! Brexit-obsessed London has of late lost the strategic plot and in doing so failed to remember the golden rule about power and influence in Washington. To hopelessly paraphrase President Kennedy it matters not what an ally did last week for America, but what an ally is planning to do next week. In fact, I should paraphrase that statement even more in the context of the current Administration: it is not what an ally did last week for Donald J. Trump that matters, but what he is doing now and tomorrow.
You see both Macron and Trump understand power in a way that no other allied leader seems to grasp, albeit from very different angles. There is really something of the de Gaulle about Macron. His ambitions are far greater than the state he leads and like de Gaulle, he has the Gaul to state his ambitions loud and clear and seize the mantle of leadership from those who should wear it but choose not to. Trump sees power in very personal terms. For him, power is maintaining his own position in the face of constant attacks because what is good for Donald J. Trump is good for America. Both leaders are strong on ego, most leaders naturally are, unless you are Theresa May. However, whereas one applies ego in pursuit of intelligent design, the other has a visceral, predatory, feral, very personal concept of power.
There are also very clear limits to the influence President Macron and France can bring to bear on Trump’s Washington, not least because there are considerable areas of tension over policy. The most obvious tension concerns the Iran nuclear deal. In a desperate attempt to keep Trump on board French officials have been overnight frantically trying to strengthen the agreement by proposing new curbs on the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and action against Tehran for its support of Assad in Syria. It is a real test for this new ‘special relationship’.
A further question comes to mind: why does Macron get on with Trump but May and Merkel apparently less so? The real bond, I suspect, is that both Macron and Trump are risk takers. Macron’s France-magnifying speech last week in which he called for more ‘Europe’ not less came just as his own lustre back home is fading and goes against the mood amongst much of his own people and much of the rest of Europe. One might go as far as to say that Brexit has already succeeded in legitimising euro-scepticism and Macron’s efforts to counter it represents as much a political risk as his efforts to take on the embedded economic interests of whole groups of French workers. Trump is the very embodiment of risk. Someone who seems to operate on the basis that any particular goal at any particular time which is worth pursuing for whatever end must be pursued at all costs and damn the consequences. His demarche towards North Korea’s Kim Jung-un is a case in point. Some would see it as a bold move to end the North Korean nuclear programme, others as a naïve step doomed to end in failure. In fact, it is both of those things and as such is also pure Trump – a grand gamble.
Why not May nor Merkel? Part of me is tempted to wonder out loud if President Trump’s appalling view of women may have something to do with the less than stellar relationship he ‘enjoys’ with both. In fact, I think the problems go deeper. Chemistry matters enormously with Trump and the ‘chemistry’ with both May and Merkel is not great. In May’s case, Trump smells weakness something he instinctively despises. Worse, in spite of the forthcoming visit to Britain this summer Trump has been personally offended by the repeated insults he has suffered at the hands of a British political class that has used him as a giant neon-lit virtue-signalling boardwalk sign. Merkel? Chalk and cheese. Add that to the ambivalent view of America held by many Germans and by default political space opens up for France and President Macron.
So, just how far can the Macron-Trump relationship go? For the sake of the transatlantic relationship one hopes it goes a lot further. Indeed, the real test of Macron’s influence will be the extent to which he can exert both a shaping and restraining power over Trump. And here I begin to wonder about the depth of the relationship precisely because Macron and Trump see power in very different ways. For Macron, power is about strategy and control designed to lead to grand outcomes that showcase both him and France. Power is thus about gloire which is again something Gaullist if not Bonapartist about Macron. Ultimately, power is about order. For Trump power is about disorder, about divide and rule, about keeping enemies permanently off-balance. Power is thus about chaos. For Trump America’s enemies are his enemies and for that reason, most are to be found in Washington not elsewhere.
For all the above there is something enduring about the Franco-American relationship which Chirac touched on and which the constant (anti-British?) references this week to France being America’s oldest ally reflect. Just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq I was having lunch in Congress where I tasted the infamous ‘freedom fries’. Blair and Britain was on the up and France and President Chirac were the embodiments of perfidy. It was thus deemed on longer suitable for French fries to be on the menu. To be honest, they were fatty and somewhat over-cooked. A metaphor? Fifteen years on and France is again in the ascendant in Washington.
Will it last? Probably not. Whilst the relationship is indeed enduring it also swings on a pendulum over time and often between personal chemistry and enduring shared interests at one end, and profound disagreements over policy at the other, most notably NATO (although Trump is the most NATO-sceptical US president in the alliance’s history). And, of course, neither Macron nor Trump will be in power or in office or both for very long.
Britain? London must learn again how to play the power and influence game. It could start by sending the new British heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth together with a task group of Type 45 destroyers and Astute-class nuclear attack submarines to the US Navy’s fleet base at Norfolk, Virginia. There, invite President Trump to give a speech about burden-sharing aboard a mighty British warship and my bet is he will go all gooily British again. I can envision the speech already (I am willing to write it for a fee): “Here I stand in Norfolk, Virginia, historic home of the mighty United States Navy aboard a mighty warship and she flies not the Stars and Stripes but the historic White Ensign flag of the mighty Royal Navy”. I might have overdone the ‘mighty’ bit but you get the picture.
For the moment the Franco-American relationship is in fine fettle. It is an advantage for all us who believe in the transatlantic relationship that it is and remains so. President Macron had the courage to engage President Trump rather than join the European ‘Ode to Whatever’ Chorus of disapproval. For that alone President Macron and French diplomacy deserve our plaudits for seeing the bigger picture and having the vision to act on it. Prime Minister May? Bigger Picture? Power? Vision?
Chapeau, M. le president!