By Celia Belin
A major storm is looming over the Atlantic, and it might make landfall in the next few months. With European allies’ exemption from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs expiring May 1 and U.S. President Donald Trump’s deadline for Europeans to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal arriving shortly thereafter, the United States looks poised to clash with Europe over policies that go against the continent’s fundamental interests. Despite the recent U.S., British, and French joint military strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons’ facilities, on April 14, Europeans are worried about the United States’ long-term commitments to stabilizing and rebuilding the Middle East. Allies are left speculating about what the recent personnel reshuffle in the Trump administration will bring forth, bracing for an unchained “America first” foreign policy.
It is in this context that President Emmanuel Macron will make his first state visit to the United States, April 23-25. Not only has the young French leader, a hero of pro-European liberals, embraced the populist-nationalist Trump but his visit comes at a time of fading British and German influence. Macron is certainly playing his cards pragmatically to advance France’s own interests, but can he secure a larger role for his country, as the new lynchpin in the U.S.-European relationship? Or will France and the United States find themselves unable to reconcile their short-term interests, therefore reigniting the two countries’ old mistrusts?
FRENCH CONFIDENCE AMID EUROPEAN CONFUSION
Since Trump’s election, the United States’ relationship with two of its traditionally closest European allies, Germany and the United Kingdom, has deteriorated. Both countries have found themselves powerless to doing anything about it, failing to find the right tone to efficiently reach out to Trump, paralyzed as they are by the lack of access (Germany), or the lack of self-confidence (the United Kingdom). As the British nervously envision a post-Brexit future, Prime Minister May has been gesturing toward Trump in the hope of using the special relationship to secure a profitable trade deal, but the extreme unpopularity of the American president in the United Kingdom has limited her outreach. Germany, under Trump’s constant fire for running deep trade surpluses with the United States, for not spending enough on defense, for its open-borders policy during the 2015 refugee crisis, or, recently, for not participating in strikes against Syria, has to make special overtures to the administration to receive the treatment that would have been the norm under previous presidents— pushing Chancellor Merkel to visit Washington two days after Macron in April to make sure exemptions on steel and aluminum tariffs are made permanent.
This turn of events has opened up an opportunity for France to fill the gap in the transatlantic relationship. Contrary to its two big neighbors, France’s heart rate has not accelerated. The French public did not display the type of raw emotional reaction to Trump’s election prevalent elsewhere in Western Europe, and Macron even dared to invite the president to Paris for Bastille Day at a moment when the prospect for a Trump state visit to the United Kingdom was abandoned for fear of a public backlash. The two presidents have developed a real personal connection, sharing similarities in their accession to power— two outsiders vanquishing the political establishment, two disruptive personalities who relish transgression—and in their direct, blunt talk. The French and American leaders speak on a regular basis, and Trump sends congratulatory notes to the French president when he gets good press. Subsequently, Macron had the privilege to be the first world leader to be invited by Trump for an official state visit.
Not only do the French feel confident in their comprehension of Trump’s world, they also enjoy an almost unprecedented and unmatched level of access in Washington.
FRENCH REALISM BEST ADAPTED TO TRUMP’S ERA
In spite of Macron’s excellent rapport with Trump, much of the renewal in U.S.-French ties actually predates them. French diplomatic tradition, which in the past has been viewed as a hindrance to close relations with the United States, proves to be an advantage in working with Trump’s America.
French diplomats share a few basic views of France’s place and role in the world. Independence, at the heart of France’s foreign policy, translates into a cult-like attachment to nuclear deterrence, a constant investment in its military forces, and a refusal to blindly accept American dominance, relayed by slogans such as Hubert Védrine’s “friend, ally, but non-aligned” to describe France’s relation to the United States. There is a French exceptionalism, too: the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen believes in its universal mission, whether it is to give a voice to the voiceless—as Macron illustrated when he brought a Malian schoolboy and a Libyan migrant with him during his visit to the UN General Assembly-or to unify the country behind the fight against climate change. France also holds dear its commitment to the European project. It is deeply convinced of the existential necessity of the Franco-German bond and it would like to build a European Union in its image. Beyond the unifying notions of independence, exceptionalism, and Europeanism, the French policy elite also share a powerful sense of realism, which help them cope with Trumpism better than their European counterparts. To a certain extent, the evolution of U.S. foreign policy under Trump results in positions often close to French views, or at least coherent with French expectations.
Indeed, France is not too concerned with Trump’s threat to the West and the liberal world order, which Paris has often perceived as the American-centered world order. Over the past 70 years, in the golden age of American power, France has repeatedly looked for ways to de-Westernize its own foreign policy—posing as a voice for the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s, flagging its own postcolonial politique arabe as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, or voicing concerns in the name of the rest of the world during the clash with Washington over the Iraq War. Therefore, Trump’s conviction that the United States does not have to behave differently and better than other countries or carry a heavier burden than other countries is a form of de-Westernization of U.S. foreign policy, and fits into France’s vision.
The Trump administration’s preference for interests over values, meanwhile, has also not preoccupied the French as much, for France never fully endorsed the concept of a community of values between the two sides of the Atlantic. Even when recognizing the parallel democratic revolutions that occurred simultaneously in both countries, France likes to point out that collective preferences differ widely between them. France and the United States have always had different conceptions of the welfare systems (the role of the state, trust in public institutions), a different understanding of some basic fundamental rights (free speech, secularism), and even different conceptions of consumption and market competition. France was always among the skeptics on transatlantic free trade negotiations, from the New Transatlantic Marketplace of the 1990s to the recent Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Macron feels that the United States does not have the same commitment to equality and social justice as Europe.
Instinctively, the French are as critical of Trump as the next European, who see in him, as Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands put it, “a combination of the worst of Bush and the worst of Obama.” For the French, however, Trump is not an outlier in his approach to transatlantic relations, apart from his crude form of communication. Both his critical remarks and (rarer) positive observations on European allies find echoes in past U.S. presidencies. The French hear echoes of Bush—under whom U.S. foreign policy was defined by its unilateralism, conservatism, and militarism—and echoes of Obama, under whom prudence was deployed to the point of withdrawal or inaction, and U.S. exceptionalism was a fading factor. Both the Bush era and the Obama era brought moments of friction with France-disputes over Iraq and Syria, respectively-which partly explains the French lack of nostalgia.
In fact, France is conscious of the fact that the United States had been redefining its own security interests for quite some time, in a sense that was not necessarily favorable to Europeans. Although Obama’s diplomacy pursued a number of universalist goals (fight against climate change and against nuclear proliferation), it also exercised a foreign policy of restraint, sometimes at odds with European interests: the “pivot” to Asia was perceived as a pivot away from Europe and the Middle East; pressure increased for Europeans to share the burden of security; and Obama had a restrictive approach to the use of force, even when major European security interests were at stake (“leading from behind” in Libya, back-benching on Minsk diplomacy vis-à-vis Ukraine, and refusing to use force to enforce the chemical weapons red line in Syria). Although the current administration has toughened its stance on Russia, on almost all fronts Trump has prolonged and expanded this redefinition of U.S. interests, packaging it in a nationalistic, protectionist, go-it-alone, “America first” policy. That said, the French do feel they share a few instincts with the American president. After Trump ordered the bombing of a Syrian air base in April 2017, French diplomats welcomed the perceived change of strategy and the apparent decisiveness of the new administration. And they did not hesitate to get on the bandwagon last week for a similar operation. More than other Europeans, the French give Trump the benefit of the doubt. They feel they can deal with this president, at least as much as they did with his predecessors.
AMERICANS SEE IN FRANCE THE “MODEL ALLY”
Not only do the French feel confident in their comprehension of Trump’s world, they also enjoy an almost unprecedented and unmatched level of access in Washington. In a complete reversal of fortune from 15 years ago, France is now celebrated in Washington as a reliable military ally, able and willing to intervene to defend its security interests and those of its allies. This image overhaul is the result of a long effort on the part of three French presidents to repair relations with their American ally. After the hyperbolic debates over Iraq, President Jacques Chirac toned down the rhetoric and cooperated with the Bush administration, refraining from engaging in “told-you-so” arguments. The perceived Atlanticism of Sarkozy, l’Américain, was complemented by France returning to the integrated military command structures of NATO in 2009, a particularly bold move given the centrality of France’s special status in NATO to its security policy. With this decision, France was repairing its relationship with the United States, alleviating suspicions of its European defense projects and increasing France’s profile at the Pentagon. The NATO operation in Libya in 2011, led by France and the United Kingdom, sharing command with the United States, cemented the new format.
Yet it was the Hollande government’s decision to intervene in Mali early 2013 that truly woke Washington up to the present value of its oldest ally. Ten years after the Iraq dispute, it gave proof that France was willing to intervene when the stability of an ally was at risk, and when a terrorist network risked gaining territory. Ahead of and during the intervention, French diplomacy secured wide-ranging bipartisan political support for the war in Washington. A decadelong congressional outreach effort, through staffers’ educational trips and the creation of a French Caucus on the Hill, helped secure U.S. logistical and intelligence support for the operation. When France expanded its counterterrorism effort to the Sahel region, it benefited from U.S. active support and participation.
In 2014, France joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq, and, based on intelligence of an imminent threat, expanded the struggle to Syria in September 2015. Following the horrific terror attacks in Paris later that year, the U.S.-France defense relationship took steps toward institutionalization: special instructions were given to both countries’ military intelligence agencies to access each other’s operational intelligence on theaters of common engagement, and the Lafayette Committee was established to monitor the process and increase fluidity. Military cooperation increased in many domains, which led Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to say in November 2016 that “military cooperation between the United States and our oldest ally, France, has never been stronger.” Today, the two countries see nearly eye to eye on the counterterrorism front. Meetings in the FiveEyes + France format, on ISIS and on North Korea, are increasingly frequent, demonstrating the relevance, from a U.S. perspective, of intelligence-sharing with Paris.
All of this institutional rapprochement has effectively created a very pro-France environment at the Pentagon, which reverberates to other branches of the U.S. government. At a time when U.S. military experts lament Western Europe’s continued disarmament, they see France as upholding its share of responsibilities. In the Trump administration, which holds generals in great respect as well as in key civilian positions, generals’ positive views of France matter.
Although Macron has been able to pursue a double agenda of proximity to Trump and ambition for Europe, however, there are limits to what he can do.
CAN FRANCE INSPIRE A RENEWED U.S.-EUROPEAN PARTNERSHIP?
Although Macron has been able to pursue a double agenda of proximity to Trump and ambition for Europe, however, there are limits to what he can do. In a world where Trump imposes competition and bilateral negotiations, and where European member states have increasingly different objectives and projects—compare Merkel’s Germany to Viktor Orban’s Hungary—it is hard for France to speak in the name of all of Europe in Washington. It is even harder for Macron to rally Europeans behind him when dealing with the United States: some of his closest allies on European integration, from Merkel to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, are also very wary of his disruptive influence on European politics. By trying to establish a centrist pro-European force across the continent ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Macron threatens the establishment parties that he must partner with to reform the EU. If Macron’s pan-European movement takes hold, it is not hard to imagine that his counterparts in EU capitals will be hesitant in ceding him legitimacy to speak for Europe, in Washington or elsewhere.
Moreover, as is often remarked, one is never too far from the next French-American dispute. Classic elements of mistrust between the two countries can easily find their way back across the Atlantic. The two countries still regard each other’s evolution as problematic. The French public has an abysmal opinion of Trump, and they judge him and his administration as chaotic, untrustworthy, and excessively egoistical. They will continue to support Macron’s strategy of keeping good friends close and problematic allies closer, yet, they probably can’t expect to follow the United States blindly into a new military confrontation, for example against Iran or North Korea, especially if they blame Washington for skirting diplomacy.
On the American side, l’amour de la France also has limits. The image of France as a tired, unreformable, divided country has not completely faded. Many perceived the November 2015 terror attacks as a demonstration of French and European ills, namely an inability to integrate a large Muslim population and a susceptibility to racial and religious tensions. And beneath the rhetoric on French bravery these days, if the French were to fail to support a new U.S. military action, like in 2003, the Francophobic rhetoric that gave us “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and freedom fries would surely resurface.
Over the long term, French-American divergences appear manageable. In spite of all the political noise around Russia in Washington, transatlantic cooperation is solid and consistent on the issue, unlikely to experience turmoil in a near future. On trade with China, France will probably not stand in the way of a more confrontational stance on part of the United States, as they are themselves pushing for more reciprocal ties and strengthening regulations on Chinese investments in Europe. On climate and other global challenges, France sits comfortably on the opposite side of the United States-French universalism does not feel the need to be validated by American support. In the next few years, Macron is expected to continue pushing for his global agenda in a very public way, undeterred by Trump’s antagonism on these issues.
The potential for friction, however, is higher in a short-term timeframe, as the volatility of the next few months will be considerable. On Syria, France and the United States see eye to eye on the necessity of punitive strikes against Syria to reaffirm the nonproliferation norm, but Trump’s objective to pull troops out of the field once ISIS is defeated has Paris worried. Given that the fight against terrorism is Macron’s top security priority, securing a commitment from the United States to stabilize the ISIS-liberated areas is of vital interest and unlikely given Trump’s repeated desire to leave Syria “very soon.” Europeans are left wondering about the effects of the power play that Washington will leave behind, with Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, and others competing at their doorstep.
Over the long term, French-American divergences appear manageable.
On Iran, France’s policy has been remarkably steady over the past 15 years, to the point that it led to frictions with the Obama administration. Yet now that the nuclear deal is in place, the French disagree with Trump’s assessment that denouncing it for its many flaws could yield any productive results. The situation could degenerate quickly, as early as May 12, if Trump were to decide to reestablish sanctions, including secondary sanctions directly affecting European interests in Iran and effectively scrapping the deal for all. After trying for months to negotiate a supplemental deal to please Trump, Europeans might be in the uncomfortable position to be called on by Russians and Iranians to recognize that it is the Americans who have violated the deal. North Korea is a question mark, as no one knows what the Americans are willing to trade or discuss in the context of the potential bilateral summit. It is anyone’s guess how the French, who are hard-liners on nuclear nonproliferation, would react if they had the impression that the Trump administration is underselling its hand.
What good is a friend for? In the run-up to the state visit, French diplomats were prudent in lowering expectations, calling it a mere “celebration of friendship.” The fact is that the best that Macron can hope for is that Trump allows the prolongation of the imperfect status quo: continued joint counterterrorism efforts in Syria, an absence of decision on the Iran nuclear deal, and an agreement to politely disagree on most other issues. But the short-term centrifugal winds are so strong that the two leaders might not have the option of amiability without shared views for much longer.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com