Donald Trump is not the only President who wants to make his country great again – his first state dinner guest, Emmanuel Macron, wants to do the same.
That’s why the young, pragmatic French President is giving the impression that there’s nothing he’d rather do than spend time with his scandal-plagued US counterpart, offering him the respect and validation he craves.
But he’s not acting purely out of the goodness of his heart: To fulfill his goal of restoring France’s prestige and global influence, he needs the United States – and that means there is no choice but to deal with the man in the Oval Office.
It was a dynamic on display when Macron played a leading role alongside Washington in punishing chemical weapons strikes in Syria – reinforcing the values of Western civilization that many Europeans believe Trump disdains. It’s why Macron is so insistent that despite Trump’s instincts, the United States cannot afford to withdraw its troops from Syria and leave an open playground for extremists like ISIS and regional superpowers like Iran.
And it explains why Macron, who greeted Trump with an air kiss on his cheek as he arrived for his state visit to the White House, has gone out of his way to be friendly to Trump, who is as unpopular in France as he is in the rest of Europe.
On Monday, the leaders flew by helicopter past the monuments in Washington, a city laid out by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant before heading down the Potomac to dine with their wives at George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon.
The first state visit of the current presidency is intended by Trump to return the compliment offered by Macron when he made the President guest of honor at France’s Bastille Day national celebration last July, at a time when other European leaders were still recoiling from the shock of Trump’s “America First” revolution.
Macron is making clear that the scandals afflicting the White House, and even questions about whether they will truncate Trump’s presidency, have no effect on how he will approach the US President.
“I’m not the one to judge … or to consider because of his controversies or because of his investigations your President is less credible for me, for my people and for the rest of the world,” Macron said in a pre-visit interview with “Fox News Sunday.” “I’m here to deal with the President of the United States and people of the United States elected Donald Trump.”
Such an unequivocal embrace must be music to the ears of Trump, who often behaves like he thinks that the legitimacy of his election is being undermined – either by the Russia probe or by the attacks by his enemies. But Macron’s warmth leaves Trump with a dilemma. If he really values Macron, and is interested in repaying his friendship, Trump may be forced to pay a political price himself.
Does the recognition he gains from Macron justify compromises on positions that are indigenous to his own beliefs and appeal to his most loyal voters but are fundamentally opposed by America’s closest European allies?
It’s a particularly testing question because in his dealings with his political allies, subordinates, Cabinet members and business associates, loyalty has sometimes seemed to flow toward Trump rather than from him.
To give Macron what he wants, Trump would have to go back on his vow to tear up the Iran deal by a deadline early next month, give the European Union a permanent waiver from US tariffs on aluminum and steel imports due to come into force next month or keep American troops in Syria even though he wants them home.
Macron does not bring only his friendship as leverage. He’s also arguing that the US, despite having a President whom foreign policy critics have seen as unilateralist and disdaining America’s friends, needs friends.
“I’m very simple. I’m straightforward,” Macron told Fox News, in an apparent attempt to get his message to the avid viewer in the Oval Office before he arrived.
“If you make war against everybody, you make (a) trade war against China, trade war against Europe, war in Syria … come on, it doesn’t work. You need allies. We are the ally,” he said.
The hard power realists in Trump’s reconstituted National Security Council might also note that France is currently the most functional member of the EU, a key NATO power and a member of the UN Security Council.
With that in mind, Jeffrey Feltman, a former UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday that France “is extremely important to the Trump administration’s ability to achieve its goals.”
As Macron landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday, US media bristled with reports about the “bromance” between two leaders who are as different in age, temperament and intellectual approach as it’s possible to imagine.
But the popular notion of Macron as a “Trump whisperer” doesn’t do justice to the subtlety of his mission, the delicacy of dealing with a counterpart as volatile as Trump and the political risks that he is courting himself.
If his effort to engage Trump and bind America firmly into the Atlantic alliance does not deliver, he will sooner or later begin to face questions back home, despite his currently strong political position.
His strategy requires Macron to be close enough to win Trump’s ear. Yet he cannot afford, for himself or France, to be seen as excessively under Trump’s influence – especially given the fact that many people who get too close to the unpredictable US President can get tarnished.
“It is neither good for Macron’s image nor for his effectiveness to be too close to Trump – he should exercise the influence, not advertise it,” said Nicholas Dungan, who lectures at Sciences Po, a prestigious French research university.
“Macron is the President of the French Republic – he wants to make France great again — he cannot do that if Trump opposes him. He can only do it if Trump either supports him or stands aside or gets distracted by something else,” said Dungan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Macron’s branding of himself as Europe’s leader is partly down to the audacity of the 40-year-old who won election last year by reviving the political center and halting the tide of Trump-style populism rattling Western democracies.
It’s also due to the partial eclipse of two of America’s other traditional allies in Europe. Its special relationship partner Britain is all but overwhelmed by its plans to leave the European Union – a factor that is also diminishing its usefulness to the United States as a key continental power. Prime Minister Theresa May is hobbled by the fragility of her coalition government, and Trump’s extreme unpopularity among Britons has meant that he has yet to take up an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to visit America’s closest ally.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made little secret of her belief that Trump does not share Western values, has a tenuous relationship with the US President after several frosty encounters. After she limped through re-election last year, she has even less leeway to re-create the twin pillars of the Western alliance that she forged with former President Barack Obama.
Merkel’s diminished role in the transatlantic hierarchy will be on display when she visits Washington for a working visit on Friday that will have none of the glittering pomp of Macron’s state occasion.