Forgive France, Punish Germany, (Ignore Russia)
What to look for during the upcoming visits of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to Trump's White House
“Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia.” That was the summary of U.S. policy toward Europe attributed to then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003 during the transatlantic bust-up over Iraq. Rice never acknowledged using these words. But they describe fittingly the attitude of the Bush administration toward the three major power players in continental Europe at that time in history. In the Elysee and the Quai d'Orsay, the seats of the president and the foreign minister in Paris, the “punishment” formula is remembered to this day as the treatment, which France had to endure for many of the following years.
In mid April 2018 the situation has changed completely. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancelor Angela Merkel are visiting U.S. President Donald Trump this week. France has taken over the role of America's preferred partner in Europe. Merkel is no longer the darling of the White House on the Old Continent, a designation she held during the Obama administration. “Forgive France, Punish Germany, Ignore Russia” is the new motto of the day.
Macron receives the honor of the first official state visit in Trump’s term. And Germany is now the punching bag for President Trump. He loves to call out Germany for its failure to meet the NATO agreement to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. He attacks the German trade surplus with the United States. And recently he lambasted the German Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 as a project directed against the national interests of NATO members like Poland and the Baltic states.
France is now the great ally, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the United States and the U.K. against chemical weapons in Syria and jihadists in the Sahel zone in North Africa. Macron went great lengths to earn his special relationship. His advisors in the Elysee point out that he made a strategic decision: The United States is an indispensable ally. He wanted to build the best possible personal a relationship with the U.S. president, and hosted him on Bastille Day 2017 with a traditional military parade. Trump enjoyed it.
Their relationship is not free of conflict. But Macron is able to have it both ways without being perceived as fickle or contradictory. He makes it crystal clear where he is not on the same page with this White House: Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris accord on climate policy, the threat to end the nuclear deal with Iran, and the negative attitude toward the rules based world order on free trade. But at the same time, he is willing to admit that Trump is right in other regards: leveling the playing field with China, military engagement in Africa to fight “safe harbors” for terrorists, and defending UN principles like the ban of chemical weapons.
Chancellor Merkel’s relationship with Trump is a sharp contrast. Her body language during her first visit to Trump’s White House a year ago showed distance and even some expression of akwardness. Which of her close advisors would admit that Trump might be right on anything? And there is, of course, her political instinct that the German public is Trump adverse and that it would be risky for a chancellor to show empathy with this U.S. administration.
Therefore the narrative of a change in the leadership of Europe that will unfold in the coming days is deserved to a certain degree. Macron, the president of “La grande Nation,” receives the honor of a state visit, a gala dinner, and all the pomp and circumstances. Merkel follows three days later and should expect a harsh lecture that Germany is not up to the task in many respects. French Ambassador Gerard Araud joked a few days ago during the GMF event that he enjoyes such a division of labor: “Champagne for the French, hard work for the Germans.”
But let’s not fool ourselves. Is this really a moment where the baton of leadership is handed over from Europe’s leader of the past to Europe’s leader of the future? Clearly the dynamics displayed in public are with Emmanuel Macron. He is young, he is unconsumed, he brings lots of energy and ambition to the international arena. And he shows charisma. Merkel is in these respects the sheer contrast: not so young, not so fresh, not so good looking, rather more cautious than ambitious. Not a great orator and rather not a charisma person.
However, power and influence in the international arena are not based solely on the personal aura or the military might associated to a country. Germany remains the fouth biggest economy of the world and the powerhouse of Europe. German investment in the United States is by far bigger than French investment. And U.S. assets in Germany have a higher value than those in France. German companies play a strategic role in the re-industrialisation of the United States, which is an important goal of President Trump (as it had been for President Obama).
Last but not least, the sequence of the visits might look like a competition: Who is more important and who is more dear to the United States. To a certain degree they are competitors. More important, however, are the shared objectives of Macron and Merkel during these visits. They met on Thursday in Berlin to coordinate their messaging. Comparing where France and Germany compete in their relationships with the United States with what they have in common in dealing with the Trump administration, there is more substance in the shared interests: maintaining the rules based order, keeping the European Union together, and advancing climate policy. There are two pressing questions where Macron and Merkel have an identical, indivisible message for Donald Trump: tariffs and Iran.
Christoph von Marschall is the inaugural Helmut Schmidt Fellow of Zeit Stiftung and the German Marshall Fund of the US. He just returned (on Monday) to Washington DC from high level meetings with government officials in Paris and Berlin.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.