Blog Post

GMF Primer: What to Watch as Trump Joins World Leaders in Paris

November 08, 2018
Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

With the midterm vote decided and Jeff Sessions out as attorney general, President Trump leaves a newly split Washington this weekend and heads to Paris where he will join dozens of world leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the World War I armistice. A growing list of transatlantic foreign policy issues churn in the background—from discord over the Iran nuclear deal and unilateral U.S. oil sanctions; trade and tariffs; and the potential collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The U.S. president is scheduled to meet with France’s Macron. After days of mixed messages, Trump will most likely not have an official meeting with Vladimir Putin this weekend, though any brief encounters will surely set the stage for official meetings in just a few weeks when many of the same leaders meet again for the G20 Summit.

With all of this in mind, German Marshall Fund policy experts in Paris, Brussels, and Washington have laid out some of the key issues and dynamics to watch for this weekend and beyond.

Trump and Transatlantic Relations: Setting the Stage – Jamie Fly, Washington

European leaders should not expect a chastened president or a significant change to U.S. foreign policy, despite the outcome of the midterm elections.  America will continue to be divided and American politics will remain focused on domestic challenges and partisan debates.  The inward-focused nature of the U.S. foreign policy conversation will likely remain an impediment to more assertive U.S. leadership in Europe and the Middle East through the duration of the President’s first term. 

For all the talk of President Macron’s management of his personal relationship with President Trump, it is not clear that the French leader has been able to deliver much thus far, be it on Iran, transatlantic cooperation on China, or other shared challenges. Meanwhile, Paris and Berlin appear divided on key questions regarding the future of the European Union and French initiatives to move the long-running debate regarding European defense forward have stalled. The meetings in Paris are thus as much a test for Macron as they are for President Trump. If the last eight years have shown America’s allies anything, it is that American disengagement and distraction is a bipartisan reality.  The question remains – will Europe respond to the moment or be shaped by the consequences?

Can Macron Keep Trump in Engaged in Europe?  – Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Paris  

The Trump-Macron relationship is based on what I call a “compartmentalized cooperation,” which mirrors both Trump’s transactionalism and Macron’s pragmatism. President Macron actively engages with Trump on issues where France and the United States have converging interests and strategic goals (notably on counterterrorism but also on the diplomatic and military strategy in Syria); but he does not hesitate to confront the U.S. president on issues where there are deep political divides (e.g. climate, Iran, trade, INF, multilateralism). On these issues, Macron has been looking for ways to pursue diplomacy and/or trade without the United States, by developing closer working relationships with the U.S. Congress and subnational leaders across the United States, as well as with other global players like China and Russia. France, along with its European partners, has also realized that they don’t have the influence nor the capacity to “replace” U.S. leadership on many of these core issues and that geopolitical partners-spoilers like Russia, China or Turkey were actually seeking bilateral confrontation and dialogue with the United States, and not with Europe.

The Peace Forum that president Macron hosts in Paris aims at promoting multilateral cooperation as the best way to address current and future global crises, and to confront Trump’s nationalist interpretation of diplomacy once again. By doing so outside of the traditional multilateral institutions for which Trump shows disdain (United Nations, NATO, G7), Macron demonstrates he is able to keep Trump engaged in other ad hoc forums. From the Bastille Day invitation, to his State visit to Washington and now the November 11 commemorations, Macron has been able to use these meeting opportunities to remind Trump of the historical depth of the French-U.S. and transatlantic relationship. The policy results of that dialogue-confrontation strategy are limited for now, but could very well end up having Trump adjust some of his policies if he decides that coordinating global responses to global problems is more important than satisfying his electoral base.”

Is Europe Ready for an INF-free US and Russia? – Ian Lesser, Brussels 

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF treaty is viewed with real unease in Brussels – in NATO circles and in leadership quarters around Europe.  Although most observers here agree that Russia has been in violation of the agreement for some time, there is no consensus on what the proper NATO response should be.  NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has made clear that the Alliance has no immediate plans to place new nuclear systems in Europe.  More fundamentally, there is some concern that the end of the INF agreement could signal the start of a general collapse of the arms control regimes put in place during the Cold War, against the backdrop of deepening tension with Russia and mounting strategic competition in Asia. If so, this could trigger a searching debate about nuclear strategy and nuclear force posture across the Atlantic. Governments here are not prepared for this and do not want to open a new front in an already troubled transatlantic relationship. A new nuclear debate in Europe could expose cleavages between leaders and the public, and among European countries with strikingly different views of the Russian threat.

What’s on the Table for Trump and Erdogan? – Ian Lesser

If Presidents Trump and President Erdogan meet in Paris, as reported, they will likely seek to build on the more positive atmosphere that has taken hold in the wake of Ankara’s decision to release American pastor Andrew Brunson.  This will not be an easy conversation. Turkey and the United States remain far apart on a range of bilateral issues. These include American support for the YPG in Syria, a group Turks view as an offshoot of the PKK, and Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric Ankara accuses of playing a lead role in the failed coup of 2016. Ankara objects to the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, a key facet of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but one likely to impose significant economic costs on Turkey. Ankara’s plan to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles is another irritant, alongside Washington’s threat to withhold the transfer of key U.S. weapons systems if the deal is not canceled.  The U.S.-Turkish relationship has never been an easy one to manage. But the gap between Washington and Ankara is now very large at a time when both countries need the relationship for geo-strategic reasons. A conversation between two leaders inclined to personalize foreign relations is a high stakes game. It could produce real progress.  It could just as easily push two allies further apart.

Members of the media wishing to speak with Jamie Fly in Washington, Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer in Paris, or Ian Lesser in Brussels on any of the topic areas above should contact Sydney Simon in GMF's media relations office at [email protected].