Transatlantic Take

Washington Puts the Macron Method to the Test

April 19, 2018
7 min read
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

There’s No Moving Trump

WASHINGTON, DC — One of the most consequential developments in U.S. security policy in the last eight years is the growing strength of the security partnership between Washington and Paris.

This may seem surprising. After all, it was not that long ago ­the U.S.–France relationship was characterized by rivalry, suspicion, and petty slights, where both sides had political incentives to belittle the other. The days of French concerns about U.S. “hyperpower” and American taunts about “freedom fries” seem like distant history.

Several factors explain this shift. There is a significant alignment of interest between the United States and France on issues like counterterrorism, stability in the Middle East, Iran, the fight against ISIS, and Russia (in which Paris’s tough stance since the start of the Ukraine crisis four years ago has surprised many Washington analysts). There is also an alignment of will: Increasingly, the United States and France have been in the fight together, and the personal relations among their military and intelligence leaders remain close.

This also reflects the turbulent European political landscape, where all the other major U.S. security partners remain preoccupied with their own internal dramas. The U.K. has been suffering a slow-burn existential crisis for nearly five years, from the Scottish referendum to Brexit. Just a year ago Germany was seen as Europe’s powerhouse — with Chancellor Merkel heralded as the leader of the free world — yet just emerged from its most profound political crisis in the history of the Federal Republic, with Merkel already seen as a lame duck chancellor. Italy has shown hints of leadership, but is once again mired in a political morass. 

Last year France seemed headed for a similar fate, with a profoundly unpopular president stepping down and the real possibility that Marine Le Pen would replace him. Yet in Emmanuel Macron, France now has a leader who reflects his country’s confidence and energy — and while much different than his American counterpart by generation, ideology, and temperament, he also sees himself as a sui generis figure, an outsider who can fix the country.

Macron has played Donald Trump as well as anyone. He understands the eccentricities of Trump’s leadership style, and like his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, China, and Poland, pulled off a masterstroke in imperial pomp and circumstance when hosting Trump’s trip to Paris last summer. Trump will return the favor with the first state visit next week (although, to his great frustration, he won’t be able to reciprocate the military parade; that has to wait until November).

Despite such auspicious atmospherics, and the apparent rapport the two leaders have developed, there is no evidence that it has made much of a difference on matters of substance. Whether on climate change, Iran, or placement of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Macron has not been able to move Trump. Just this week, the two leaders openly disagreed on Syria. French officials routinely stress their frustration — and at times bewilderment — with the Trump administration’s approach to issues, and the difficulty of dealing with its personnel merry-go-round.

This suggests that storm clouds are coming. Macron has made a sensible wager that by handling Trump a certain way, he will get something for it. But so far, it is a bet he is losing. And as French opinion of the United States plummets further — recent polls show it has already plummeted by more than 50 percent since Barack Obama left office — we should expect a less enthusiastic embrace.

When looking out at the world, Trump has spent the last year talking about the mess he has inherited, how much his predecessors screwed everything up, and how many U.S. allies are freeloaders. Yet the relationship with France stands apart. Macron is the most powerful and popular leader France has had in several years; he has substantial political capital that he is clearly willing to spend. The positive trend in U.S.–France relations has only accelerated under his leadership, presenting a genuine opportunity. One hopes that Trump does not squander it.

-Derek Chollet, Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy

The Macron Method: Time for Results 

PARIS — President Macron’s approach is not alignment with Trump, as some French critics are affirming after the joint strikes in Syria. The Macron method is much more subtle and explains why President Trump invited him as the first international leader on a state visit: Macron quickly positioned himself as a trusted European interlocutor by refusing to pander to Trump or to defy him directly. Looking beyond the political dysfunction of the Trump administration, Macron’s method has consisted of keeping the bilateral dialogue strong and constant, finding places of common interest, while defending French and European interests and clarifying redlines, notably when it comes to preserving multilateral agreements. Macron’s visit to Washington is an early test of whether he can leverage his special relationship with the U.S. president to smooth transatlantic ties and translate his charm offensive into concrete policy results.

Taking advantage of weakened leadership in the U.K. and Germany, Macron has carved out a role as Trump's privileged partner in Europe, and in doing so, has rebalanced the transatlantic relationship in favor of France. Despite several points of conflict such as climate, trade, and Iran, Macron has worked to preserve continuity and stability by focusing on what makes the U.S.–France relationship special today: defense, counterterrorism, and intelligence cooperation. In fact, the U.S. perception of France as being Europe’s strongest and most reliable military power, makes dialogue and cooperation with the White House easier on all other issues — an advantage that neither Germany (harshly criticized by the Trump administration for not spending enough on defense) nor the U.K. (caught in the Brexit negotiations and still traumatized by the Iraq war) can assert.

Macron is the world leader Trump turns to for leadership, advice, and coordination in a crisis, most recently in Syria, where he is keen to share political responsibility and military costs. Likewise, France turns to the United States for its unique military capabilities and intelligence resources, notably in the Sahel where France leads counterterrorism operations. As Macron said in a pre-Davos interview in January: “The United States is our partner … If we get upset with them, we are not able to act anymore.” This bilateral security relationship will remain a critical pillar of international action given the EU’s lack of consensus on collective defense initiatives and Germany’s overall reluctance to apply military force.

Macron’s desire to maintain influence with Trump helps explain his decision to participate in the April 14 air strikes with the United States and the U.K., but he was also careful to keep his distance and at least the appearance of independence by repeatedly affirming his readiness to act unilaterally and autonomously in case of any further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Central to the discussions in Washington will be the aftermath to the joint strike in Syria, at a time when the strategic convergence between France and the United States is uncertain. Macron will likely also underscore to Trump the value of European allies as force-multipliers from a military and political standpoint. Whether confronting Iran on its ballistic missile program or China on its unfair trade practices, France and its European partners share U.S. concerns and can therefore be useful and reliable partners on almost all U.S. strategic priorities, but only if both sides are on the same page.

Macron’s pragmatism mirrors Trump’s transactionalism in many ways, and he can find common ground with Trump on gaining leverage in any deal. Macron’s task in Washington will be to convince Trump that transatlantic cooperation of the type displayed in Syria serves U.S. interests more effectively than unilateral actions, like Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal or impose U.S. tariffs on steel imports, from which the EU so far has only been temporarily exempted. Macron can show the progress that has been made in Europe toward addressing Trump’s concerns about Iranian non-nuclear activities, and emphasize the risk of losing momentum if Iran nuclear deal is not preserved. The French president’s goal is to convince his American counterpart that he can reach the same policy goals through less disruptive means. Failure to do so will raise the political costs for Macron of his close relationship with a U.S. president who is deeply unpopular in France and Europe.

-Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Director, GMF's Paris Office, Senior Transatlantic Fellow

For GMF analysis on this topic, please read: The U.S.–France Special Relationship: Testing the Macron Method