President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have a unique and often strained relationship. They alternate between clashing with and fawning over one another, because even though they are quite different people, they seek similar goals: the greatness of their countries.
The age difference and generational dynamic explain some of the ups and downs of this relationship, as do the different political cultures of the two countries. But there is more to it than that. There is the history of each country and our relationship across history; there is the current state of world affairs with the United States’s continuing dominance while France is in its second century of declining importance and influence; and there is the failure of the European Union to create the kind of home and institutions that would satisfy the great powers of Europe vis a vis a power like the United States.
Latest Battle in This War of Words: The United Nations
The latest clash between Trump and Macron was Macron’s strong rebuttal Saturday to Trump’s United Nations speech in September. That Trump speech was the clearest and starkest explanation of Trump’s views on international affairs and his plans for the U.S. role in the world. Trump rejected globalism and embraced patriotism, which many of his critics say is really nationalism. Trump seems to be fine with that term nationalism, too, because he has embraced it as meaning patriotism.
The globalism he rejects maintains that each nation-state should defer to international organizations or other nation-states when confronting challenges both at home and abroad. In the patriotism, or nationalism, he embraces, each nation-state naturally prefers itself and seeks its own interests above all others.
Such nationalism has room for cooperation, but as among sovereign and independent countries (i.e., they should work out deals through negotiations). In fact, Trump doesn’t think a country can cooperate with any other country unless each is clear about its interests. Importantly, this is what diplomacy has meant for most of the history of the world.
Here are the key lines from Trump’s UN speech that really shouldn’t be as confusing as his critics make them out to be:
Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth.
That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.
I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.
We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.
Let’s note the key terms: independence, sovereignty, and cooperation. I focus on these because they have a rich history in academic theory but are also terms that any layman should be able to grasp. For example, every citizen and national leader appreciates that their country is independent and sovereign; in fact, the fundamental purpose of the United Nations is to express the right of national sovereignty and to defend it. The UN was founded to do what the League of Nations failed in theory and practice to accomplish.
Preventing aggressors from simply taking over other countries was paramount in everyone’s purpose at the end of World War I and again at the end of World War II. But few citizens and national leaders think that cooperation among countries is illegitimate or without merit just because every state jealously guards its sovereignty. It has been rather normal for nation-states to cooperate since the formation of them after 1648.
Why Are People Criticizing Trump for Saying the Obvious?
So Trump expressed exactly what the UN was founded for and what common sense has revealed to observers and foreign policy practitioners for generations. Why did this result in criticism?
Part of the reason is that it is Trump saying it. Nothing he says has merit or is to be taken as sincere, his critics tell us every time he speaks or tweets. But there’s more to it than that. Trump is saying something that the world is used to the most powerful and consequential nation-state not saying. The United States is supposed to pretend that it is just another nation like any other, that it isn’t really as powerful as it is, that it finds its rightful role in cooperation with the “international community,” whatever that is.
In short, while U.S. presidents for several decades have emphasized a humble role, and Obama was the quintessence of it, none ever really thought that the United States was bound by anything other than our national interests when faced with real threats or challenges to our interests. Every U.S. president has acted at times without and even sometimes contrary to UN and “international community” wishes. They just knew not to acknowledge it.
Such is the pretense all are supposed to honor. But everyone knows the United States is the guarantor of the world order we have enjoyed since 1945, an order built on the concepts of the inviolability of borders (sovereignty) and the free movement of goods. No one thinks Europe is going to save itself from another attempt to dominate it as the Nazis did then the Soviets, although I would like to see them arrive at that ability. No one thinks that any entity other than the United States can prevent China from controlling global trade through the Asia-Pacific sea lanes. No one thinks that any entity other than the United States can face down aggressors like Iran or North Korea.
Everyone knows all this, but saying it is apparently rude, impolitic, undiplomatic. For small and weak states, it might be an unpleasant truth, but they hardly are very bothered by the knowledge since it is obvious. But if you are a great power seeking to displace the United States because you want a change in the world order, such as, say, China, Russia, or Iran; or if you are a great power who no longer is as relevant as you once were, such as, say, France, then it does bother you a lot for the U.S. president to speak so plainly.
Macron Wants France to Be Great Again, Too
That brings us to Macron and his vision of France’s role in the world. He wants France to be great again. There is nothing wrong with that. Since France is a great power, it used to have tremendous influence in the world, and it has a lot to offer (though the French model of political order has been the most beneficial where it has been tried around the world, including in France which is on its fifth try at republican government).
Under various leaders France has talked about the importance of global cooperation and usually avoided rhetoric that could exemplify nationalism, but it has certainly at times acted unilaterally and contrary to UN and globalist norms. It has intervened in troubled African countries that had been its colonies, and it has tested nuclear weapons contrary to international norms. It’s no globalist saint.
Macron is aware of his hypocrisy, so why does he counter Trump so bluntly, and why at a celebration of the end of a horrific war when the theme should have been unity? Because Macron wants to make his country great again, and he has few options other than to appear to lead the global and especially European resistance to Trump.
Let us look at what Macron said and the context. He put words in Trump’s mouth and assumed the very worst interpretation of the terms Trump uses. It is not too much to assume that Macron also wants us to compare Trump with current leaders in Europe whom Macron thinks are too nationalistic and dangerous (e.g., the Poles and the Hungarians; but then we have to assume Macron also means the various parties in Europe that are gaining electoral ground as their establishment parties falter over immigration and, well, patriotism).
Even though Trump defined his terms, Macron nevertheless implied that Trump was reaching back to the past with his nationalism. He noted how dangerous this is because past nationalism gave us WWI and thousands of deaths and much destruction.
But Trump’s use of the term and his ideas about it, as I noted above, have nothing to do with the aggressive nationalist postures of the German kaiser’s empire. WWI came about because the United Kingdom and France refused to cooperate when they had to confront Germany. The fault lies with Germany for its aggression, but some blame falls on the two powers that could have faced the kaiser down had their governments been willing to do their jobs as national leaders. They repeated their sad performance in the face of Hitler.
Putting Words in Trump’s Mouth
Then Macron went further, and should be embarrassed for his absurd rhetoric about patriotism. He said: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”
Let us be clear: Trump did not say this. Macron put words in his mouth and came up with his own definition of nationalism apart from what Trump has said about it. For example, Trump never said “our interests first, whatever happens to others.” In fact, Trump has said something far different. His assertions about U.S. interests cannot be understood apart from his recognition of the value of cooperation. He is regularly engaging with other countries and having considerable success.
If the charge is that he is not going to the United Nations to seek cooperation, that hardly indicates an aversion to cooperation. Thus, Macron cannot logically conclude that the United States under Trump does not care what happens to others.
Nor did Trump say that he has no concern for moral values. He’s never defined patriotism or nationalism as being inconsistent with or opposed to moral values. He and Macron might disagree over what constitutes moral values in foreign policy, but that is a discussion they can have without Macron assuming the worst. Besides, Trump is pretty clear on the fundamental moral values enshrined in the UN Charter regarding national sovereignty and the inviolability of nation-state borders. Macron’s charge is unfair.
Here’s Macron’s Real End Game
But let’s play Macron’s word games. His apparent definitions of nationalism and cooperation sound like he’s saying that no nation can act in its own interests but should act according to the interests of the international community (again, whatever that is). I would like one day for leaders like Macron to be transparent and simply admit that what they really want is for the United States to abandon pursuit of its interests and do what other countries want it to do. We won’t, of course, as Obama is no longer president, but the honesty would be refreshing, and clarifying.
So what is Macron’s game? Macron — like Gen. Charles De Gaulle — thinks of France as the natural leader of Europe and of Europe as the natural leader of the world. As French thinking goes, France civilizes Europe, and Europe civilizes the world. That means the United States must show deference rather than go it alone. Thus we have the competing notions of “nationalism” and the smearing of Trump’s America First and his concept of patriotism.
No matter what Macron said about Trump last weekend, Macron does not oppose nationalism; he opposes Trump’s notion of nationalism because Trump won’t pretend that nation-states act on the interests of others or of the mythical international community. Macron can pretend that if he chooses, but no one thinks that France or any other country pursues any interests but its own. In fact, as we dig deeper into the events of the last few days, it is clear that France under Macron seeks to advantage France by seeking to lead Europe against the United States.
Those events surrounding Macron’s criticism of Trump underscore my point: Macron did not just preside over a gathering of the allies to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI this past weekend. He did two more things for the sake of France and to counter the United States. First, he called for a European Army to oppose Russia and the United States.
Moreover, he gathered world leaders on Sunday (although not Trump, who was otherwise busy) for the inaugural Paris Peace Forum. Leaders talked and attended dialogues and roundtables with the goal of furthering peace. Not a few dignitaries weighed in on Trump indirectly with more rhetoric like Macron’s about nationalism.
It’s Virtue Signaling, Because Macron Has Nothing Else
His goal is clear. He wants to be seen as the leader of all the nations interested in furthering peace through cooperation, dialogue, and development. But we already have that forum. It is called the United Nations and it hasn’t accomplished that goal. We would rightly doubt that with this forum Macron will either. So why do it? Because when you are a former world leader and now only a middling power, and not very economically strong at that, and you have an overweening desire to lead other countries, you have to do something.
So you take on what you say is the world’s problem child (“hyperpower” is the usual French derogatory term), led by a man you say evokes the specter of dangerous nationalism, and hope for the best. You pretend that Europe needs its own army to counter the United States and that only a forum led by Europe can give the world hope for peace. It was pure theater.
Over the weekend, the two leaders were cordial in person, enjoying a short meeting complete with Macron this time being the affectionate “toucher.” But the weekend’s clash was revealing of how unlikely it is that these two can ever be on the same page.
Both presidents are embarked on a journey to make their countries great again. Trump is trying to do so by words and deeds such as plain-speaking about the real nature of international relations and building up his country’s economy and military while facing down threats. Macron has only words that he uses to imply things that others have not said, raising red herrings, proposing a fantasy army, and holding redundant conferences. No European country wants to see France leading them, and none want to build a European army for any reason, certainly not to counter the United States.
Trump, warts and all, is a breath of fresh air for diplomacy in the post-WWII era. He might overdo it at times, but no one should misunderstand what he is saying and doing. As I listen to press conferences and read transcripts, it is clear that Trump and his interlocutors have real conversations.
When I listen to Macron’s speeches, I hear a desperate attempt to resist Trump by calling up the horrors of wars that Trump didn’t start and has no interest in provoking. I doubt he’s very worried by Macron, who has a lower approval rating than Trump and has thoroughly annoyed other European leaders.
Trump ignored the Peace Forum, didn’t respond to Macron’s attack, and goes on about his business of negotiating with allies and enemies. If he fails in any of these endeavors, I doubt it will be because of the French president, whose presidency — already a failure — is comprised of him acting on his delusions of grandeur.