Despite diplomatic efforts, Emmanuel Macron is yet to convince Donald Trump to preserve international cooperation on security issues.
By Adrien Morin
On April 23, Emmanuel Macron travelled to Washington for a 3-day official visit, becoming the first head of state to do so under the Trump presidency. On both sides of the Atlantic, the press overwhelmingly welcomed the meeting, emphasizing the great relationship Macron supposedly has with his American counterpart.
Handshakes and declarations of mutual respect are diplomatic formalities, not indicators of policy agreements. Since taking office in 2017, Donald Trump tried (with modest success) to push forward his campaign agendas. These agendas were based on a strong nationalistic rhetoric articulated around the “America First” credo, and included unilateralism and bilateralism in international affairs, the mitigation of environmental policies and the public criticism of opposition media dubbed “fake news.” These principles particularly resonate within French – and other countries’ – far-right circles and Trump’s election was acclaimed by former presidential opponent of Macron, Marine Le Pen. Le Pen was even invited for a meeting at the Trump Tower prior to the 2017 election.
For his part, Emmanuel Macron represents almost the opposite of what Trump stands for. He is a strong supporter of European unity and integration, whereas the American president applauded Brexit. He is an advocate of international norms while the former real-estate tycoon challenges international treaties and stirs fears of trade wars. Unsurprisingly, Emmanuel Macron received the public support of prominent American critics to Trump during his presidential campaign such as former president Barack Obama. When Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Macron responded by launching his own initiative for the environment, sarcastically named “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Addressing the American Congress on the last day of his official visit, the French president reiterated his convictions on the necessity of international cooperation on environmental and economic issues, while subtly calling for the end of “Fake News” – a matter for which the two presidents have, undoubtedly, a radically different definition.
In spite of Trump’s isolationist stance, the US cannot completely ignore the rest of the international community, especially in an increasingly multipolar world. Over the past few months, France seems to have taken the leadership among Western countries in terms of negotiating with the US, despite the unlikely match between Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump. This, however, should not come as a surprise. Not because the two men have a great personal relationship like the media would like us to believe, but rather because the French president, unlike Theresa May in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany or many other European leaders, still enjoys enough popularity at home to proactively push forward French and European foreign policy interests. That being said, there is still a long way to go before Emmanuel Macron can effectively push Donald Trump to commit more to international cooperation on security issues.
Let’s be honest, the French president has not achieved much so far on that matter. He allegedly convinced his American counterpart to keep troops on the ground in Syria and participated in a joint military operation (alongside the UK) against Syrian chemical and military facilities last month. Earlier in March, France and the UK also joined forces with the US in a maritime operation aimed at challenging China’s sovereignty over contested islands in the South China Sea. These measures, however, will do nothing to strengthen international security. France and the US are stuck in Syria with no solution for a way out of the conflict. Their position became even more fragile when Russia announced the possible delivery of anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime as a response to last month’s joint airstrikes. On the other side of the world, France, the US and NATO allies more broadly, do not have a well-framed plan to deal with China. Worse, Donald Trump spread anti-Chinese rhetoric throughout most of his presidential campaign while Emmanuel Macron has expressed little interest for the world’s second greatest power.
More importantly, preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – an agreement signed between Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and the European Union – has always been at the top of Macron’s foreign policy priorities. The deal offered sanction relief for Iran in exchange for guarantees regarding the supervision its nuclear program, thereby preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons in the near term. Pulling the US out of the deal was a campaign promise for Donald Trump and he has not reneged on it since. His newly appointed national security advisor, John Bolton, has even publicly advocated for the US to pull out of the agreement, favoring a US-led regime change instead. The death of the JCPOA would give strong incentives for Tehran to restart its nuclear weapons program for deterrence purposes and, more specifically, to prevent a hypothetical regime change. It could also lead to an arms race in the Middle East, given the regional tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and their allies. Macron, along with his European partners, has been trying for months to convince the American president to change his position on the issue, but without success. The deadline for the renewal of the deal is May 12 and the French president is running out of time.
So, what does the relationship between Macron and Trump tell us about international security cooperation? Not much really. Handshakes (oftentimes awkward) and declarations of mutual respect are good for tabloids and the two men’s political capital, but concrete cooperation on security issues is yet to become a reality. Despite being a historic ally, the US is not exactly a trustable partner for France under the Trump era. The French president will have to focus on multilateralism and gather support from the rest of the international community if he wants to achieve anything in terms of international security cooperation.
Cover Picture: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron during a meeting in Paris, in July 2017, © US Embassy France / Wikimedia Commons