Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN and a columnist for USA Today. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in Asia and Europe, and the Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
It’s been a curious marriage of convenience, and it’s about to face its ultimate test.
Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron are coming together in the White House and Mount Vernon as the French President embarks on the first state visit of the Trump administration.
They certainly make an odd couple: the 71-year-old real estate tycoon and reality show host turned conservative politician and professional tweeter late in life, and the 40-year-old French President, very much a French populist, who has spent his short career doing little but prepare, effectively, for this very moment.
It is a relationship that the leading French daily Le Monde calls “strong, but equally, astonishing.” The question is, what does each hope to get from the other?
On the trade front, Macron is ready to do battle and Trump has shown no immediate willingness to give in without some substantial concessions.
Already, the French leader has prepared for this issue in which Trump badly needs a strong win – in large part to take the minds of Midwest voters off a big hit to their prime markets for soybeans, grain and pork as a result of the potential trade war with China.
Last Thursday, to prepare for this visit, Macron met in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will be following Macron to Washington on Friday, though not in a formal state visit.
Both are ready to present a united front to Trump’s demands that European markets be more open to American products. While the United States runs a $16 billion agricultural trade surplus with the rest of the world, it carries a $12 billion trade deficit in farm and food products with the European Union.
Trump has already given in and exempted the European Union, at least for the moment, from his global steel and aluminum tariffs.
But he clearly wants something in return for making that temporary exemption permanent. At the same time, Trump would love to emerge with a unified front between the two big trading partners – France and America – against China.
Also near the top of the list for Macron is winning Trump’s agreement not to exit – potentially torpedoing – the Iran nuclear deal, which he has threatened to do as early as next month.
White House officials are playing down chances of an agreement at this summit on modifications that would allow the United States to join with the other signatories of the agreement and remain in the pact after May.
These are complex issues involving all seven signatories of the deal. France, Germany and Britain all have been seeking ways to address flaws that Trump has pointed as non-starters – particularly the lack of curbs on Iran’s ballistic missile program and the agreement’s broader sunset clauses, which in theory could allow Iran to resume nuclear development, though at least a decade from now.
Macron has said that he shares with Trump a desire to contain Iran’s broader ambitions of extending its powers into other corners of the Middle East, supporting the likes of Bashar al-Assad and terrorist forces well beyond its borders.
Iran itself doesn’t hold out much hope for any Macron efforts. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New York on Saturday that “the United States has not only failed to implement its side (of the deal), but is even asking for more.”
Macron was quite definite in the immediate aftermath of the recent raid on Syria by France, Britain and the United States that the West cannot cut and run for the foreseeable future.
The French leader thought he’d persuaded Trump to retreat on his intention of pulling American forces out of Syria as soon as he was able. When Trump tweeted the day after their joint raid on chemical weapons sites that he was still aiming at an early retreat, Macron appeared to dial back on his statement.
Still, he pointed out that a strong military presence there was the only real chance of restraining the more barbaric impulses of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And France, he suggested, was in it for the long haul – fully prepared to take the leadership role in the region – a role that has been held by the United States for decades. Now could be a good time for him to sell Trump on such a concept.
Macron would clearly like to persuade Trump to reverse his position on global warming and return to the fold of the COP21 environmental pact, which Trump exited with a flourish at the start of his presidency. Though the White House briefer observed dismissively, that’s not on the agenda, he conceded “unless it’s brought up by President Macron.” Count on it.
The rest of the agenda
Hanging over the whole talks are such broader issues as strategic partnerships in other parts of the world and, tangentially, the looming talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as France continues to participate in the global sanctions effort.
Macron can also bring to Trump some tangible rewards in some of the most unlikely corners of the world. It was, after all, the French who first intervened in Mali in 2013 in a chase after terrorists allied with ISIS. The minister of defense at the time, Jean-Yves Le Drian, just happens to be Macron’s foreign minister today, and France still maintains a strong military presence in a region where it was once the colonial overseer.
Still, neither side harbors any illusion that this meeting of two apparent opposites is likely to change dramatically the views of the other.
But moderation on certain points is not out of the question and might be considered a remarkable outcome. It behooves Macron to arrive with several compromises that Trump could seize on as personal victories.
At the same time, Trump would do well to find areas where Macron can claim victories of his own – preserving his unique role as Trump whisperer for the continent Macron remains so anxious to lead.