Donald Trump is not the only President who wants to make his country great again – his first state dinner guest, Emmanuel Macron, wants to do the same.
That’s why the young, pragmatic French President is giving the impression that there’s nothing he’d rather do than spend time with his scandal-plagued US counterpart, offering him the respect and validation he craves.
But he’s not acting purely out of the goodness of his heart: To fulfill his goal of restoring France’s prestige and global influence, he needs the United States – and that means there is no choice but to deal with the man in the Oval Office.
It was a dynamic on display when Macron played a leading role alongside Washington in punishing chemical weapons strikes in Syria – reinforcing the values of Western civilization that many Europeans believe Trump disdains. It’s why Macron is so insistent that despite Trump’s instincts, the United States cannot afford to withdraw its troops from Syria and leave an open playground for extremists like ISIS and regional superpowers like Iran.
And it explains why Macron, who greeted Trump with an air kiss on his cheek as he arrived for his state visit to the White House, has gone out of his way to be friendly to Trump, who is as unpopular in France as he is in the rest of Europe.
On Monday, the leaders flew by helicopter past the monuments in Washington, a city laid out by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant before heading down the Potomac to dine with their wives at George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon.
The first state visit of the current presidency is intended by Trump to return the compliment offered by Macron when he made the President guest of honor at France’s Bastille Day national celebration last July, at a time when other European leaders were still recoiling from the shock of Trump’s “America First” revolution.
Macron is making clear that the scandals afflicting the White House, and even questions about whether they will truncate Trump’s presidency, have no effect on how he will approach the US President.
“I’m not the one to judge … or to consider because of his controversies or because of his investigations your President is less credible for me, for my people and for the rest of the world,” Macron said in a pre-visit interview with “Fox News Sunday.” “I’m here to deal with the President of the United States and people of the United States elected Donald Trump.”
Such an unequivocal embrace must be music to the ears of Trump, who often behaves like he thinks that the legitimacy of his election is being undermined – either by the Russia probe or by the attacks by his enemies. But Macron’s warmth leaves Trump with a dilemma. If he really values Macron, and is interested in repaying his friendship, Trump may be forced to pay a political price himself.
Does the recognition he gains from Macron justify compromises on positions that are indigenous to his own beliefs and appeal to his most loyal voters but are fundamentally opposed by America’s closest European allies?
It’s a particularly testing question because in his dealings with his political allies, subordinates, Cabinet members and business associates, loyalty has sometimes seemed to flow toward Trump rather than from him.
To give Macron what he wants, Trump would have to go back on his vow to tear up the Iran deal by a deadline early next month, give the European Union a permanent waiver from US tariffs on aluminum and steel imports due to come into force next month or keep American troops in Syria even though he wants them home.
Macron does not bring only his friendship as leverage. He’s also arguing that the US, despite having a President whom foreign policy critics have seen as unilateralist and disdaining America’s friends, needs friends.
“I’m very simple. I’m straightforward,” Macron told Fox News, in an apparent attempt to get his message to the avid viewer in the Oval Office before he arrived.
“If you make war against everybody, you make (a) trade war against China, trade war against Europe, war in Syria … come on, it doesn’t work. You need allies. We are the ally,” he said.
The hard power realists in Trump’s reconstituted National Security Council might also note that France is currently the most functional member of the EU, a key NATO power and a member of the UN Security Council.
With that in mind, Jeffrey Feltman, a former UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday that France “is extremely important to the Trump administration’s ability to achieve its goals.”