The “family photo” of leaders attending the NATO meeting in the Belgian capital Thursday included an unusually large number of first-timers to the transatlantic alliance’s premier stage.
Among the newcomers pictured in the traditional summit souvenir was the president of tiny Montenegro, whose country only acceded to NATO membership in April.
Yet even that distinction paled in comparison to the attention accorded two other first-timers to a NATO leaders’ gathering: US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.
All eyes remained focused for the duration of what amounted to a brief mini-summit of the two leaders – both elective-office debutants as well – who seemed to arrive on the NATO stage from out of the blue.
More intriguing and irresistible still was how the two presidents – one a brash showman with populist tendencies and prone to dark statements about America's challenges, the other a prim technocrat with a global outlook and sunny disposition – encapsulated the opposing forces pushing and pulling on alliance countries and on the West more broadly.
“What’s going to stand out about this [NATO meeting] is the family photo, it will be worth keeping a copy of this one,” says James Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy. “There will be President Trump and President Macron together on the same stage,” adds Mr. Townsend, now a senior fellow in transatlantic security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “Who would have thought that photo was even possible just a few months ago?”
Beyond the lingering incredulity over the two leaders’ unlikely rise is a fascination with how they were lifted to political power by seemingly opposite waves of public fervor.
For as much as Mr. Trump has come to symbolize internationally a populism that would build walls, turn inward, and protect national identities and economies from global influences like trade and migration, Mr. Macron in a few short weeks has risen to represent the answer to the Trump backlash.
Where Trump is America First, Macron is a multilateralist. Trump is pro-Brexit, Macron is pro-European Union. Where Trump is a nationalist, Macron is an internationalist who would rather make globalization work better than resist it.
Moreover, Trump is perceived by many in Europe as harking back to a bygone era, whereas Macron is seen as innovative and focused on the future. And indeed, it’s Macron’s youthful can-do spirit – traditionally more often considered an American trait – that has given the French leader almost Obama-esque rock-star appeal and popularity beyond France’s borders.
When presented with the distinct visions offered by the two leaders, Europeans largely favor Macron's, if polls are to be believed.
“I dare say in Europe the optimist Macron’s view of the world carries the day, because it gives people something to believe in,” says Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World program at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. “Trump’s view offers just despair and scapegoats.”
Or as the Belgian daily Le Soir put it in a front-page commentary, the simultaneous international debuts of Trump and Macron revealed to other leaders and to the public “the negative star and the positive star” of the NATO meeting.
It’s hardly surprising that Belgians in particular among Europeans would dislike Trump, given his derision during the presidential campaign of the EU and his indelicate description of Brussels – home to NATO, the EU’s administrative headquarters, and the Belgian government – as a “hell hole.”
But some here say that Europeans should remember that the same contrasting qualities they are seeing in Trump and Macron are present in their own countries. Macron’s victory did not spell the end of nationalist populism in Europe, they say, any more than Trump’s unpopularity in Europe means he does not appeal to a white working class that feels left behind by the world Macron touts.
“The tension we see in America between the nationalists and the more internationally oriented, between protectionism and globalization, or between those who support immigration and those who don’t, we have the same happening in Europe,” says Bruno Lété, transatlantic fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.
Indeed, those same divisions have been on display in the Trump administration, Mr. Lété says. But he adds that Europeans who favor strong transatlantic relations are heartened by indications that the administration’s internationalists are winning the debate in the White House.
“It looks to us like despite whatever he may have said, Trump is going with the people in his administration who are more supportive of multilateralism, more pro-alliance. That’s the people like [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson,” he says.
Liking Macron, needing Trump
And as for contrasting the leadership styles of Trump and Macron, Lété says that is not a preoccupation of transatlanticists since no French president – no European leader for that matter – replaces the key role of the American president and American leadership. “Macron is not going to define himself and his policies within NATO,” he says. Trump, on the other hand, “is critical to the transatlantic relationship” because without America “there is no partnership.”
What defines Macron is a mix of pragmatism and optimism that makes him attractive, Lété says. Those same qualities appear to be offering a new model of leadership to Europeans who see little to like in Trump but who at the same time understand the importance of forging a relationship with the American president.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is one of those Europeans. The young leader with a shaved head and a trimmed beard wants to be like Macron, but he wants to be able to work with Trump.
“Macron is one of a number of European leaders I want to join who want to give people a new project, a new reason for hope,” Mr. Michel told journalists he met with for an informal conversation Wednesday night. “We favor reform and want to encourage innovation.”
Those words reflect the sense of relief and of renewed purpose that have pervaded much of Europe since Macron’s victory – replacing the sense of doom that had settled in like a fog after July’s Brexit victory.
As for Trump, Michel turned aside journalists’ questions about the president’s record of anti-European and anti-Belgian pronouncements, instead focusing on areas of common accord.
“I heard a different perspective from President Trump,” the Belgian leader said just hours after meeting with him. “He wanted to talk about burden-sharing, and I agreed that Europe must do more” to pay for its own defense.
Trump’s firm belief that America gets a raw deal from Europe on both security and trade is likely to carry over to the G7 summit he’ll attend beginning Friday in Sicily. But in Brussels, according to the Belgian leader’s summation of their meeting, the focus was on cooperation.
Michel said he cited the threats facing Europe, from Russia to the east and instability to the south, and from terrorism. He reported saying that addressing those challenges must proceed through the two sides of the Atlantic working together – and he said he got a rhetorical thumb’s up in response.
“I asked him, and he said he agreed,” Michel said, “that there must be unity between the United States and Europe.”