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Behind breakup of Trump-Macron bromance, a deeper US-Europe divide

Why We Wrote This

As president, Donald Trump has gravitated toward personal and bilateral ties on the world stage. So a weekend of very visible clashes with French leader Emmanuel Macron is telling.

Christophe Petit Tesson/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump shake hands at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Nov. 10, 2018.

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Viewed through the European and much of the American media, President Trump’s weekend in Paris for the commemorations of the World War I armistice was largely an optics disaster. The event was meant to showcase transatlantic unity and the sacrifice of the American “doughboys” who came to the rescue of peace and freedom in Europe. Instead it highlighted transatlantic tensions and an American president estranged from his peers. At the center was a series of clashes between Mr. Trump and his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, on their visions for world order. The clash of visions will almost certainly have profound repercussions in already-foundering transatlantic relations – in everything from trade and economic ties to defense cooperation, the future of NATO, and on to the strength of the West as a beacon for the rest of the world. Says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “We are in a moment of transition, when we are moving away from the international system that was developed by ‘the greatest generation’ and which depended so heavily on American leadership, and there’s tremendous uncertainty about what will replace it.”

It was clear from that first power-grip handshake a year ago between President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron that this was one bromance that was not destined to last.

There were expressions of deep friendship between the two leaders, and even a White House state dinner in April feting both Mr. Macron and the Franco-American bond. But the fissures have since only grown between a self-proclaimed nationalist and anti-European-Union American president and a French president who has emerged as an ardent multilateralist and chief defender of an integrated Europe.   

The breakup of the West’s unlikely power couple was laid out over a painful weekend in Paris crafted by Macron to commemorate the centenary of the World War I armistice – only to be sealed Tuesday with a series of tweets from Mr. Trump.

Deriding Macron’s call for building a European army to make Europe a stronger defense player, Trump noted that the two world wars were fought against Germany and that it was the US that saved France. “They were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along,” he said.

Trump repeated his demand that Europeans “pay for NATO” or else, blasted France for “not fair” trade practices, and suggested that in promoting his vision for Europe, Macron was “just trying to get onto another subject.”

Then Trump’s critique veered toward the personal. “The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France,” he wrote of his erstwhile close friend, “and an unemployment rate of almost 10%.” All of which he concluded with “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”    

The end of the Trump-Macron tandem might hold little more than human interest value were it not for the fact that the breakup confirms the collision course Trump has embarked on in relations with Europe.

Indeed the falling out between two leaders of such differing and increasingly bifurcating visions will almost certainly have profound repercussions in already-foundering transatlantic relations – in everything from trade and economic ties to defense cooperation, the future of NATO, and on to the strength of the West as a beacon for the rest of the world.

“The collision of world visions we saw this weekend in Paris was not anything new, but it was perhaps the starkest confrontation yet, with President Trump proudly announcing he is a nationalist, and President Macron condemning nationalism as the source of so many historical catastrophes and announcing multilateralism as the only way we can address our global problems,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“We are in a moment of transition, when we are moving away from the international system that was developed by ‘the greatest generation’ and which depended so heavily on American leadership, and there’s tremendous uncertainty about what will replace it,” she adds. “And in the meantime those two fundamental world visions we saw from President Trump and President Macron are going to keep colliding, whether it’s over NATO’s future, or climate, or the Iran nuclear deal, or how to approach Russia.”

Spotlight on transatlantic tensions

Viewed through the European and much of the US media, the Paris weekend was largely an optics disaster for Trump. An event meant to showcase transatlantic unity and the sacrifice of the American “doughboys” who came to the rescue of peace and freedom in Europe instead highlighted transatlantic tensions and an American president estranged from his peers.

The French were shocked at Trump’s absence from a ceremony at a World War I American cemetery outside of Paris – the White House blamed the rain for grounding Marine One, the president’s helicopter, and thus preventing Trump’s travel to the site.

Newspaper editorials declared that earlier US presidents – certainly Ronald Reagan, not particularly loved in France but recognized for his role in restoring a united Europe – would have found a way to the cemetery. Some said it marked the end of Europe’s ability to hark back to American sacrifices at Belleau Wood or on the beaches of Normandy to preserve transatlantic ties.

Then Trump was notably absent when a column of world leaders led by Macron marched arm-in-arm up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe – the White House again stating that security considerations were to blame, forcing Trump to arrive at the Arc by a separate route.

For some observers, the message from Paris was of an American president more focused on America as the victim of its unfair allies rather than on America as the savior and now partner of those allies. But that focus left Trump looking bitter and estranged, they say.

“These are the same themes President Trump returns to over and over, of others taking advantage of America and America going it alone and so forth,” says Ms. Conley. “And the more he doubles down the more self-isolated he becomes, and that’s what he experienced in Paris.”

Benoit Tessier/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Trump, and first lady Melania Trump attend a commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War I at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Nov. 11, 2018.

Yet others say: Not so fast. They hail Trump for standing separate from the chief promoters of a federalist vision for Europe – Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and insist that it is in fact those leaders who are isolated from Europe’s re-awakening of nation-states and growing rejection of governance by the European Union.

Disputed vision for Europe

“I do think the Trump approach to sovereignty as the core of US foreign policy is very much in tune with the way Europe is moving in general – from Poland through Italy,” not to mention a Brexit-era Britain, says Nile Gardiner, a former aide to the late British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and now an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Macron is really the last gasp of the old liberal order in Europe,” he adds, “and I think part of what we saw in Paris was President Trump rightly standing separate from that increasingly rejected vision for Europe.”

In particular, Trump correctly lambasted Macron’s renewed call for developing an autonomous European Union army (an idea endorsed Tuesday by Ms. Merkel), Mr. Gardiner says.

“An EU army splits the transatlantic alliance, creates a parallel military structure that takes resources away from NATO, and is in fact a Kremlin dream,” he says. Noting that the idea for an EU army has been around for years without proceeding in any concrete fashion, Gardiner says that by reviving the idea now both Macron and Merkel are “advancing Russian goals by significantly weakening the transatlantic alliance. It’s music to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ears.”

Macron also took Trump to task, if obliquely, for embracing nationalism – which the French president singled out as the root cause of Europe’s most devastating conflicts. “The point President Macron wanted to make is that when nations do not follow laws and international norms, and instead exercise their own power over others, catastrophes happen,” says Conley of CSIS.

But for Heritage’s Gardiner, it was Macron who was harking back to a distant nationalism while Trump was in step with Europe’s future. “Macron was trying to conflate the Europe of the 1930s with present-day calls for national sovereignty, but the two are not the same,” he says. “President Trump envisions a more conservative approach for Europe based on self-determination, control of borders, and a rejection of EU control.”

Where all appear to agree is that the collision of visions for European and indeed global order will not subside or be resolved any time soon.

On to Buenos Aires

After the Trump era’s divisive NATO and G7 summits, and now the stark estrangement of the Paris Great War commemoration, the G20 summit set for Buenos Aires at the end of the month will likely be the next venue showcasing the West’s deep divisions, experts say.

“The Trump-Macron relationship was always a very superficial one, and I think the strains we saw between them this past weekend exemplify the deep differences between ideologies that we’re going to see more of in the coming weeks, including at what I expect will be a very fiery G20,” Gardiner says.

“Fiery,” he adds, because of the divisions the summit will showcase between the US “and some European governments and Canada.”

For others, the G20 summit, which brings together the world’s 20 largest economies, will put on display competing visions for global economic organization – while highlighting the retreat of a unified Western vision for international order and progress.

“This G20 is going to be focused on the meetings President Trump will have with [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] and President Putin, so the question will be, where do America’s allies and partners fit into this,” says Conley. “For Macron, it will not be this American president who will be standing up for a Western-led order based on a set of universal values.”

Moreover, as the Paris weekend again demonstrated, the Western powers simply have no unified vision to promote in the face of rising challenges from China and Russia, purveyors of models very different from the postwar international order.

“We are at a moment when we are in between international visions ... when the West needs to reimagine and reorganize itself and put its values into a new framework that has meaning to the new generation,” Conley says. “But with such deep divisions over what that framework should be or the principles that should guide it,” she adds, “there really are no guarantees the West can get there.”

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