It's a question that Europe has been posing for more than a year: How do you solve a problem like the Donald?
The continent’s heaviest political hitters offered their answers to that question this week, as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought in turn to figure out what makes President Trump tick, and how to head off a looming transatlantic rupture.
They did so in very different styles: Mr. Macron flaunted a “bromance” with Mr. Trump during his three-day state visit to Washington, while Ms. Merkel displayed her customary restraint on a three-hour working trip. But neither claimed to have had much success on their most pressing common aims – to head off a trade war between the US and Europe and to save the international nuclear deal with Iran.
“It has been a learning curve, and rather a squiggly one” for European leaders dealing with the unpredictable American president, says James Moran, a former European Union ambassador. “It’s anybody’s guess how best to handle him.”
On the face of it, both this week’s visitors to Washington were the kind of politicians Trump likes least – globalist supporters of the post-war liberal world order, built on rules forged by multilateral institutions.
In his public appearances with Trump, Macron sidestepped that reputation and chose bonhomie as his strategy. Hugs, hand-holding, and air kisses punctuated the visit in remarkably physical displays of friendship. The two men have clearly struck up a rapport.
One “somewhat hopeful” way of dealing with Trump “is to very strongly connect the personal with the political, to treat him royally” says Jan Techau, senior fellow at the think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States.
But there is more to it than that. Macron was the only European leader who “immediately treated Trump with respect,” points out French historian Nicole Bacharan, inviting him to the French independence day military parade last July 14 and to dinner half way up the Eiffel Tower. “He treated him as a welcome, legitimate US president.”
Other European leaders sometimes seemed pained just being close to Trump. Merkel herself got off to a bad start, lecturing him just after he was elected; she offered her cooperation “based on … common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Macron also appeals to Trump because of what the two men have in common, despite their many differences; both are outsiders who won office by challenging their nations’ political establishment and both regard themselves as rather special. Macron describes himself as “Jupiterian.”
But again, there is more to it than that. France and the United States are close allies in the fight against terrorism; Paris joined Washington in airstrikes against Syria earlier this month; and France is on track to spend two percent of its GDP on defense by 2024, a NATO target to which Trump has attached great importance.
Germany is nowhere near that goal, and will not meet it, though the government last week announced a new round of military purchases.
Although much has been made in the press about how well Macron and Trump get on, the American president speaks by phone nearly as often to Merkel as he does to his French counterpart.
And evidence is scarce that Macron has managed to leverage his personal ties to change Trump’s mind on any major policy. “You can give Trump the honorable treatment he wants, but that doesn’t guarantee you success,” says Mr. Techau. “The yardstick for success is whether you can move him on the issues, and we’ve seen precious little of that.”
Trump has come round somewhat on NATO; he no longer dismisses the key transatlantic alliance as an outdated irrelevance and the Pentagon has actually increased spending in Europe over the past year.
The US president seems less enamored of Vladimir Putin than he once was; Washington and Europe are now aligned on Russia, both highly suspicious of Moscow’s intentions. Macron may have convinced Trump to give more thought to his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
But on other contentious issues, the US president does not seem to be budging.
Washington is staying out of the Paris climate accord and still planning to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Macron himself left Washington saying he thought it unlikely he had succeeded in convincing Trump to stick with the Iran nuclear deal. And the US is still threatening to impose trade tariffs on European Union exports of steel and aluminum on May 1, possibly sparking a wider trade war among traditional allies.
‘Allies are not poodles’
Macron does not gloss over these transatlantic differences. His speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday was a lucid and impassioned defense of multilateral decision-making and free trade – two of Trump’s top bugbears.
He also launched a head on attack against key elements of Trump’s political program, arguing that “you can play with fear and anger for a time, but they do not construct anything,” and declaring that “I do not share the fascination for new strong powers … and the illusion of nationalism.”
That went down well in much of Europe, where the speech was widely seen as a defiant expression of European values.
“Bravo, Emmanuel Macron!” read the headline above an opinion piece published by Deutsche Welle, the German national broadcaster. The article praised Macron’s “vision for the world that can be described as an antidote to Trump’s worldview. Highlighting such an alternative was both highly welcome and very necessary.”
“The speech was not aggressive but it was clear,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think tank. “Allies are not poodles.”
It may be too much to hope that any European leader can change Trump’s mind on important issues, says Ms. Bacharan. But the way that Macron combines “a game of seduction with an insistence that he is not afraid of Trump … keeps the US president in a continuous and open dialog. And that itself is a success.”