Macron emerges as champion of the liberal world order

The French president has given his country its most powerful voice in decades. He is using it to warn both the US and Europe against turning sharply inward. A biweekly column on patterns in diplomacy.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Frst lady Melania Trump, second from right, and Brigitte Macron, second from left, watch as President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron participate in a tree planting ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The sapling, a gift from Macron on the occasion of his state visit, is gone from the lawn. A pale patch of grass was left in its place. The White House hasn't offered an explanation.

With a pair of major foreign policy challenges looming in the coming days – the future of the Iran nuclear deal and the prospect of a trade war between America and its European allies – it’s easy to lose sight of the longer-term goal behind French President Emmanuel Macron’s dramatic state visit to Washington.

France’s World War II resistance leader, President Charles de Gaulle, was famously, if perhaps apocryphally, quoted as saying: “Je suis la France! (I am France!)" Macron’s message is actually more ambitious: “Je suis l’Europe.” In fact, he is seeking to position himself not just as the embodiment of a reinvigorated European Union, but as a key defender of the whole edifice of postwar international cooperation and liberal democracy built by the Americans, with Europe’s support, seven decades ago.

That, beyond his forthright rejection of the “America First” approach of US President Donald Trump, was the point of his nearly hour-long address to the US Congress last week. And the degree to which he succeeds is likely to have major implications for the direction of world affairs.

The immediate prognosis remains uncertain. Speaking to reporters before returning home, Macron said he doubted he’d persuaded Trump to stay in the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program when it comes up for recertification on May 12. He seemed equally unsure of the prospects for avoiding the imposition, as soon as May 1, of steep US tariffs on European steel and aluminum, even with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s follow-up talks in Washington the day after Macron left.

In the short term, either of those things could further destabilize an already violent Middle East and a fraying US-European alliance. The EU says it will take retaliatory action against a targeted list of American imports if Trump’s new tariffs come into force. When it comes to the Iran deal, France, Germany, Britain, and the rest of the EU, as well as Russia and China, are also signatories to the 2015 agreement. All have signaled they’ll stay in. But if the US pulls out and imposes strict new economic sanctions – especially so-called secondary sanctions affecting European-Iranian trade as well – the possibility has to arise of Iran attempting to resume its drive for nuclear arms.

Macron, however, is concentrating on the longer run. Though he has been president for less than a year, he has already given France its most powerful voice on the European stage for decades.

Part of this results from a mix of history and serendipity. Under a constitution adopted after de Gaulle returned to power in the late 1950s, French prime ministers may come and go in periods of crisis. But the president has a five-year term, with explicit control over foreign and defense matters. Britain, meanwhile, is dealing with the effects of a national referendum that mandated its withdrawal from the EU, and is up to its eyeballs in negotiations to achieve this so-called Brexit without seriously weakening itself diplomatically and economically. Germany remains the main economic power in Europe. But Chancellor Merkel has begun what is almost certainly her final term in office, weakened somewhat by a coalition deal that took months to put in place.

Macron’s main worry is the rise of what, in his speech to Congress, he called “raging … extreme nationalism” and a climate of “anger and fear” in both European and American politics. In Washington, his remarks were taken as a reference to the Age of Trump, but he is concerned as well about political trends on the eastern edges of the EU, notably in Poland and Hungary. He’s also aware of the rise in recent years of right-wing nationalist groups like the National Front in France and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany.

Instead of “isolation, withdrawal and nationalism,” he is sounding a call for renewed, international action, with the Western alliance at its core, to deal with the issues that have been used to feed nationalist flames – trade imbalances and Iranian military expansion in the Middle East among them.

For now, he seems in damage-limitation mode. He has little choice, especially if the Trump administration indeed goes ahead with tariffs and pulls out of the Iran deal. It was little surprise that he told reporters before leaving Washington that he planned to phone Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the flight back, or that he’d spoken to Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the way in.

But his longer-term hope is to persuade American and European leaders to resist the “tempting” remedy of turning inward and playing to purely national interests, and pursue a strengthened commitment to the rules-based “liberal order” they built after World War II. The need in this new century, he argues, is for a united, multilateral approach to dealing with their shared threats and challenges.

It will be a tall order, but one which the youngest president in French history is unlikely to abandon.

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