PARIS -- U.S. President Donald Trump hosted French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House this week for the first official state visit of the Trump presidency, prompting observers to speculate about which leader would most influence the other. Macron would do well to remember that the world is better off when France plays the role of counterweight to American interests and serves as a third rail on polarizing issues.
We're all better off when France and America disagree. When they're on the same page, we often end up with debacles such as Trump bombing Syria for almost purely symbolic reasons, followed by Macron breathlessly addressing European Parliament to rationalize riding shotgun with Britain in Trump's foreign adventure. Macron's attempt to explain why France succumbed to U.S. peer pressure, agreeing to almost entirely symbolic strikes on sovereign nation in the absence of aggression, was a sad display. What would former French leader Charles de Gaulle have done? Definitely not that.
During his election campaign, Macron evoked de Gaulle and his view of France's role in the world as that of a power broker between superpowers. If Macron has the same sort of aspirations, he isn't off to a very good start.
On everything from Syria to the ongoing East-West power struggle with Russia, Macron has defaulted to the U.S. establishment position. If Macron gets along with Trump as well as both men claim, then Macron should leverage that rapport to drive a wedge between Trump and the poor advice that he apparently has been getting from the Washington establishment.
Macron cannot both kowtow to Washington, as he seems to do chronically, and aspire to be the spiritual successor to de Gaulle, who established France as a world power through its independence. De Gaulle insisted that France had to remain a nuclear power in order to maintain its sovereignty, and he pulled France out of the NATO military command during the Cold War in the belief that France's role in the world was that of a respected arbiter between the American and Soviet superpowers rather than that of a lapdog of one or the other.
Former French President Jacques Chirac followed the "Gaullist" model, developing and exploiting business opportunities for France in voids left by America and/or Russia rather than simply riding shotgun with either superpower. This posture explained Chirac's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where France had established a business presence.
This strategy had also helped France become Syria's second-largest trading partner at one time. Despite a period of turbulence in the relationship when Syria and neighboring Lebanon (also a key French ally) were at odds, France enjoyed a near-monopoly in Syria in business engagement and development. France's decision to back a U.S.-led intervention in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, upending the status quo, is incomprehensible in light of France's national interests in the country.
Macron would have done well to dissuade Trump from dropping a couple of hundred million dollars' worth of missiles in Syria for little reason other than to stoke the war economy that now has to replace those missiles. Instead, Macron made France an enabler in this folly.
During his White House visit, Macron reportedly was going to try to convince Trump not to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. Although it's a multiparty agreement between Iran and six other countries that can't simply be thrown away because the U.S. chooses to back out of it, an American withdrawal could still have a chilling effect on other nations' business deals with Iran, creating fear that the U.S. government could discourage foreign companies from trying to do business in the Iranian market.
To convince Trump to support the agreement, Macron will have to persuade Trump to ignore the pressure he's getting from the Washington establishment, which has benefitted from sanctions that intimidate foreign competitors. No company wants to inadvertently run afoul of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and potentially have its executives face criminal charges.
Macron may think that he can personally influence Trump, but he isn't going to be able to make a dent in the machinery of the Washington establishment. Macron's role should be to support Trump with alternatives that run counter to conventional wisdom in Washington, rather than enabling the status quo.