The pomp and rhetoric surrounding any high-level visit – but especially to the White House – invariably offer clues about the aims and ambitions of both guest and host. And – normally – the players give out signs front-of-house that tell us something about what they would like to communicate in public. And, normally, the pursuit of interests behind closed doors may not follow quite the same script as leaders speak to each other more freely. This is where the meat of the interaction is. Normally.
As ever with Donald Trump, things are different now: the distinction between stage and backstage has lost virtually all the meaning it once had. With this president, much of what he wants may actually play out in front of the audience itself. When they each came to Washington recently, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel appeared to be aware of this change in method. Both had prepared themselves for dealing with the Trump show; both tried to play the part assigned to them; but both proved, in the end, either unable or unwilling to stay in character right to the end.
Macron had evidently decided to try to please the US president by tuning into his (body) language and invoking the long historical ties between the two countries forged in the American struggle for independence from British rule. He appealed to symbols of greatness and power, building on the lasting impression the Bastille Day parade in Paris made on Trump in July 2017. Interestingly, he emphasised the alliance with the United States in the first world war, while not mentioning the second world war at all. Together with Trump, Macron made the case for standing together on the real issues in world trade instead of a transatlantic trade war – and for sticking to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
His idea was apparently to hold Trump close while conveying a few important messages from friend to friend – overplaying his role in the eyes of this observer. While Trump may not have noticed this, or perhaps just did not care about it, Macron did not manage to hold his line throughout the long three days of the state visit. In his speech to Congress, the French president spoke his mind about a range of issues, from multilateralism to climate change, from Iran to trade. It took the Democrats a while until they realised that Macron was speaking their language, and it took a while longer for leading Republicans to stop applauding the speaker. If this had been Macron’s plan, the question remains as to why he believed Trump would swallow the provocation. At least to this author it indicates that he had used up all his credit without achieving the goals he went to America to achieve. As it is, Macron merely ended up confirming another tradition of French foreign policy: being America’s most independent-minded and most outspoken, if not most obnoxious, ally.
This could have contained a message to Merkel about how to speak for Europe, but it is unlikely that it impressed her ahead of her trip a few days later. That is not to say that the chancellor’s approach fared any better. Her visit to the White House left the exact opposite impression from Macron. To be sure, this was a working visit, which usually involves little pomp and circumstance. On the other hand, Merkel’s self-presentation could not have been more different from Macron’s. She too invoked history, though mostly that of the post-second world war period, making clear her appreciation of the US and its support during the cold war and in the unification of Germany and Europe. This is standard rhetoric in US-German relations, but Trump will have liked to hear it, as the message is part of his own narrative about the US being exploited by its underperforming allies. Merkel used rather dry language, possibly sensing that the argument would work against her. Also: bringing a historic map of the Palatinate region where Trump’s ancestors emigrated from as a gift was likely not helpful. If Trump would like to present himself as ‘hyphen-American’, he would prefer ‘Scottish-American’.
Merkel seemed to be keen to keep a low profile, focusing on business. As much as she possibly could, she avoided showing dissent with her counterpart. She appeared determined not to offer any advice or to lecture the president on European or international affairs. For Merkel, the hardest part was to deliver on the articulation of the European positions on trade, Iran, and a rules-based order. She did so softly and in bylines, but her body language indicated a deeper level of dissent with Trump’s views than she would want to voice. Even into her fourth term as chancellor, Merkel does not enjoy full control over her facial muscles.
Merkel was making herself, and Germany, smaller on purpose. She has always been uncomfortable with the characterisation of herself and her country as Europe’s leader, and this holds true even more with Trump. Merkel knows about Germany’s underperformance in securing and defending Europe, but she disagrees with Trump’s approach to remedying it. She knows too about Germany’s reliance on exports, and so she prefers to defuse the concerns of others rather than to confirm them. Merkel is ready to make some concessions on trade to avoid an escalation, but would prefer to offer them in a negotiation process over trade liberalisation – a position which is shared by Macron. At this point, Macron clearly is the voice of Europe, though Merkel is too. She articulates Europe’s trading state approach to international relations.
Macron and France are benefiting from the return of power politics and Trump’s understanding of it. As a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, willing and somewhat able to project military force upon the decision of its president, France fits the Trumpian ideal far better than Germany, which has none of these capabilities. Despite Macron’s EU focus, his sovereigntist image appeals Trump; symbols of power and France’s participation in military missions speak to him. But, beyond that, in the eyes of the US president praising France makes the US look stronger and bigger, as American power far exceeds French power. Merkel and Germany, on the other hand, have less relevance in Washington today, mostly because of the low significance it assigns to the EU. Trump looks on Brussels with the same misconception that guides Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping – as not relevant because it is not in possession of sovereign power. Germany’s leverage over the past decade and its impact on EU policymaking weighs less in current international affairs.
The two visits were reassuring for Trump. To him, both France and Germany are weaklings, albeit of different schools: the former of the more sympathetic but somewhat impertinent variant; the latter rather selfish and somewhat cowardly. They pretend to follow America’s lead, though they each pursue their own narrow interests. Both appear ready to make concessions on trade and follow through on new measures to contain Iran, but need some more pushing. Why forge unity among Europeans through punitive tariffs when a bit more time could bring out their divisions? Why pull the plug on the Iran deal when the ticking of the clock makes Europeans nervous? And so, the US will continue to put pressure on Europe and wait for its effects to show. In their visits to Washington, Macron and Merkel tried to muddle through in their own very different ways; neither are able to claim much success. The burden of taking Europe’s destiny into their own hands has become heavier.