More than a handshake

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Opinion

April 24, 2018 - 11:00 PM

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron participate in a joint news conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Ayoung European leader flies to Washington on an official visit. He is a modernizing charmer from the progressive wing of politics, articulate and comfortable with the media. He arrives to meet an American president whose politics are emphatically not his, and whose election has dismayed U.S. liberals, disrupted the transatlantic alliance and alienated European opinion. The new U.S. president is an American exceptionalist. He is no respecter of human rights and international institutions. But the European leader has decided to hug him close in the hope of influencing his decisions. Washington rolls out the red carpet. It is captivated by the visitor’s eloquence and charisma, such contrasts to their own leader’s bombast. Improbably, the two men find themselves starting to make big plans together.

For anyone whose memory goes back to the run-up to the Iraq war, this is a sobering vision. When Tony Blair first visited George W. Bush in 2001, he began a process that would end, among other things, in the wreck of his own reputation, the collapse of his party’s electoral ascendancy and the undermining of his country’s moral and international standing, all of which continue in some degree to this day. Whether Emmanuel Macron, who arrived in Washington on Monday for a two-day state visit to Donald Trump, will give way to a Blair-like hubris in his dealings with the White House is too early to say. There are sound, serious reasons for thinking history will not repeat itself. But the risk is undoubtedly there.

Mr. Macron’s courting of Mr. Trump is not an end in itself, as Britain’s often abject obsession with the so-called special relationship can be. It forms part of a coherent, but controversial, attempt to relaunch France, at home and abroad, as what he calls a startup nation. Mr. Macron wants France to reassert itself on the international stage as a necessary ally, claim global leadership on issues like climate change, and renew its military role while leveraging France’s huge soft-power assets. This will come to little if he fails to win his current confrontations with French unions. But American isolationism, German caution, EU divisions and a distracted Britain have created large openings for a determined leader who has often made his own luck.

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