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An American in Paris: Strobe Talbott’s View on a Frenchman in Washington

BLOG - 27 April 2018

Strobe Talbott, former President of the Brookings Institution and Visiting Fellow at Institut Montaigne, has followed Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington from the French capital. What were the issues at stake and what are the main outcomes of this first meeting on the other side of the Atlantic? He shares with us his reaction and analysis.

What was your overall reaction to Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the US, and more specifically to the speech he addressed to Congress?

Watching Emmanuel Macron’s speech to Congress on Wednesday in Paris made the experience even more interesting - to not say exhilarating - than if I had been in the US capital. His address to Congress comes in a long and prestigious sequence of visits of heads of states and of government, but I believe this one will be a stand out for a long time. Macron, with this speech, managed to find the right tone, the right degree of candor, and the right degree of respect. Even if President Trump doesn’t change his mind, at least the speech may change some other minds. After all, the US is a democracy with separation of powers, and it’s important that members of the legislative branch hear what President Macron said on Wednesday.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no precedent of a visitor using this forum to politely, but very clearly and rationally, rebut the position of his host in Washington. It could have been rude or counterproductive. But Emmanuel Macron was very careful to be frank with his views while being deft – that is, not addressing his concerns to President Trump by name.  

So far, I believe, the US President has not launched a tweetstorm against Mr. Macron. At least not yet. Erraticism is part of Donald Trump’s nature and his style of governing. But I think that even he knows that he would be the one who reacted counterproductively. Let’s hope that he just swallows it. That doesn't mean that he is going to take the advice or change his positions. I’m not terribly optimistic. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Many remain skeptical and want to wait to see whether Emmanuel Macron’s forthright words will really change anything. I’m an optimist, but I’m one who worries, especially when it comes to my President. Here’s where I’m very optimistic: a new star on the global stage has just done something that I have not seen done in my entire life. Of course, I have never seen an American presidency so disturbing to many Americans and to many people elsewhere in the world. But the good news in these days is the emergence of a counterbalance to such phenomenon. A French President comes to Washington for a state visit, has cordial relations with his American counterpart, and speaks truth to power. 

And he was not speaking just for himself and for France – he was speaking for many Americans who agree with his rebut of our own President. 

Both Presidents' opinions differ on a number of issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, international trade and climate change. How do you think these dossiers will evolve? 

Trade is the one issue where there might be some flexibility. For example, it seems that Donald Trump is considering ways to soften the downsides of scuttling NAFTA. Moreover, President Trump came into office vowing to withdraw the United States from TPP. However, he has hinted at backtracking because of domestic pressures from both the political and the corporate communities. 

Attacking trade agreements signed by his predecessors nonetheless seems to be a recurring pattern of his presidency. Donald Trump has a particular animosity against NAFTA because it is associated in many people’s minds with the controversy over immigration.

That said, it is worth noting that NAFTA does not just concern Mexico, but also Canada, which strongly wants to protect NAFTA. Speaking about Canada, it is interesting to notice that Donald Trump seems to have - at least superficially - a relationship with Justin Trudeau comparable to the one he has with Emmanuel Macron. Indeed, it looks like Justin Trudeau has adopted a similar strategy in how to deal with the President of the United States as the French President. 

The most immediate and dangerous issue is the Iran agreement. At the beginning of the week, it sounded like the talks had not gone very well between the two leaders. I remember thinking to myself: will Macron slide away from this issue or would he hit it hard? And he did hit it hard in his address to Congress. My fear is that, while he made a strong defense for the agreement, he hasn’t budged President Trump’s position.  

The US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA would be a catastrophe. It would help the hardliners in Iran who never liked the deal. It would be difficult for President Rouhani to deal with the domestic backlash. And it would widen the gap between the U.S. and its most important allies, including France. 

As for climate change, there is both bad and good news. The bad news is that the President doesn’t believe in the science and has around him fake environmental advisors, people who are, like him, obscurantists. They’re anti-environment, anti-mediation of climate change. The good news, though, is this: the Paris Accord was a great breakthrough, and much of the world will adhere to it. Moreover, in the US, thanks to our federal system, we have state and city governments taking measures against climate change as we speak, and which will continue to do so.

How do you believe that the French-US relationship has changed with these two new presidencies? 

We Americans have for a long time regarded our special relationship with the UK. We still do have that relationship. But in the eyes of many Americans, that relationship is in danger of weakening because of Brexit and Britain’s turning inward. In recent times, we counted more on Berlin. Yet Angela Merkel, unfortunately, is having to deal with many internal and domestic difficulties. I think that, in no small measure because of Mr. Macron coming to Washington, many of us will turn to France.

One more thing: the French and American republics were born of the Enlightenment. While Emmanuel Macron did not refer to the Enlightenment per se, his idiom and ideals were those of a Lumière. He emphasized rationality, science, truth, freedom, democracy. I think Descartes would be proud. Jefferson would be proud. Montesquieu would be proud. Franklin would be proud.

 

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