On April 23rd, US President Donald J. Trump received the French Head of State Emmanuel Macron at the White House for a three-day official visit. The meeting was marked by strong symbolic gestures, as it was an opportunity to celebrate not only the mutual understanding that binds together the two countries but also, on a strictly personal level, the two respective leaders. While, on the one hand, Trump and Macron have repeatedly reiterated the profound friendship between them before journalists, on the other hand, the ceremony itself recalled many times some of the milestones in the history of bilateral relations between the two states.
To date, Macron is the only major Western leader to entertain more than friendly relations with President Trump. Unlike the previous Administration, when most of the international personalities flocked to meet Barack Obama, the 45th President of the United States appears essentially isolated from a diplomatic standpoint. Xi Jinping, in fact, despite the latest talks, still remains a main competitor. Angela Merkel, together with almost the entire German parliamentary arch, has often remarked the distances and even Theresa May, Prime Minister of the most Atlanticist European country, was recently forced to give up on an official visit out of fear of possible protests.
While Trump is aware of the need to find a first-class interlocutor within the European Union, Emmanuel Macron has been extremely skilled at exploiting a momentary vacuum of leadership, as a result of the political weakening of Angela Merkel, to stand up as a global spokesperson for the European instances, and to progressively connect his country to what today still remains the world’s main economic and military power.
France is a nation that historically has always sought, also by virtue of its own nuclear arsenal and its vast colonial heritage, to pursue an independent foreign policy, not always flattened on Atlanticist positions. At the same time, however, Paris enjoys a fruitful collaboration with Washington for what concerns intelligence and counter-terrorism operations. In fact, under the last three Présidents de la République, cooperation with the US in critical areas has undoubtedly intensified, especially in regions such as North Africa and the Middle East, where the interests of France have always been directed. The recent French intervention in Syria alongside the USAF, for instance, can be seen in the wake of this realignment.
The visit of the French President has mainly focused on two dossiers: the tariffs proposed by Trump on imports of steel and aluminum, respectively at 25% and 10%, and the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA) signed in 2015. Starting from the latter, if, on the one hand, Trump has always spoken of it as "the worst deal ever", Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, went to Washington with the intention of safeguarding it, in light of the profound commercial interests that bind France to Iran, a virgin market with 80 million inhabitants. Macron's proposal, later also shared by Angela Merkel, would provide for a temporal extension of the agreement (currently the expiration date is set for 2025), an enlargement of restrictions also to non-nuclear ballistic missiles, and a curb of the Iran’s political ambitions in the Middle East, with particular focus on Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
This hypothesis, however ambitious, does not seem to meet the enthusiasm and support of the US President, behind whom both the Republican Party and the new National Security Advisor, John R. Bolton, are in a position of great hostility towards Iran. In parallel, it is difficult to hypothesize the reopening of an extremely complex and exhausting multilateral negotiating table, particularly in a moment of fragility for the Iranian leadership, which could exploit to its advantage the aggravation of the ideological opposition with the United States to strengthen the internal front.
As for the second dossier, not only does the hypothesis of new tariffs fall within a specific plan designed by Trump to foster the internal production of steel and make the United States less dependent on imports but, in addition, this has also proven to be an extremely effective diplomatic weapon, capable of increasing US bargaining power in foreign policy. It is doubtless that the two dossiers are indeed intertwined and that Trump, albeit driven by the will to put his hands on the commercial exposure of his country, needs the support of allies in his attempt to redefine the geopolitical equilibrium of the Middle East, starting from Iran.
As opposed to Macron, the German Chancellor, who has never hidden the personal and ideological distances that divide her away from Trump, received another treatment. Angela Merkel, who arrived in Washington on April 27th, was received by the American President for only three hours, in an extremely discreet fashion, for some technical talks mainly focused on steel tariffs. Germany, with 0.81 million tons per year, is the first European steel exporter in the United States. Trump has repeatedly criticized not only the German trade surplus, calling it detrimental to the European and American economy, but he also turned to the German Defense budget, which was deemed insufficient by the standards of NATO, in light of a possible future reshaping of US engagement in the European context. Together with this, a whole series of additional themes contribute to marking one of the historically lowest points for the bilateral relations between Germany and the United States, including environment, migration policies and energy strategy. For instance, the clear opposition of the Trump Administration to the project for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline should not be forgotten, which would in fact strengthen the energy dependence of Berlin on the Russian market, strongly upheld by the social-democratic component (SPD) of the current government.
As for the JCPOA, on which Trump will have to release an official statement on May 12th, in spite of the Chancellor recently saying that the current agreement presents some critical issues, it is not possible to interpret Angela Merkel's words as a firm stance or a clear-cut break of the deal but, rather, as a veiled propensity for little modification. In fact, Germany has always been one of the main proponents, as well as a staunch defender, of the non-proliferation agreement with Teheran.
What emerges from this round of talks can be basically summarized in three points. On the one hand, the Iranian dossier confirms itself as one of the paramount priorities of the current American administration. The President has indeed placed very tight deadlines, even fearing a unilateral resolution on the matter without further multilateral consultations. This indirectly gave Donald Trump a pre-eminent position in the discussion and made the main stakeholders rush to the White House in search of a compromise.
On the other hand, the state of difficulty in which the German leadership currently pours is emerging more and more. The voice of Berlin, in fact, in spite of its authoritativeness, appears to be dim, in light of a fragmented internal politics, crossed by deep identity crises.
However, the most evident fact is the momentary consecration of Emmanuel Macron as the new privileged interlocutor of the US government. Today, Macron's France wants to play a new role of power within the European Union, as well as trying to re-establish, through Washington's approval and support, its influence within those geopolitical scenarios, such as Sahel among others, where, historically, it has always projected its economic and military influence. What is surprising in this context is the total lack of a European political line to represent, if not the interests of all 27 members, at least those of the major players.
Macron's position, recently confirmed by this latest official visit, seems, in fact, rather oxymoronic: if, on the one hand, the President stands as a standard-bearer of globalization and champion of the European integration project, on the other hand he is playing a game aimed at carving out his country ever wider margins of sovereignty, which would allow France to move, within the European context, as a free rider, not least as far as trans-Atlantic relations are concerned.