Elephants in the Room

Macron Is Too Weak to Lead the Free World

Angela Merkel may have ceded her crown to France’s president. But neither can supplant Donald Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, clears dandruff off French President Emmanuel Macron's jacket in the White House Oval Office in Washington on April 24. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, clears dandruff off French President Emmanuel Macron's jacket in the White House Oval Office in Washington on April 24. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

Days before French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States last month, Politico magazine ran a lengthy piece under the title, “How Emmanuel Macron Became the New Leader of the Free World.” Just a few years ago, such wishful headlines accompanied another of the same week’s visitors to Washington, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2015, for example, Time crowned her “Chancellor of the Free World” for her handling of the Syrian refugee crisis — a performance Germans rewarded in September 2017 with the worst election results for her party since 1949.

Since at least the recent U.S.-British-French airstrikes in Syria on President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, for which Germany offered only a supportive statement, it has been clear that Merkel will not take up the role assigned to her. By contrast, Macron has displayed a level of vigor, ambition, and brashness in defense of liberal internationalism that has enchanted Western elites, nudging Merkel into the shadows, where she has always felt more comfortable. Like Merkel, however, Macron will prove unable to fully grasp the mantle of Western leadership. The Frenchman may be a daring liberal preparing grand ideas for the West, but he lacks the one prerequisite observers routinely overlook: sheer power.

The leader of the free world must have both the power to succeed and the will to act. Alas, Berlin and Paris both have one without the other: Germany is a global economic powerhouse haunted by its 20th-century history, while France is a mid-sized regional player with memories of imperial grandeur. For Macron, this sets the tone of his foreign policy — the French president is routinely working to borrow power for his vision in Europe from Germany and in the Middle East from the United States. Time and again, Macron has labored to cajole, seduce, pressure, and bend his German and American counterparts to his will. Thus far, he has proved only partially successful.

In April, Macron traveled to Berlin to sell eurozone reforms that he had outlined at the Sorbonne seven months ago and most recently in Strasbourg. The essence of his message was straightforward: The eurozone is a tightrope walker balancing on frayed wire over a steep drop. It must either move forward, toward a pan-European future, or maneuver back to its nationalist origins — and do so fast. Macron’s preference is clear: France and Germany must lead the continent to European solidarity. As a committed Europeanist, he sees national sovereignty as a dangerous ill.

Macron can be forgiven for his optimism. In Berlin, Merkel received him at the building site of the Humboldt Forum, a museum that “invites people to find out how things in our world are related to one another.” It will be housed in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, the scene of many of Germany’s 20th-century tragedies: In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II declared war from its balcony; in the 1940s, Allied bombers destroyed its facade, alongside the rest of Berlin; and in the 1950s, East German communists razed the building to make way two decades later for the garish East German Parliament. Its new purpose as an ode to internationalism is grafted on top of modern Germany’s rejection of militarism, totalitarianism, and isolationism.

But closer inspection of Germany’s political scene also reveals a nationalism lurking in the background. Over the decades, Berlin has channeled its energies into becoming an exporting superpower, seizing on currency union and its high productivity to become the manufacturing hub for Europe. Flush with cash, it abhors the profligacy and debt of its southern neighbors, the economies of which have atrophied. To many Germans, therefore, Macron’s proposals for European solidarity are euphemisms for a transfer union shot through with moral hazard. Instead of pan-European unity, wealthy German taxpayers see only a mountain of Mediterranean debt.

Already badly wounded by last September’s election, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has responded by dismissing any far-reaching eurozone reforms. As Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s new general secretary, reassured her membership last month, Germany’s approach to European Union is “always to preserve German interests.” Germany would rather risk the eurozone tumbling from the wire than give up its advantageous position. For now, Berlin is for lining its pockets and standing pat.

Across the Atlantic, Macron faces an equally difficult task. If in Berlin he sought to exploit Germany’s historical obligation to Europe, in the United States he appealed to the country’s desire for capable allies in the Middle East. In the 1920s, when the League of Nations granted France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, it was the key player in the Levant. Today, it maintains a diminished but still important position in the region. In 2005, for example, Presidents Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush jointly pressured Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Last November, Macron facilitated the return to Beirut of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had resigned under pressure while in Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, on major questions in the region, France takes a back seat to the United States. Unlike Germany, however, its hard-nosed appreciation for military power grants it much greater influence in Washington on Middle East affairs. In his appearance on Fox News Sunday in April, for example, Macron leveraged the credibility he had accrued from participating in the strike on Assad to try to convince the Americans to stay in Syria. “We will have to build the new Syria afterward, and that’s why I think the U.S. hold is very important,” he argued, before emphasizing France’s “very important role.” In his meeting with Macron in Washington, Trump said that while he “would love to get out” of Syria, Macron had emphasized the importance of blocking Iran from “open season to the Mediterranean.”

Similarly, the more flexible French attitude toward the Iran nuclear deal, which German leaders view as borderline sacrosanct, has allowed Paris to act as the hinge between Europe and the United States, which is deeply suspicious of the deal. Trump has repeatedly argued that the accord surrenders far too much in return for far too little. At times, French officials have agreed while still maintaining that it should be preserved. Both Paris and Berlin await the May 12 deadline by which Trump must decide whether the United States will continue waiving sanctions as part of the deal or not.

In his meeting with Macron, Trump telegraphed his likely decision, deriding the accord as “insane” and “ridiculous.” Macron reacted deftly, attempting to channel the U.S. position into a broader convergence on Middle Eastern security. “We’re not going to tear up an accord to go nowhere,” Macron said. “We’re going to build a new accord that’s broader.” Unlike Berlin, which has treated the May 12 deadline with blinkered focus, largely as an endpoint, Macron sees the nuclear accord as one feature of a broader struggle for power in the Middle East. This makes him a player who can drive new initiatives.

Macron is calculating, even cold-blooded. He exudes an unsentimental drive to leverage whomever he can to advance his vision of liberal internationalism and French greatness. Of course, his dependency on Berlin and Washington will always act as a break on his vision. And he will never supplant the U.S. president as the leader of the free world. But he returned to Paris last week with the knowledge that his strategy of engagement has elevated him as Trump’s most influential European interlocutor. For Merkel, who arrived in Washington only one day later, the outcome was much less pleasing.

Peter Rough, the former director of research in the office of George W. Bush, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.

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