Macron is currently engaged in no less than a campaign to convince Trump that when it comes to solving the world’s knottiest problems, the American president essentially has it backwards. That’s not the easiest argument to make to the supremely confident Donald J. Trump, but then who else to make it to than the leader of France’s most powerful ally? As a spokesman for the French government explained in July, when Macron invited Trump to France for Bastille Day celebrations, Macron wants to “prevent the president of the United States [from] being isolated. … Either you say ‘We’re not speaking because you haven’t been nice,’ or we can reach out to him to keep him in the circle.”
Macron is trying to chart “a third way between the nationalist temptation” that Trump finds alluring and “the globalist creed” that Trump rails against, Paul Zajac and Benjamin Haddad observe in Foreign Policy. He and Trump are both attuned to the populist backlash against globalization at home, they write. But Macron proposes “a different set of answers” than Trump—arguing that it’s possible to be patriotic without being parochial, to be both a strong actor in the world and a liberal multilateralist, to be simultaneously independent and interdependent.
The rift seems more profound and consequential than past divides over America’s unilateral instincts and Europe’s multilateral instincts on issues such as the Iraq War. It first surfaced just weeks after Macron took office in May, when Trump withdrew from the international climate-change pact, declaring that it was time to put U.S. cities “before Paris, France,” and prompting Macron to defiantly press ahead with making “our planet great again.” But it grew more pronounced at the United Nations General Assembly in September. In successive speeches, Trump argued that today’s challenges are best addressed by sovereign, self-interested nations that collaborate if and when their interests intersect, while Macron reasoned that since those challenges—terrorism, climate change, large-scale migration, the digital economy—spanned nations, “there is nothing more effective than multilateralism in our current world.” Trump indicated that it was time for America to stop looking out for the world and start looking out for the United States—and encouraged other countries to similarly take heed of their own national interests. Macron stated that the times demanded countries look out for their shared welfare as never before. Trump called for a “reawakening of nations”; Macron worried that narcissistic nationalists were defying the lessons of history and sleepwalking into another global disaster.
Now the French president has come to Washington, with transatlantic cooperation literally on deadline. Like Trump, Macron is intent on making international trade fairer, particularly with regard to Chinese trade practices. But unlike Trump, Macron has advocated for multilateral solutions, primarily through defensive European Union policies. He and other European leaders have until May 1 to negotiate permanent exemptions from the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs. Whereas Trump claims that America’s “friends” have inflicted “more damage” on the United States through free trade than its “enemies,” Macron maintains that “you don’t make trade war with your ally. … It’s too complicated if you make war against everybody.”