Emmanuel Macron has been to Washington. He had a rollicking time with Donald Trump and delivered a speech so fine to the U.S. Congress that many Americans wished that he were president of the United States — and not just because he speaks better English. (It would be fair to say, in fact, that Macron speaks the best English of any French head of state since Napoleon III.)
Macrons American admirers are mostly Democrats, lacking decent leadership of their own. Even so, for a visiting president to have captured a notable section of the American imagination in the way Macron did is remarkable. To be sure, his charisma and charm are augmented by a contrast with President Trump. But his impact is also due to a recognition that — as president of France — he is now the face of the real “special relationship” in American foreign policy.
The U.S. has long enjoyed — if that verb is allowed to embrace both turbulence and harmony — a relationship of doughty equals with the French. As much as Britain may insist otherwise, Americas partnership with the U.K. appears to have run its course and is, as the British themselves might put it, totally knackered.
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First, a bit of history. When Dean Acheson said in 1962 that Britain had “lost an empire” and “not yet found a role” to take the place of its imperial calling, his words were met with disbelief in the British establishment. Acheson, President Kennedys hard-headed secretary of state, had spoken the truth, which aggrieved the Brits more than any rhetorical falsehood might have done.
What hurt particularly was his bluntness about a country that believed it had a special relationship with the U.S. This palliative fiction was put in place by Britain as a way to stomach its humiliating post-war loss of global hegemony to the United States: America was the undisputed superpower after 1945, but an organic partnership with the U.S. meant that Britain got to retain some of its global swagger.
Britain has almost no clout left in Europe, and offers America little beyond a forlorn guarantee of strategic obedience.
There was also a great and incorrigible snobbery to this British approach, evident in Prime Minister Harold Macmillans likening of the ties between Britons and Americans to the one between the ancient Greeks and Romans. “These Americans,” the old patrician Tory said, “represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.” By Macmillans narrative, the U.S.-U.K. relationship was symbiotic, not parasitic: Just as Britain needed American power, the Americans (a “great, big, vulgar, bustling people”) needed British sophistication.
With Brexit ahead, Britain has once more lost its global heft and not yet found a role (even as it seeks one, ironically, in the Commonwealth, among those very nations whose decolonization left Britain diminished in the first place). From an American perspective, the special relationship with Britain is now getting close to worthless. Britain has almost no clout left in Europe, and offers America little beyond a forlorn guarantee of strategic obedience (so long as there is a Conservative government in power, however dysfunctional).
France, on the other hand, is equipped to be a proud and robust counterpart. It is, in effect, the only globally functioning European power at present, Germany being dazed and neutered after the last election. Of utility to the U.S. is also the fact that France has the only significant army in democratic continental Europe, a battle-hardened force that is not shy of flexing its muscles anywhere in the world. The French have a blue-water navy — no trivial asset at a time of widespread Chinese sea-grabbing — as well as significant overseas bases, especially in Africa.
Since Britains vote to leave the European Union, the terms of which are still being hammered out, Britain has been largely shut out of the blocs foreign policy processes. Here, France reigns supreme, more powerful in Europe than it has been since the heady days of the Unions early founding. In fact, so confident is France that its president is unabashed to speak in English when hes abroad. Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand would rather have died than utter a word of Albions tongue.
The United States and France are more alike than they often care to admit.
By Achesons measure, France, unlike Britain, did not flounder in search of a role after it lost its empire. It simply became neocolonial, and kept tight control of the countries that were formerly its colonies, offering money, security and the warm embrace of Francophonie — a political and cultural compact suffused with republican values and egalitarian ambition, however hokey. And unlike the Commonwealth, there was no awkward monarchical baggage to bear. (To this day, countries like India are uncomfortable with the British queen as head of the Commonwealth.)
This unabashed international elitism — this sense of itself as a leader of tributary junior nations (mostly African) — gave France its own global course. It saw itself as an independent pole in a multipolar world, and refused to be treated by the U.S. as anything but an equal. One could see this obstinate independence in De Gaulles pulling out of NATOs integrated military command in 1958, as well as in Jacques Chiracs refusal to back the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.
There had been no French president more pro-American than Chirac. He studied at Harvard, worked as a forklift operator for Anheuser-Busch, and as a soda jerk at Howard Johnsons. He even had a torrid affair with a young woman from South Carolina. And yet he presided over a startling rift with the U.S. over Iraq. As he and the French saw things, they were standing up to America at a time when the democratic West appeared to have abdicated its responsibility to debate the great questions of war and its consequences. Unlike the Brits and their subservience to Washington, France has always offered itself to the U.S. as a like-minded partner that cannot ever be taken for granted, one with whom collaboration — even when likely and probable — must always be preceded by respectful discussion.
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The United States and France are more alike than they often care to admit. They share a republican history and a conception of the Rights of Man that is universal and non-ethnocentric (and also somewhat grandiloquent). The French elite, like the Americans — and unlike the Brits — are also unabashed nationalists. “France comes from the depths of time,” De Gaulle wrote in his “Memoirs of Hope.” “She changes, yet remains herself throughout the ages.” French nationalism, like the American variety, shares two constant themes that jostle along together: that of optimism and a fear of decline.
For a visiting president to have captured a notable section of the American imagination in the way Macron did is remarkable | Erik S. Lesser/EPA
Of late, the pessimistic streak has come to the fore in both countries, giving rise to a contest between political moderation and populism, civic tradition and iconoclasm. One might say that Macron, for all his polish and education, was no less populist in the mode of his political emergence than Trump — which is why the two men appear to understand each other. Macron certainly would seem to want to make France great again.
France is Americas honest, sometimes pungent, democratic ally, with its own irrepressible sense of exceptionalism. It does not shrink from disagreement with the worlds superpower, or accept that Americas ways are better than Frances. The differences between the two are often based in principle, but can also be stylistic and symbolic. There has always been a sneaking admiration in Washington for French cussedness and a sense of comfort when the French are on board for a political campaign, an armed intervention, or a war.
An ally who comes to you after some persuasion is no less useful than one who comes obediently. And there is no doubt that in the great questions that tax our age — Islamic terror, the future of Western civilization and Chinas hegemonic pretensions — America and France are on the same side, allies for the long haul.
Tunku Varadarajan, a contributing editor at POLITICO, is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter fellow at Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution.
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