July 16, 2017
Dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. The profound changes in structures which had governed East-West relations for five decades led to a unipolar world at the center of which was the US. However, American intervention in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the cost and the difficulties of remaining on perpetual war footing did not allow this to last. With a steadily rising China and a resurgent Russia came the multipolar world. Ever since, “global realignment” has remained a current topic. And, last week’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, Chancellor Merkel’s “deploring” the decision by the US to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement and President Trump’s somewhat surprise visit to France for Bastille Day led some to look at relations between Washington and its Western allies.
On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used against civilians in Ghouta. This was the moment when President Obama’s “redline” was crossed. On August 31, the British Parliament rejected a government motion to join US-led strikes against the Assad regime.
At the time, President Hollande took a very tough stand. He advocated military response. In an interview with Le Monde, he said that all options were on the table and that France wanted proportionate and firm action against the Damascus regime. He also said that if the Security Council was prevented from acting, a coalition would have to be formed. In response to a question whether France could act without its traditional British allies he responded that each country has the sovereign right to participate in an operation or not and that was true of both the UK and France.
Contrary to President Hollande’s expectations, however, President Obama who had also opposed the invasion of Iraq, decided to seek Congressional approval for military action. And, following a brief meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on the margins of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, agreement was reached on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.
More recently, on April 4, 2017, toxic substance spread after Syrian warplanes dropped bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province. Scores of people lost their lives. The West and Russia offered conflicting explanations for the tragedy. Three days later, US cruise missiles struck Al Sharyat airfield.
Following the Al-Sharyat strike, a Downing Street spokesperson said that the UK government fully supported the US action. But, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn said that unilateral action without “legal authorization” risks escalating the Syrian conflict and advised the government to “urge restraint” from President Trump.
Chancellor Merkel condemned the “chemical weapons massacre of innocent people in Syria”. And, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said: “Understandable though the US military strike on military infrastructure was after the failure of the Security Council, it is now crucial to engage in joint efforts for peace under the aegis of the UN.”
President Hollande, referring to the position he took after Ghouta, again gave the strikes the strongest support.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, France, a former colonial power in the Middle East and co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement, has probably been the EU country with the toughest stand against the Assad regime. While this may reflect Paris’ independent view of the conflict, President Hollande’s call for military action in 2013 also gave the impression of sending Washington the message that France was there for the US, even if the UK wasn’t.
On May 29, President Emmanuel Macron said after meeting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a redline for France and would result in reprisals.
Finally, on June 26, the White House said that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria appeared to be preparing another chemical weapons attack, and warned that he would “pay a heavy price” if one took place. The next day, Presidents Trump and Macron agreed during a telephone call on the need for a “joint response” in the event of another chemical attack in Syria. Interestingly, however, Paris and Washington no longer see the ouster of President Assad as a pre-condition for starting Syria’s political transition.
Presidents Trump and Macron had already met at the NATO summit in May. They were sure to meet again at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. Moreover, President Macron also invited him to France for Bastille Day. For some, the invitation came as a surprise in view of the popular opposition to Mr. Trump’s prospective visit to the UK.
Chancellor Merkel had enjoyed a special relationship with President Obama. But, she was not off to a good start with his successor. And, Berlin has always remained very reserved in supporting external interventions, a case in point being the German abstention in the UN Security Council when Resolution 1973 on Libya was put to a vote in 2011.
So, one may ask the following questions:
With the UK on its way out of the EU and questions regarding the future of Merkel-Trump relationship looming, is President Macron, like President Hollande, pursuing the goal of building a special relationship with Washington, perhaps becoming its principal EU partner?
Is it possible for any European nation to have such a privileged (and sometimes costly, as in Iraq) relationship with Washington like the one UK has enjoyed for decades?
At a time when the Trump-Merkel relationship does not appear to match the Obama-Merkel relationship what are the implications for the Berlin-Paris axis of such a warm relationship with Mr. Trump?
European security and defense policy aims at strengthening EU’s external ability to act through the development of civilian and military capabilities in conflict prevention and crisis management. Does this policy cover the entire spectrum of EU’s foreign relations or would leading members continue to pursue their relations with Washington on more independent tracks?
Or, is President Macron aiming at becoming the rebuilder of the transatlantic partnership at a time of uncertainty?
According to the Washington Post, following President Trump’s invitation to Bastille Day, Mr. Macron’s allies were quick to challenge comparisons to Trump, arguing that former President Barack Obama is a better match, but his critics contend the emerging similarities are more than superficial. “Both show a will to govern against the Parliament and against the press — without any separation or balance of power” said Patrick Weil, a French constitutional scholar and leading historian of immigration.
Sylvie Kauffmann, a former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and a contributing opinion writer said the following in a New York Times article: “Mr. Macron’s taste for Versailles has inevitably evoked references to Louis XIV, the Sun King. More serious commentators have compared the president with Napoléon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom succeeded in reforming France as newcomers to politics, and even to Machiavelli. Emmanuel Macron has chosen as his model none other than Jupiter, king of the gods…”
Regardless, the visit provided the two leaders with a unique opportunity to refer to the history of American-French relations, to reiterate their determination to continue cooperating on a wide range issues and see what they can do on climate change. Pictures of the visit reflected a very cordial relationship. President Macron said that nothing will ever separate the US and France. In brief, after a rocky start with the “white-knuckles handshake”, France-US relations appear to have made remarkable progress in a matter of weeks.
Both President Trump and President Macron have staged a meteoric rise in politics. And, Mr. Macron’s “Republic on the Move” winning absolute majority in the French National Assembly represents far-reaching change in French politics. However, the former lost the popular vote. The latter, received twice as many votes as his opponent Marine le Pen but voter turnout was the lowest in 40 years.
Since then, the Trump White House has been unable to put the issue of Russian election meddling behind. President’s approval rating continues to fall. In France, on the contrary, Mr. Macron enjoys huge public support but people now expect him to start delivering on his promises.
Judging by his first two months in office it seems that President Macron wants his international standing to match his election victory, sooner than later. Whether a close personal relationship with President Trump will help him move forward on that path, only time will tell.