Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Donald Trump is a man who is impossible to predict. On the campaign trail and since becoming president, his next move has baffled his most senior staff.
He would, of course, have you believe that any such reporting is “fake news”, but it cannot be the case that American news outlets unanimously describe palace intrigue amongst warring staff factions and the word “chaos” being often used as the best way to label the state of play in the White House.
Internally, the war wages for the heart and mind of the President, whose decision making is swayed and influenced by those whose counsel he seeks. And yet globally, the picture is different. President Trump appears far easier to court if presidents and prime ministers are willing to risk the domestic political pushback.
(It should also be noted that this American president has struck budding relationships with strongmen around the world, like China’s President Xi, the Philippine’s President Duterte and Egypt’s President el-Sisi, to whom domestic political pushback poses zero risk whatsoever).
Why is Macron going further with Trump than any other world leader?
Macron has shown the benefits of taking the domestic risk and unapologetically courting Trump. The President is not a popular man in France, with a November 2017 survey showing nine in ten French people have an unfavourable opinion of the US leader. While 86 per cent of Europeans were found to have a negative opinion of Trump, some 90 per cent of the French said the same thing.
The situation is similar in the UK, where the President is far from popular. He has picked fights with Sadiq Khan after the London Bridge terror attacks, shut down Theresa May over domestic terrorism; and put the US at odds with the UK on international policy by pulling out of the Paris climate accord.
On that basis, the offer of a State Visit remains in the bushiest of long grass, with Downing Street and Buckingham Palace seemingly reluctant to organise a visit that, if a Parliament petition is anything to go by, at least 1,863,708 people would be ready to protest.
All of which begs the question, why is Macron willing to risk his own domestic pushback in ways that May and others with a more risk averse outlook are not?
The new ‘Special Relationship’ (le relation spéciale!) is emerging on a highly functional basis. Put simply, the other candidates in the arms race to be Trump’s new best friend are busy doing other things.
May is pre-occupied by Brexit both domestically and internationally. Merkel is no longer the force she once was, focusing on putting together a cohesive domestic programme for government. Macron senses a space being vacated by the Brits, presenting a chance to drive a wedge in the Anglo-American alliance which traditionally France has been isolated from since De Gaulle. In short, Trump and Macron need each other.
For the Americans, the French present a new bridge into Europe that Merkel and David Cameron gave to President Obama. Trump has spoken at length about his distaste for both the European Union and doing business on a multilateral basis, meaning European buy-in to American international policy will need to come via the French.
For the French, the relationship with America gives Macron an air of legitimacy on the world stage as the face of European diplomacy. When the European Union needs to press Trump on the future of the Iran deal, prolonged military involvement in Syria, or exemptions from US trade tariffs, they send Macron. It has become clear that working effectively with Trump relies first and foremost on a strong personal connection, the bond that opens the lock to diplomatic engagement. Sending Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker or Donald Tusk would have the opposite effect.
Macron has become an artist in political fawning – saying all the rights things at just the right times to keep the President on side, putting credit in the bank to make his real political asks when the cameras are turned off. Their joint rise to power against all the odds and expectation mean that Trump and Macron view each other as equals (but first among equals), two political mavericks breaking into the established world order. On that basis, May’s more traditional route to power is ruled out.
With Macron in the driving seat, where does it leave Mrs May and the ‘Special Relationship’?
The current focus of the UK Government is delivering Brexit through the mechanisms of Parliament, and the political arithmetic means that it cannot look much further beyond that. Once our future trading and regulatory arrangements with the EU have begun to take shape, May and Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, will pivot attention to new markets ripe for trade deals like the United States.
At that point, the ‘Special Relationship’ must be re-engaged and re-energised so that it is fit for the modern era. The United Kingdom cannot afford to concede its most important political, societal, historic and strategic ally to the French; a truly ‘Global Britain’ must have global allegiances.
But for now, we must expect Macron to continue his charm offensive while the Prime Minister takes a back seat.