April 26, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - The Macron-Trump Bromance—Does It Matter?

This week, French President Emmanuel Macron enjoyed the first official state visit to President Trump's White House. It was an opportunity for the two leaders to show how well they get along. But the question overshadowing the visit was whether this matters. Can Macron’s good relationship with Trump be translated into influence on the direction of US policy?

On the face of it, the two leaders are the exact opposite. Macron, who just turned 40, was elected as an unabashed globalist. He defeated a nationalist, populist candidate with a centrist, pro-European Union platform. He stands for the Paris climate agreement, the Iran deal, global trade agreements and rules, and a zealously multilateral approach to global affairs. Trump, thirty years his senior, takes the opposite view on all these matters.

Yet, thanks to a sustained charm offensive, Macron established a close personal rapport with Trump soon after being elected last May. Visiting Washington this week, the two presidents took every opportunity to show their closeness. Monday they planted a sessile oak tree from a French World War I battlefield involving American troops and Tuesday they participated in an arrival ceremony full of pomp, including a 21-gun salute. Throughout the visit, the two leaders played up their body language, persistently back-patting, cheek kissing, and arm touching.

For all the display of bon homie, however, the distance over policy remained as broad as ever. Tuesday’s press conference highlighted the differences between them. By Wednesday, Macron gave a full blown rebuke of President Trump's policies on the Iran deal, the Paris agreement, and other issues like "fake news" when he addressed Congress. Importantly, he urged the president to continue to lead the international order America and its allies had done so much to build, extend, and preserve over the preceding decades.

The lack of real progress on bridging the policy gaps surely disheartened Macron, who had made Trump his honored guest on Bastille Day and shared a romantic dinner with him at the Eiffel Tower. Their partnership since extended to Syria, where they coordinated military strikes to punish Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons. as Axois reported, "Macron, a former investment banker, treats Trump like a 'prized client' — with a combination of flattery, attentiveness and wariness."

If Trump is a 'prized client,' he didn’t seem to think all that much of his French partner. He feigned interest in resolving the dispute over Iran, but then called the deal "insane" and "ridiculous." By the time Macron was ready to return to Paris, the French president confided to journalists that he thought he’d failed in his mission and that Trump would withdraw from the deal next month.

That seems an accurate judgment. Trump's interest in their relationship appears to go no further than his general enjoyment of good relations with other world leaders—regardless of ideology. Some have traced this instinct to Trump’s real estate background, where the guy you beat one day could be the guy who's key to a deal the next. When they collaborated in Syria, Trump was likely to strike with or without support from his allies, but he was more than happy to have Macron (and UK Prime Minister Theresa May) come along. But that support won't mean anything when it comes to Iran.

So why, then, does Macron work so hard to get along with Trump if he can't affect policy? As Macron said: “The United States is the premier power; it is our most important partner in multilateral endeavors; it’s our first partner in the fight against terrorism; it is important for collective security.” Translation: He gets along with President Trump because he has to.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. Click here to subscribe to this week's reads.


Fight Over Values Risks a “European Civil War,” Macron Says

Steven Erlanger / The New York Times

French president Emmanuel Macron has stepped forward to bear the flag of liberal democracy at a time when illiberalism is on the rise across the globe. Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg a year before the next parliamentary elections, Macron stressed the exigency of a critical debate on Europe’s future. Nationalism has reared its head in Central Europe with the reelection of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s proposed judicial overhaul, but even nations further west, such as Italy and Germany, have felt the pull of populist forces in the past year. Likening these ideological divisions to “a European civil war,” Macron made clear his position: “In the face of authoritarianism, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy.”


Macron’s Lonely Road: Saving Globalism From Itself

Stacy Meichtry and William Horobin / The Wall Street Journal

French President Emmanuel Macron, a darling of the globalist set, has a packed agenda for his first state visit of Trump’s “America First” presidency. But once talks turn to international trade, Meichtry and Horobin argue, Macron could find himself aligned with Trump in challenging one of globalism’s central tenets: that the forces of global economic convergence are so strong that national and local politics should not, and cannot, stand in the way. In Macron’s view, the political establishment has grown complacent in claiming that the tide of globalism would lift all boats–something Trump has echoed in his own way. Unlike Trump, however, Macron’s solution is that the globalists need to do better, beginning with rebuilding the European Union and making it stronger on issues such as trade, climate change, and immigration.


Are Iran and Israel Headed for Their First Direct War?

Thomas L. Friedman / The New York Times

In the past few weeks, Israel and Iran have begun quietly trading blows directly, not through proxies, in Syria, Friedman writes. The buildup started on February 10, when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone–allegedly carrying explosives–that had crossed into Israeli airspace. Israel responded to this perceived “act of sabotage” by striking the drone’s home base, targeting, for the first time, an Iranian facility and personnel in Syria. Friedman notes that Israeli defense officials are loath to allow Iran to establish a large missile threat near Israel’s border with Syria, a mistake it made with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now the question is: Will Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, commanded by Qassem Suleimani, strike back?


Singapore’s Prime Minister: Nobody Wants a Trade War

Lee Hsien Loong / The Washington Post

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes a case for the United States and China resolving their trade disputes within the WTO framework instead of starting a trade war that will “gravely undermine the rules-based multilateral system that has underpinned global prosperity since the end of World War II.” Unilateral tariffs are not the correct solution to US-China trade tensions, Lee argues, pointing to economic assessments that show a country’s overall trade balance with the rest of the world matters more than its bilateral trade balance with a specific country. Taking into account pressing issues that rely heavily on the cooperation between the US and China, such as denuclearizing North Korea, Lee concludes that straining ties through trade war would have disastrous consequences for the world.


Jewish Power at 70 Years

Bret Stephens / The New York Times

“To be Jewish–at least visibly Jewish–in Europe is to live on borrowed time,” Stephens writes, reflecting on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence with recent examples of anti-Semitism in Germany. Stephen argues that Jews cannot rely for their safety on the kindness of strangers, ipso facto, Israel’s reason for a bellicose existence: To end the victimization of Jews. He chastises the “armchair corporals of Western punditry” who criticize Israel’s use of deadly force to counter Hamas-led protests along its border with Palestine. “It would be helpful if they could suggest alternative military tactics to an Israeli government dealing with an urgent crisis against an adversary sworn to its destruction. They don't,” Stephen writes.


The Insanity at the Gaza Fence

Roger Cohen / The New York Times

“Overreaction is inherent to the existential threat Israel claims, but that is ever less persuasive,” Cohen says, citing the use of force against unarmed Palestinian protesters over the past few weeks that has resulted in 35 dead and nearly 1,000 injured. “This is what happens when diplomacy dies, when compromise evaporates, when cynicism triumphs.” Six former directors of Mossad have called out Israel’s current self-defeating course–that’s worth paying attention to, Cohen says. Seventy years after Arab armies declared war on the nascent state of Israel, Cohen believes a two-state solution is still better than other options, but says Palestine’s belief in such a compromise continues to erode along with its territory.


Adapting to American Decline

Christopher A. Preble / The New York Times

In the decades since the end of World War II, it has become harder for America to maintain its global posture, in part, ironically, because the US helped create the conditions that allowed other countries to prosper and grow. According to Preble, Americans should now be debating how to transition from the top “in a way that avoids destabilizing the rest of the world.” The Trump administration, on the other hand, has a different strategy: Try harder, which essentially equates to more military spending. Preble says the US’ insistence on maintaining primacy at all costs “may stimulate great resistance from the likes of China and Russia.” Instead he argues: “America should seek a new arrangement that asks the beneficiaries of today’s relatively peaceful and prosperous world order to making a meaningful contribution to maintaining it.”


A Second Brexit Referendum Would Tear Britain Apart

Martin Wolf / The Financial Times

Many anti-Brexiters insist a second referendum makes sense given changes in the British electorate and European geopolitical environment, not to mention the steady realization of how much it’s going to cost. But Wolf warns there are also arguments against letting the voters decide, namely, “It is not altogether clear what question would be on the ballot.” In addition to the choices of accepting the terms of a Brexit deal and remaining, there is a third option of a “no-deal Brexit,” meaning the “UK crashes out, which would be a true disaster.” Additionally, Wolf writes, setting up the campaigns and holding the vote for a second time would push the referendum to the exit date’s eleventh hour, at which point the EU may lose patience with the UK’s equivocation and be reluctant to halt the Brexit process no matter what the people decide.


How Jim Mattis Became Trump’s “Last Man Standing”

Susan B. Glasser / The New Yorker

Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose nickname, lest you forget, is “Mad Dog,” and whose hardline stance on Iran led to frequent clashes during the Obama administration, has turned into the secret “peacenik” of the Trump administration, according to Glasser. The US’ single predawn volley of cruise missiles, after Trump invoked “all instruments of our national power” in response to Syria’s chemical weapons attack on civilians, was just the latest example of “when a blustering Trump had demanded military action only to run up against the calm but implacable opposition of his defense chief.” But as Mattis continues to disagree with his “loyalty-obsessed boss” on issues ranging from withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal to imposing trade tariffs, many foreign policy veterans are worried Trump will eventually tire of him, leaving Pompeo and Bolton as the national security voices to whom the president turns.


Trump’s Syria Strategy Actually Makes Sense

Kori Schake / The International Institute for Strategic Studies

Schake posits that it is “inaccurate” to fault the Trump administration for conducting military operations against Syria without strategy. Trump’s strategy has been to limit American involvement, push responsibility back onto states in the region, and let power determine outcomes. Sure, Schake argues, Trump doesn’t have grandiose goals in Syria like Obama, but how many of those goals did the former president attain? “Obama was self-deterred, whereas Trump–or at least his administration–runs limited risks. Obama generated false hope…Trump generates no hope. But he does have a strategy, and it does carefully assess and manage risk to achieve its aims,” Schake concludes.


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