Monday saw French President Emmanuel Macron begin his first state visit to the United States, a momentous occasion that was accompanied by the usual flurry of novelty handshakes and Melania Trump-based memes. Yet behind all the tree-planting and cheek-kissing lies something far more significant. The fact is that Mr Macron is the first foreign leader to have made a full state visit to the US under Donald Trump’s administration. Mr Trump, readers may remember, was the first to do the same in France after Mr Macron came to power.
Despite the differences between the urbane liberal Mr Macron and the lumbering nativist Mr Trump, the relationship between the two has turned out to be remarkably resilient. The French President, whilst sacrificing a degree of integrity, has successfully wooed Mr Trump and his conservative cohorts by trumpeting the two nations’ shared cultural and political history both in person and on Twitter. Mr Macron clearly knows how to run rings around the President, flattering US politicians with rhetoric of their age-old alliance whilst simultaneously appealing to Mr Trump’s inherent mercantilism when it comes to economics.
Yet it was in Mr Macron’s congressional speech on Wednesday, an honour that has not been extended to a British prime minister since Gordon Brown, that one could see the true strength of his transatlantic diplomacy. Having carefully played to Mr Trump in person, the Frenchman then let loose with a speech (in English) that railed against such Trumpian topics as nationalism, isolationism and climate change denial. Mr Macron proved that he was not going to obsequiously kowtow to a man with whom he profoundly disagrees, even if they seem to get along in person. A weaker leader would not have crossed that line.
The strong performance in Washington reflects a wider shift in French foreign policy. Mr Macron is a staunch defender of internationalism and, unlike many current European leaders, believes that closer connections with other powers will benefit his country. Within the first year of his presidency he has made tours of Francophone Africa, welcomed Mr Trump to the Elysée, met Vladimir Putin at Versailles and even made an official visit to China. By boosting the profile of France as an open, tolerant and economically liberal, Mr Macron knows that he can lead the republic into overtaking its ailing European competitors, namely Germany and the UK. A strong relationship with the US, regardless of its embarrassing president, is vital to this.
Compare the state of internationalist French diplomacy to that of Britain. For all the rhetoric of a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’, Theresa May’s government has so far achieved little beyond having its proposed Irish border plan denied by the European Union. If this wasn’t embarrassing enough, the government has become further embroiled in a scandal involving the unjust deportation of thousands of former Commonwealth immigrants, a fiasco that has only exacerbated Britain’s introspective and xenophobic post-2016 reputation.
Despite the best efforts of certain members of the government, the UK continues to look increasingly disinterested in matters outside its own borders. The vote to leave the EU has been interpreted by many (including Mr Putin, for whom it was particularly beneficial) as a retreat from European affairs, whilst Mrs May’s awkward and publicly contentious approach to the US makes it harder than ever for the UK to affirm the ‘special relationship’ it so clearly needs right now. The Americans have taken note. When the US, UK and France were coordinating air strikes against Syrian government positions on 14 April, Britain was very much the third partner in discussions.
This shouldn’t have to be the case. Whilst I am personally at odds with both Mr Trump and the current Conservative government, it still pains me to see the UK so easily outwitted in regards to diplomacy with our closest ally. (Indeed on Wednesday night Mr Macron even tweeted that France and America had achieved a ‘very special relationship’ – presumably relegating the Anglo-American alliance to merely ‘special’ status.) Mr Trump may be abhorrent, but he is not the United States. His administration will pass, and I have no doubt that the necessary diplomatic backchannels exist to bypass the unpredictability of the President. The need for an enduring US-UK bond will continue, and if anything Mr Macron has just proved that this doesn’t require bowing to Washington’s every whim.
Britain now stands at a precipice, staring down into the abyss of grumbling introversion. Whether Brexit negotiators like it or not, this country is perceived by the rest of the world as an increasingly disinterested ex-colonial power struggling with feeble leadership and chronic distrust of its neighbours. Instead it should be following the example of Mr Macron and looking out into the world, energetically affirming its relationships with allied states in a bid to make up for the reputational damage caused in no small part by Brexit.
The enduring Anglo-American relationship provides us with this chance. Whilst not always desirable, and occasionally more trouble than is worth our while, our shared culture and political direction still allows the UK to thrive as an active partner in the strongest alliance in the world. To fulfil the stereotype by sitting on our rainy island and allowing others to muscle in on that relationship would be nothing short of disastrous.