Emmanuel Macron was in Washington. He enjoyed himself in Donald Trump's company and delivered a speech before Congress, which, according to many Americans was so good, that they wished he was their president – and not only because he speaks English well. (It is fair to say that Macron is the French head of state with the best spoken English since Napoleon III.)
Macron’s fans in America are primarily Democrats who lack a good leader. It is amazing that a visiting president managed to impress Americans as much as Macron did. His charisma and charm are strengthened when seen in contrast to President Trump. Macron’s influence is due to the recognition that as president of France, he is the face of a really special relationship in U.S foreign policy.
The United States has long enjoyed – if the verb “enjoyed” can be used to describe the turbulence and harmony involved – a relationship with the U.K. that one can boldly say equaled the relationship the French had with the U.K. Regardless how much Britain insists otherwise, it seems that its partnership with the United States has run its course, and as British people would describe it, the relationship has already been exhausted.
First, a bit of history. Dean Acheson (secretary of state under President Harry Truman) said in 1962 that Great Britain had "lost an empire" and had "not yet found a role," to take the place of its imperial calling. His words were received with distrust by the British political elite. Acheson told the truth, which hurt the British more than rhetorical lies.
What was particularly painful was his frankness with a country that believed it had a special relationship with the United States. The comforting delusion of a special relationship had been invented by Britain as a way to swallow the humiliating postwar loss of global hegemony at the expense of the United States. America has been an undisputed superpower since 1945, but the U.K.’s interdependent partnership with the United States meant that the U.K. should have regained some part of its global magnificence.
In addition, there is a large and incomparable snobbism in this British approach, which was obvious when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan compared the relationship between the British and the Americans with those between the ancient Greeks and the Romans. “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go," he said.
According to Macmillan, the relationship between the United States and Britain is symbolic but parasitic. Just as Great Britain is in need of the U.S. power, so Americans (a "great, large, ordinary, joyful people") are in need of British sophistication.
With the forthcoming Brexit, Great Britain has once more lost its global authority and not yet found its role in the world (although it is looking for it, ironically, in the Commonwealth, among nations whose decolonization eliminated Great Britain’s global role in the first place). From the U.S. point of view, the special relationship with Britain is almost useless at the moment. Great Britain has almost no influence in Europe and offers America little more than a desperate guarantee of strategic subordination (at least until the government of the Conservatives is in power, even though it is performing poorly).
On the other hand, France is ready to be a proud and stable partner. In reality, France is the only globally active European power at the moment, as Germany was overwhelmed and weakened by the recent election. The United States would benefit from the fact that France has the only significant army in democratic continental Europe – a battle-hardened army, which is not ashamed to show its strength anywhere in the world. The French also have a navy – the fleet was far from small during the invasion of China – as well as a significant number of bases abroad, mostly in Africa.
Having voted to leave the EU, the conditions of which departure continue to be the subject of negotiations, Britain is excluded, to a large extent, from the EU’s foreign policy. And here France stands the highest. It is stronger in Europe than it was during the first days after the establishment of the EU. The French president is so confident in his country’s power that he is not afraid to speak English when he is abroad. Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand would have died before pronouncing a single word of the language used in Albion.*
If we follow Acheson’s thesis, it looks like France, unlike Britain, did not search for a global role after it lost its imperial status. The country no longer had any colonies, but retained control over the countries which it governed, offering them money, security and the warm embrace of Francophony. Unlike the British Commonwealth, in this case, there is no strange monarchic baggage to hold onto. (Countries such as India, for example, are not happy that the British queen is the head of the British Commonwealth).
This unwavering, international elitism – this sense that one is the leader of small, subordinate nations (mostly African) – gave France its global stance on the way forward. France thinks of itself as needing to have an independent role in this mini-world and refuses to accept that the United States may treat it as anything other than an equal. One can also see this determination for independence in Charles de Gaulle's decision to withdraw France from NATO's overall military command in 1966, as well as Jacques Chirac's refusal to support the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.
The United States and France have more in common than they are likely to admit. They share a republican history and the concept of human rights, which is universal. The French elite, as well as the American but unlike the British, has shameless, nationalistic tendencies. “France has emerged from the depths of the past,” wrote de Gaulle in his "Memoirs of Hope." “She responds to the call of the centuries. Yet she remains herself through time," de Gaulle said. French nationalism, as well as American nationalism, share two permanent themes, which crash into each another: that of optimism and that of a fear of decline.
Lately, the pessimistic course is coming to the fore in both countries, which has led to a clash between political moderation and populism, civil tradition and iconoclasm. Some would say that Macron, with all his brilliance and education, was not any less populist than Trump was when he emerged onto the political horizon, which is the reason why, at first glance, they understand each other. It certainly appears that Macron wants to make France great again.
France is the United States' fair, sometimes sharp, democratic ally, with its indispensable feeling of exclusivity. France does not shrink from disagreeing with the world's superpower, nor does it accept that the ways of the United States are better than those of France. The differences between the two are often based on principles, but can also be stylistic and symbolic. There has always been secret admiration in Washington for the French obstinacy and sense of comfort, whether they are running a political campaign, military intervention or war.
An ally who agrees with you after a little persuasion is no less useless than the one who agrees obediently. Without any doubt, for the big issues of our time – Islamic terrorism, the future of Western civilization and China's hegemonic claims – the United States and France are in total agreement – allies for the future.
*Editor’s note: Albion is the oldest known name of the island of Great Britain.