Macron’s sharp contrast with Trump on display at UN
The contrast between the two presidents as they spoke to the UN General Assembly in mid-September could not have been greater. French President Emmanuel Macron’s words were extremely nuanced, especially when he spoke on the Middle East and Iran. US President Donald Trump delivered a speech the likes of which the United Nations had not heard since its founding in 1945.
On five occasions, the US president called for a world of “strong, sovereign nations” in which each country would look first to its own interests. “I will always put America first as you should always put your countries first,” Trump said, adding that each country must “follow its own destiny.”
Macron, in sharp contrast, pleaded for a world of multilateral cooperation in which the use of force was not the norm.
Trump’s definition of sovereignty was strikingly selective. He threatened to act aggressively against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, whose policies he opposes, yet said almost nothing about Russia, which seized territory from its neighbour Ukraine and likely meddled in the US presidential election.
His use of the word sovereignty is more familiar to small countries that must guard against incursions by larger neighbours and dare defy the judgment of a global elite than to a superpower that for two generations has fashioned a web of global institutions to enshrine its national interests.
Macron is the enlightened nationalist, not shy of defending what he sees as his country’s and the European Union’s interests but slow to resort to the use of force.
Trump’s soaring rhetoric, which touched on everything from “God” to “chaos,” must have reminded listeners of former US President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” a category created to single out rogue countries. Macron’s speech communicated a Gaullist vision of the world, though his well-crafted words had no pretence of rising to the heights of the founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle.
Concerning Iran, Macron seems to be playing good cop to Trump’s bad cop. On Syria, beyond acknowledging that Syrian President Bashar Assad is here to stay, contrary to his predecessor, he has little to say. On Iran he pleaded with Trump not to tear up the nuclear deal, which has rolled back Iran’s enrichment programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions. The French president knows his American counterpart has a fit every time the US State Department confirms Iran is in compliance with it, such determination is mandated every 90 days.
Trump wishes to impose new limits on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. Macron might agree to that, as might Germany and the United Kingdom, but that is less likely of the deal’s other two patrons, China and Russia. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said prospects of persuading the others powers, much less Iran, to revisit the deal were daunting.
What is so interesting about Macron is that he seems to have developed personal rapport with Trump, unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That was obvious during the NATO summit in Brussels last year. It was even more so when Macron invited Trump to Paris’s Bastille Day celebrations in July.
Trump is said to be open to changes to the Paris agreement on climate change that could prevent the United States from walking away. Here, again, Macron made clear at the United Nations that he was unafraid of talking in plain words with Trump. He knows how to flatter and cajole.
In his speech to the United Nations, Trump was careful to say he did not intend to tear up the agreement with Tehran. That will come as a relief to Macron, who understands that undermining the nuclear agreement will in no way force Iran into submission to its Sunni Arab neighbours, least of all Saudi Arabia. More likely, quite the opposite would happen.
The French president is wise enough to know that the Iran deal fits into the too-big-to-fail category, which is not to argue that the agreement has done much to transform Iran’s unruly regime: It does not treat its people better than it did in 2015, nor does it meddle less in neighbouring countries.
The deal expires in ten years, which is far from perfect, but senior French diplomats understand that if Iran is stirring trouble elsewhere, taking away the only means of preventing it from acquiring more dangerous weapons is an absurd way of taming it.
Macron may not have fully fleshed out his Middle East policy but who has? So far, he has handled the region deftly.