Is the world changing for the better? Watching the most recent events, one cannot but note that the escalations of hostilities between countries that we used to call superpowers–now bizarrely in the hands of inconsistent leaders–has slowed down a bit. It is interesting to stop and record these changes, as they evolve especially fast. The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington was not recognized for its Machiavellian dimensions, particularly because of the differing political and diplomatic notions represented in Paris and Washington.
“Il y a la gestuelle, et puis il y a le fond. En diplomatie, les deux ont un sens, mais la première ne peut l’emporter sur le second.” (There is a gesture, and then there is the essence/substance. In diplomacy, both have a meaning, but the first cannot prevail over the second.) This is how a recent editorial of Le Monde opens, dedicated to the three-day visit of the French president to Washington D.C. The visit, on the whole, was an uplifting event, reviving the hope that the world is not flat. Yet.
There is a sense that the international game’s rogue players, shaking hands on the world’s stage, have reached the proverbial bottom line and have to now pull the trigger or take to their role in a world of reason. They chose the latter for the time being, it seems, and faith in institutions is again pouring in. The threat of nuclear conflict, first escalated by the reckless dictator in Pyongyang then doubled down on by the raging bull from the White House, has halted abruptly just moments before reaching the tipping point. Humanity gave itself a chance to think before pressing that button.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the intriguing encounter between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in Beijing. The surprise meeting was a strong signal of a return to the politics of dialogue. While the situation in the Far East is evolving at the speed of a meteor, replete with geopolitical possibilities and ramifications–see Friday’s “visit” of Kim Jong Un in South Korea and the joint declaration of the two countries pursuing unification–Washington last week made an opening for a political roshada in the west. Considering the precarious circumstances of the Trump government, the move may be much milder than the diplomatic evolution of the Far East but it is, nevertheless, worth noting.
I became aware that something was happening when last week I noticed that the avenues around the White House were bordered by provincial D.C. and American flags, and the tricolor French flag grandly lining the middle. Every lamppost on 17th Street and parts of Constitutional and Pennsylvania Avenue were decorated in the announcement of the forthcoming visit of President Macron. This kind of decoration is normal in China, where every state visit is honored with the display of the national flag alongside that of the visiting country. But in D.C., such an impressive display of foreign flags hasn’t occurred in the two years I’ve lived here.
I was curious. I looked for the program of the visit and was surprised that President Macron was scheduled for a three-day visit. Normally, foreign statesmen fly into Washington for one afternoon, have a one-hour meeting in the White House, do a short presser and hop back on the plane to their countries. But three days? What was the agenda? He was not coming on a plane loaded with entrepreneurs, the prevailing formula for very important state visits in the last two decades. It, therefore, became clear that Macron’s long stay in D.C. was planned for political purposes, loaded with symbolic messages. It will not be a simple working meeting, nor a private, friendly visit at Mar-a-Lago, the lavish private estate that would include a game of golf with tycoon president Donald Trump. (For any successor of Napoleon, with a strong sense of state pride, this would be inappropriate and unacceptable.) So what could it accomplish?
I learned that on the first night of the visit, the French presidential couple was invited by their American counterparts to Mount Vernon, the 8000-acre property of George Washington, where 318 slaves cultivated the land for America’s first president. Washington, who before taking the office aspired to become a prominent agriculturist, took a scientific approach to farming and kept extensive and meticulous labor and harvest records.
Visiting the Mount Vernon residency, which is now state property, was a well-thought-out plan. Mount Vernon is not only the home of the first president of the United States, the commander of the revolutionary war but also the depository of the American-French alliance in the war against British colonial power. Lynn H. Miller writes, in France Revisited:
The Marquis de Lafayette first met George Washington in Philadelphia in the summer of 1777. At 19, the marquis had left his wife and baby in France to pursue his heroic dream of helping to win America’s freedom. His reckless venture had been opposed by his family and by the Court of Louis XVI, but still he came.
From almost his first meeting with Washington, Lafayette claimed the general as the father he had never known since he was only two years old when his own father had died in battle with the English during the Seven Years War.
When they first met, Washington was a 45-year-old general struggling against terrible odds to win America’s independence on the battlefield. He was childless and not yet father of his nation, but it’s doubtful that his first regard for Lafayette was paternal.
It must have been quite an evening in the Mount Vernon dining room, with its marvelous view of the Potomac River. One can imagine Macron’s similar act of seduction in playing the role of Lafayette, searching for fatherly love from Washington, that is, Donald Trump. It must have been bizarre and perfidious in that little countryside house (no matter if American historians call it a mansion). The mansion, with its tiny rooms and very low ceilings, has so little space that it creates an immediate sense of intimacy or anguish, depending on your character. It appears it worked for the presidential couples, however, as the next day during the official part of the visit Trump and Macron were all hugs, kisses and hand-holding. It was a bizarre show of the milk-and-honey relationship, one that could not be understood outside the context of the dinner at Mount Vernon.
A pseudo father-son relationship was ignited the previous night, and reached its peak the next day in the Oval Office, with Trump’s fatherly gesture of brushing dandruff off Macron’s shoulder. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote an essay about the scene, interpreting the whole U.S.-French summit from the lens of an interpersonal relationship. The scene reminded me of a similar moment from some time ago, when Berlusconi brushed dandruff from the shoulders of one of his guests, also in front of the cameras. Is this paternalistic gesture – the equivalent to a mother’s request her sons comb their hair – something the successful entrepreneurs have in common? Was their personal success bound up in that particular gesture, one of fatherly love?
The day ended with the state dinner, the first one the Trumps have hosted since they moved to the White House. Short of any substantial news, the gestures, remember, take the place of diplomacy; the mainstream media engaged their style and fashion writers to report on the evening, underlining an important moment for the Slovenian First Lady Melania, who orchestrated the social aspects of the visit, including the state dinner. The Washington Post wrote on the event and the role of Melania in this political charade.
But the world’s patience was repaid next day with the visit of President Macron to the Hill, where he addressed the joint session of the House and the Senate. The editorialists of Le Monde took a deep breath when they could finally write: “On the third day, the French head of state restored the equilibrium in front of the American Congress with a frank and massive speech, on the edge of brutality, in the form of a plea for all the values trampled on by his host, the President Donald Trump. Mr. Macron would have been wrong to refrain from recalling that, on the same day, April 25, 1960, his most illustrious predecessor, General de Gaulle, had spoken at the same forum: it was a way of taking back the height.”
Macron’s focus: Trade wars, isolationism, the potential collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord.
Trade wars: “Commercial war is not the proper answer. We need free and fair trade.”
Isolationism: “We can choose isolation, withdrawal, and nationalism … But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.”
Iran deal: “There is an existing framework … to control the nuclear activity of Iran. We signed it at the initiative of the United States … That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it like that.”
Paris climate accord: Macron said he believes France can “work to fulfill, with you [Congress], the ambitions of the global compact.”
Climate and science: “By polluting the oceans, not mitigating CO2 … we are killing our planet … Let us face it. There is no planet B.”
Climate change: “I believe in building a better future for our children, which requires offering them a planet that is still habitable in 25 years.”
The return to joviality: Macron closed his address on an upbeat note, with a nod to his bromance with Trump: “Vive notre amitié,” he said, which roughly translates to “Long live our friendship.”
Many commentators were taken aback by this sudden twist from a soap opera to political reality, a return to the substance of politics that can only lead away from the world’s imminent disasters. In measuring applause from both sides of the aisle, it was said that Macron’s speech was compared to the Netanyahu address to the Congress in 2015 in which the Israeli prime minister criticized U.S. foreign policy and the recently-concluded Iran deal.It was a weird performance. And yet it seems like nobody among the legislators, members of media and pundits felt that Netanyahu’s behavior in Congress could be considered a humiliation for the United States. The Macron’s address was different. Though to some extent it contained brutal truths, the speech was uplifting and did not interfere with the American policy. If Macron’s address needs to be compared to something, that should be Vaclav Havel’s address to Congress. Of course, the times and the circumstances were completely different, but in both occasions, the speeches were a moment of profound truth, as expressed in Macron’s blunt statement, “There is no Planet B.”
In the aftermath of the address to the Congress, the French president met a group of media opinionists where he gave the impression that he sees himself as the broker of complicated ties between the U.S and Europe, Iran and Russia. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who was in that meeting, said that Macron likes to flatter and manipulate, and can be opportunistic. Ignatius said that he sympathizes with Trump because he also feels that he is the martyr of French public opinion.
I take this kind of declaration for what it is: words, gestures. It is more important than the political alliances stand in defense of a society based on law and principles than the crazed impulsiveness of the 45th. And as Macron, until the moment he hopped on his plane, roamed the city disseminating charm and common sense, his Mount Vernon father was becoming furious at the treason of his adopted son, attacking his own Department of Justice as a result as well as whoever got within close range of his spite. So perhaps the brokerage offered by Macron will have to wait, and the hint that France might take the privileged position in its relationship with the U.S., replacing Great Britain, will depend on yet another test. But whoever was watching the French president’s visit to the swamp had a moment of relief, and was able to take a deep breath to clear away a bit of the madness.