Post-Bastille Day trans-Atlantic relations: Grimmer or glimmer?

Dhaka,  Sat,  19 August 2017
Published : 17 Jul 2017, 19:18:23
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Post-Bastille Day trans-Atlantic relations: Grimmer or glimmer?

As the trans-Atlantic 'plot' thickens, rallying behind the sunnier expectations than their grimier counterparts may be the better option by far, writes Imtiaz A. Hussain
July 14, 2017 in Paris may have been the most optimistic transatlantic moment in a long while. Looking back to the Bastille of 1789 through Emmanuel Macon's eyes truly outdid any of the populist retrospection that elevated the likes of Marine Le Pen's Front National Party earlier this year. That this was done with Donald J. Trump raised hopes that the two countries to first preach, adopt, then slowly, spottily institutionalise democracy may together pump up that cornered ideology/governmental format at this 21st Century juncture. The invited Trump made easily his most positively acclaimed international trip to the very country his own had twice bailed in the 20th Century (with both world wars), on what also turned out to be the 100th Anniversary of U.S. General John Pershing entering France with 14,000 troops to break a gruesome trench-war stalemate. If they want, both leaders could now undertake the even greater burden of liberating a fortress-minded transatlantic zone from its brewing fears, with joint action being the sine qua non of success.

Styles and symbols stole the show. Macron was poised to present himself as a leader to both domestic and international audiences, Trump to catch fresh-air from the suddenly enveloping Russia-related revelations in Washington. The French leader admirably enhanced his country's credentials at a time when British fortunes were sinking and Brexit was pulling protagonists on both sides more downwards than upwards. His U.S. counterpart lived up to the Bastille hype by suggesting a possible retreat from the point-blank COP21 Paris Agreement rejection he reaffirmed only as recently as the just-concluded Hamburg G20 Summit. On the one hand, Macron seems eager to make as much mileage as a European leader in the technical absence of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (owing to her electoral priorities until September this year), who is widely seen as not just the brightest European leader currently, but also the most capable global leader. On the other, Trump's savvy Paris appearance may also pump up the sinking hopes of his own political base in the United States, while also reinforcing his 'media as bad-guys' depiction.

The transatlantic zone needed some big-time relief, like this entente, and kudos deservedly belong to both leaders: Macron for unflinchingly putting a lot into the invitation and personal interaction with this guest; and Trump for pushing the Russian cloud from the front-page, even if for a couple of days. It will require more than guts to consolidate the demonstrated rapport substantively.

Beginning with the COP21 Paris Agreement, Trump may face more resistance to conceding on that rejection back home, particularly since part of his political base, like coal-miners, backed him precisely to oppose COP21. Macron retains the French leadership on this issue, and is committed to driving that deeper, both across Europe and eventually the world. The former is steadily happening, the latter reflects French determination but must directly and vigorously involve the United States to succeed.

Trump's NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) stance is suddenly more mixed than during the election campaign, when it was trenchantly oppositional. This bodes well for any COP21 retreat, since the precedent is there. Events may drive him to become more committed to the NATO alliance, but it is hardly likely to strengthen his leadership within it now, or for the United States to retain its historically unquestioned controls over the alliance over the long haul.

Both leaders have met Putin, individually and collectively; and both have left the door open to nurture relations with him: Trump with no visible qualms, Macron by asserting his displeasure over Russia's electoral interference. Yet, here too circumstantial forces may intervene and dictate outcomes: Trump's Russia investigation back home may become the straw to break his presidency's back, while inexperienced Macron will have to demonstrate more grit over issues that directly confront Russia on the global playground, like a Syrian settlement, Ukraine's stabilising roadmap, and the Qatari question spilling into a region where France has long had deep interests. That the French corporation, Total, just agreed to make a US$ 2.0-billion gas deal with Iran, in conjunction with China, exemplifies French interests and involvements in this sensitive arena, and why any Saudi pressure upon Iran through Qatar could intensify global alignments.

One must not dismiss the notion of a Macron-Trump relationship maturing to the extent of circumscribing Merkel's European clout and Germany's ascendant global profile. It would be the wildest outcome Trump could add in his 'positive' scorecard column, if the Merkel Washington visit and G20 performances are any guide to Trump's immediate fate. It could significantly dampen the noise being generated against Trump by the Russian investigation revelations in Washington. How Macron balances his European pull and the transatlantic push could emerge as a tell-tale tussle at this juncture.

In short, substantively, much is at stake, thus diminishing the degrees of freedom of either side in experimenting anything too daring. Where both could make enormous mileage, not just across the transatlantic but also the world, is to go back to that original identity in the late 18th Century: as beacons and champions of democracy, that too at a time of democratic distress in both Europe and globally. This might be right up Macron's alley if his victory over Le Pen is any indicator; but it may be precisely what Trump has shied away from, given his most unorthodox and self-centred election campaign.

Britain seems to be the biggest loser in any Macron-Trump axis, with Theresa May being short-ended on two fronts: her relationship with Trump, hitherto the only stable transatlantic one, being overtaken by Macron's; and, across Europe, deepening her Brexit woes by strengthening Macron's hands in Europe, thereby elevating Paris to the eminent financial role London hitherto played.

An even greater concern could stem from the Macron-Trump entente driving a wedge in Franco-German relations. Macron clearly needs Merkel to stabilise a dejected Europe; but the more the two of them work together, the more likely Merkel's reputation, Germany's relative strength, and public expectations may keep the spotlight on her than over him in a joint setting: his youth and inexperience may not be able to keep up with his ambition, and certainly not against such a sagacious, sentiment-shelved companion who is well liked right across-the-political-board. The least she could do for a golden Franco-German age is to spread those very qualities to her neophyte neighbouring leader.

As the transatlantic 'plot' thickens, rallying behind the sunnier expectations than their grimier counterparts may be the better option by far: we will have more policy options to play with than the blank-wall we must stare at if we do not. So here's to Bastille, Franco-German relations, Macron, trans-Atlantic revivalism, and, reluctantly, Trump (for the last recipient, this being the first and last hurrah from the very world he has insulted).

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

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