Emmanuel Macron’s remarkable address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday reminded Americans of the ties that bind France and the United States and of the risks of abdicating U.S. global leadership to pursue a narrow-minded, “America First” agenda. In an indirect rebuke to his host, the French president staunchly defended multilateral cooperation as the only answer to the world’s ills. In the process, he underscored why France remains America’s longest—if oft-unappreciated—ally.
One theme permeated Macron’s speech: the need to defend the liberal international order from its enemies and excesses. The West faces “a critical moment,” he noted. Confronting a complex and dangerous world, leaders and publics alike were tempted to embrace “isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism.” Such a path would only lead to disaster. “Closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world,” Macron declared. It would just set free forces of disorder and allow enemies of freedom “to fill the void.”
The only answer to today’s global challenges is to build a new “twenty-first century world order.” And the foundation of that order must be “a new breed of multilateralism” that is “more effective, accountable, and results-oriented.” The champions of this new order must be more humane in their approach to globalization, wiser stewards of the only planet available, and unapologetic in their defense of freedom.
As Macron reminded the assembled legislators, “the United States invented” the multilateral system that emerged after World War II. “You are the one now who has to help preserve it and reinvent it.” The critique of Trump was implicit but clear. The U.S. president has declared war on the world that America made, undermining institutions from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and embracing a defiant approach to U.S. sovereignty that views international cooperation as an unacceptable constraint on U.S. freedom of action and constitutional authorities.
Macron repudiated this thinking. “This strong multilateralism will not outshine our national cultures and national identities.” Rather, it “will allow our cultures and identities to be respected, to be protected, and to flourish freely together.”
But multilateral cooperation will need to be renewed in three ways. First, it must tame the excesses of globalization—not in rejecting the WTO, as Trump has done, or embracing “massive deregulation”—but through “intelligent” regulation to cushion societies from capitalism’s excesses, so as to reverse rising inequality and advance the livelihoods of all citizens.
Second, the new multilateralism must “make our planet great again,” by enabling “a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy.” Macron expressed certainty that “the United States will come back and join the Paris agreement,” assuming its responsibility for “safeguarding the Earth.”
Finally, the new multilateralism must be grounded in unequivocal support for democracy, which is today under siege from a deluge of “fake news” and propaganda and a rising tide of authoritarianism. As Theodore Roosevelt warned ominously a century ago, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
It was a bravura performance from the French leader—all the more so, given the complicated rapport between the United States and its most enduring ally.
Franco-American relations have always been fraught, for a combination of ideological and cultural reasons. Like the United States, France perceives itself to have an exceptional destiny as the embodiment of universal ideals. Whereas Americans revere the “self-evident truths” of their Declaration of Independence and hallowed Constitution, the French trace political modernity to the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man. America’s “manifest destiny” meets its match in France’s mission civilisatrice. And an American republic “of the people, by the people, and for the people” encounters its counterpart in the French ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. These competing claims to be the homeland of freedom guarantee a love-hate relationship.
Cultural distance reinforces Franco-American rivalry and misunderstanding. Unlike virtually every other European nation, France never sent significant numbers of migrants to the United States. France gave us the Statue of Liberty, but few Frenchmen disembarked at Ellis Island. This lack of a diaspora population—or hyphenated Franco-Americans—has deprived the two nations of a transatlantic bridge, notwithstanding our mutual cultural fascination.
Despite this distance, the two nations have been brothers (and sisters) in arms since the American Revolution. France was America’s first ally, signing a treaty in 1778. In two world wars the United States intervened decisively to repel and liberate that nation from German invasion. Following World War II, France was at the forefront in requesting a permanent alliance with the United States, which emerged in the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.
France’s performance as a Cold War ally would alternately reassure and madden successive American administrations. Paris often chafed under perceived U.S. hegemony and sought to assert its independence (including from NATO’s integrated command structure). And yet it acted decisively at critical moments to close ranks with the United States. One memorable occasion occurred in 1962, when Dean Acheson, then a special envoy for President John F. Kennedy, asked Charles de Gaulle if he would like to see photographic evidence proving that Soviet missiles were present in Cuba. The French president responded that “the word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”
The most dramatic rupture in recent Franco-American relations occurred in March 2003, when France voted against a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing military action to eliminate Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. response was petulant. American tabloids pilloried the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and “French fries” were rechristened “freedom fries” on Capitol Hill.
With the benefit of hindsight, France was doing the United States a favor in seeking to arrest its ill-conceived rush to war. Had the Bush administration listened to its longtime ally, it would have avoided catastrophe, escaping from a quagmire that cost thousands of American lives (and many more Iraqi ones)—as well as destabilizing the entire Middle East, with reverberations that continue today. In retrospect, France’s position seems enlightened and courageous rather than obstructionist and cowardly—an effort to save the “hyperpower” from itself.
Macron’s congressional address offered something similar. In the best French tradition, he told the United States what it needs to know, not simply what it wants to hear.