By Nelson Graves
France is America’s best military ally — even with Donald Trump in the White House. The Iran nuclear deal is working, even if Iran is a geopolitical problem. Trump just might end up negotiating with North Korea. And it’s no use getting hung up on Trump’s denial of climate change.
Those are views a French diplomatic source shared on Friday in a wide-ranging conversation with foreign journalists in Paris that underscored the supremely pragmatic approach France under its new president, Emmanuel Macron, is taking in dealing with its longstanding, and now very unpredictable, ally.
Under the ground rules of the chat with the Anglo-American Press Association, I’m not at liberty to name the source. But suffice it to say the individual is intimately involved in a wide range of issues that matter very much to both countries and to the world.
The conversation was sweeping, yet painted a coherent portrait of a United Nations Security Council member state forging a hardheaded, working relationship with a U.S. Administration that to many seems dysfunctional if not, in the eyes of many Democrats, dangerous and evil.
Let’s suspend our partisan viewpoints for a moment and consider how a very sober France under Macron is coming to terms with America under Donald Trump.
“The relationship has never been so intense in military terms.”
First, there is the challenge of working with a U.S. Administration that has been “extremely slow” in filling critical positions, in a capital that is still in a state of shock and experiencing “extreme political tension.”
Compounding that is Trump’s unfamiliarity with (some would say loathing of) bureaucracy and the civil service — the total opposite of his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama.
That makes life difficult for foreigners dealing with the new U.S. Administration and explains why bureaucrats at the U.S. National Security Council and the State Department — the traditional interlocutors of foreign diplomats — were, in the source’s words, “totally surprised” by a “purge” orchestrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman earlier this month.
It was a purge that started only days after Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, had met the crown prince in Riyadh.
Despite diplomatic bumps, France’s “intense” military collaboration with the United States, especially in the Middle East and Africa, remains a pillar in a bilateral relationship that has recovered fully from the early days of George W. Bush’s Administration, when French fries were taken off the menu in dining halls in the U.S. Capitol.
“The relationship has never been so intense in military terms,” the official said. “Among military powers, France is America’s best and most reliable ally.”
Despite the close military cooperation, the source said French officials were not aware that U.S. soldiers were on a mission in Niger last month when they were attacked by militants who killed four U.S. servicemen and five Nigerians. French special forces eventually reached the site of the ambush and evacuated survivors.
“The ultimate pragmatist”
Two issues above all keep this diplomatic source awake at night: Iran and the potential for protectionist measures by Washington.
On Iran, France distinguishes, on the one hand, between the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by world powers and Tehran, and, on the other, Iran’s behavior in Iraq and Syria, and its work on ballistic missiles, the source said.
Whatever France’s views, however, there is bipartisan agreement in Washington that Iran is a major threat, the source said, adding: “There is strong hostility in Washington against Iran.”
“We are telling Donald Trump, one, the Iran nuclear deal is working,” the source said. “And, two, we are ready to talk about the best ways to contain Iran,” which the source called “a geopolitical problem.”
France is also worried that the U.S. Administration, led by a president who for four decades has been criticizing multilateral trade agreements, will take protectionist measures that would hurt European companies, including French heavyweights that employ thousands around the United States.
While the French source acknowledged an accident could trigger “very messy, very bloody” hostilities between the United States and North Korea, there remains the possibility that Trump — “the ultimate pragmatist” — could end up negotiating with Kim Jong-un.
“There are a lot of phone calls.”
On climate change, France considers the Trump Administration’s rejection of the global accord to cut greenhouse gases “not that important,” the source said, noting that U.S. cities, states and companies are largely committed to fighting global warming. “We’ve decided not to make this a festering issue.”
Will Trump attend a climate change summit in France on December 12? “It will depend on what the Americans want,” the source said. “We don’t want to embarrass the Administration.”
Finally, how is it that the 39-year-old Macron — a multilateralist who is deeply committed to the European Union — gets along so well with a U.S. president who is 32 years older and holds diametrically opposed political views?
They both were elected as outsiders, the source said, noting also how impressed Trump was by a military parade during France’s Bastille Day celebrations in Paris last July.
“It’s a good relationship,” the source said. “There are a lot of phone calls.”