This week, French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Washington for U.S. President Joe Biden’s first state visit. Below, Carnegie Endowment’s Christopher Chivvis, director of the American Statecraft Program and a former national intelligence officer for Europe, and Sophia Besch, a Europe Program fellow, discuss what’s at stake.
Macron last visited the White House in 2018, as Donald Trump’s first state visit. How has the U.S.-France relationship changed since then?
Chris: It’s tempting to say that the biggest change is Trump’s departure, but that wouldn’t be true. From where I sat in the U.S. government, Macron was excellent in handling the former U.S. president’s ego. The real change is that the world looks very different than in 2018. Biden and Macron need to figure out how the United States and Europe can work together to deleverage their reliance on China. They need to start thinking about how to protect European security over the long term, once the fighting in Ukraine is over. They need to do more to put the pieces in place for a stronger international response to pandemics. They need to set priorities and develop strategies for the future, and Macron is all the more important a link to Europe now that Britain has left the European Union.
Sophia: France is pragmatic about the transatlantic bond and about the long-term reliability of the United States as a security guarantor for Europe. It is partly because of this unromantic view of the U.S.-France relationship that Paris found it easier than others in Europe to maneuver the Trump years (while still exerting little influence on the former president). After Biden and Macron got off to a rocky start last year over AUKUS (the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the United States), the U.S.-France relationship has markedly improved. But while Washington may have initially conceived of this visit as a chance to celebrate that all is well again between the two “oldest allies,” Paris will want to use this opportunity to address current tensions in the transatlantic relationship, notably over the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Both Biden and Macron have been actively driving NATO and EU responses to Russia and Ukraine, but with somewhat different approaches. How will the two leaders address this?
Sophia: On Ukraine, the two leaders are broadly aligned. In the early days of the war, Macron misjudged the value of reaching out to Putin. He remains keen to engage Moscow, but he has also said that it is up to Kyiv to determine the right time for peace negotiations.
Like others in Europe, France is under pressure to step up its military support to Ukraine. Macron is likely to emphasize the fact that France has invested in NATO’s military presence in the east and announced plans to transform the French Armed Forces and the French economy to support high-intensity conflict. While he might bring up high U.S. gas prices, he’ll want to avoid making tone-deaf critiques of U.S. profiteering from the crisis in Europe a part of this conversation.
Chris: Macron’s insistence on keeping a diplomatic channel open with Putin makes some U.S. policymakers gnash their teeth. So far it hasn’t produced any results, but it might someday look prescient if Russia and Ukraine end up in negotiations. In the meantime, Biden should be glad to have an ally that will take the heat with a diplomatic approach that many in Washington revile.
What about other defense issues?
Chris: Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy is another perennial cause of headaches at desks across the State Department and Pentagon. Macron can be very annoying when he talks about this concept, but from a strategic point of view, Biden should welcome the idea. A Europe that is more responsible for its own security and defense would be a good thing for America. There’s no guarantee that Macron can produce a stronger Europe, but in an era when Russia is a renewed menace and China is a pacing strategic challenge, European strategic autonomy is exactly the kind of initiative Biden should welcome from U.S. allies.
Sophia: For Macron, U.S. leadership in Ukraine and NATO’s effective response to the war have not weakened the case for European strategic autonomy. NATO still struggles with political cohesion; Washington is still looking to scale down engagement in Europe’s neighborhood; and Europeans must invest in their ability to protect their citizens, stabilize their neighborhood, and defend their territory. Against that background, Macron will likely want to discuss the future of French operations in North Africa, as well as the effects of U.S. arms sales on efforts to build up a European defense industrial base. Space and cybersecurity will also be high on the agenda for this trip.
The EU and United States have been in talks over the IRA, which the EU says discriminates against Europe-based companies. How will each leader navigate this?
Sophia: Macron wants to use the visit to bring up “unfriendly” subsidies for U.S. electric vehicle and renewable energy firms and plead for exemptions for European firms. But he knows that, aside from some tweaks in the IRA’s implementation, there is little leeway for the Biden administration to change the legislation. So his second objective will be to promote French ideas—such as a “buy European” approach—on how Europe should respond to the IRA. There is a case for a “race to the top” over green subsidies, but it’s a difficult choice for Europe: not only does the EU have only limited resources, but also, replicating some of the IRA’s local content provisions would break World Trade Organization rules, which most Europeans are not yet ready to abandon.
Chris: Macron and Biden should affirm their common interest in ensuring that differences over industrial policy don’t deteriorate into a tit-for-tat economic war that could harm everyone. Neither country has a sterling record in this area. France has a long history of statist economic policies, and the Biden administration has followed in Trump’s footsteps with many of its economic moves. Both countries need to remember that industrial policy helps further the shared goal of combatting climate change. They also need to look for ways to work together to coordinate industrial policies in the future, for example, through the Trade and Technology Council or follow-on arrangements.
How might China factor into these meetings?
Chris: The confrontational tenor of American policy discussions about China must worry the French. Biden should signal to Macron that the United States does not want to decouple its economy from China and would prefer to steer the relationship back in the direction of cooperation. The presidents should also task their staffs with developing a plan for preventing Beijing from leveraging Europe and America’s inevitable differences of approach.
Sophia: Macron is keen to be Washington’s go-to interlocutor when it comes to Europe’s China policy—which, for now, is mostly words and little action. He’s not a natural fit: he supports a European approach to China that is distinct from that of the United States, he has pitched France as a “balancing power” that transcends geopolitical blocs and charts paths of nonalignment for third countries, and he seems to think that Chinese President Xi Jinping can play the role of mediator with Russia. At the same time, however, France is more involved in Indo-Pacific security than other Europeans, and Macron has more credibility on China in Washington than leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose recent trip to Beijing raised eyebrows here. NATO’s current focus on territorial defense also means that past disagreements between Washington and Paris over the alliance’s involvement in China policy have moved to the background. The two sides can build on this to pursue, if not alignment, then at least coordination.
What are Biden and Macron each hoping to achieve with this visit?
Chris: Biden needs to show that doubling down on allies pays concrete dividends. He also needs to show the rest of the world that America can listen and work with other nations that share a common interest in a rules-based global order, even when they disagree with Washington about what the best approach is. Collaborating with France on our common interests is a great way to do this.
Sophia: Seen from Paris, with this second U.S. state visit to for Macron and the invitation to be Biden’s first state visitor, Washington is singling out the French president as a preferred partner in Europe. (Never mind that the choice of other eligible European leaders is limited, and never mind that, in Europe, Macron’s leadership credentials are contested.) Last year’s spat over AUKUS was viewed by most in Europe as a purely French affair. But this week, Macron will want to transcend U.S.-France relations and represent Europe in Washington. He’ll confront the same challenge that all Europeans are faced with these days: getting DC to pay attention. Europe does not want to be just one strip in DC’s latticework of relationships. It wants to be special. Getting assurances to that effect will be top of the agenda for Macron.