https://player.megaphone.fm/POL1376037380?President Donald Trump isn’t the leader of the free world, says French Ambassador Gérard Araud.
These days, he says, no one is.
And as Trump heads to Europe Wednesday for his first G-20 meeting as president and first face-to-face encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the world needs to figure out what to do next.
“We have to define what is the free world, and today, there is no—the expression of ‘leader,’ I think, doesn’t really doesn’t fit the question,” Araud told me, in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast in his office at the French Embassy, a large, modernist complex across the street from the Georgetown Hospital.
“This world order, the traditional liberal world order, is more or less undermined, really, or looks injured. Where [is] the United States? And that’s a question which is on the table,” Araud said. “I think it’s impossible to move on without America, and I think also that the United States really can’t let the world move on.”
Some of this is a response to Trump—diplomatic as the ambassador tried to be, he can’t quite hide how disappointing he continues to find the president’s decisions, like his announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords or his reluctance to endorse NATO’s commitment to collective self-defense—but Araud says that in many ways, the current president has simply shocked the world into realizing what had become true under the last president.
“‘America First,’ in a sense, was raised in a discrete way, also under President Obama,” Araud said, citing both Obama’s delegation of the Ukraine invasion response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and his someone-should-do-something approach to Syria that made the “red line” one of the defining whiffs of his presidency.
And he wonders if the common thread between these very different presidents is their recognition of the American people’s exhaustion with the burden of being a global superpower. “It’s more interesting to ask the question about America itself,” Araud said, “not the America of Trump or the America of Obama, but what is today the appetite of the Americans, really, to have an active role in the world affairs?”
The question comes from one of the foreign officials who knows America best and is now watching America most closely, in his third year as ambassador to Washington, following five years before that as France’s ambassador to the United Nations and several postings here earlier in his career—an experience full of official encounters and unofficial dinners and lunches in a full social calendar. And it comes as Araud’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, shifts from his showy alpha male handshake on their first meeting last month to inviting Trump back to Europe to watch the Bastille Day parade with him in Paris.
Trump’s two quick Europe trips, which also include a stop in Poland, have the unmistakable air of a do-over, following a tense spring trip to Brussels and Italy that saw the president anger some of America’s closest and oldest allies. Speaking to reporters at the White House last week, Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster, acknowledged as much, listing strengthening American alliances as first among “additional objectives.”
The state of the U.S.-French alliance, which soared and then stumbled under Obama, is a question of its own, especially as France tries to understand its own new president, who’s moving hard and fast on an agenda that’s mostly driven by domestic issues, and on foreign policy isn’t as defined by being the anti-Trump as the American president’s critics would like.
“It’s a mistake to assume that Macron is going to lead an international front against American power or what Trump wants to do,” said Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who advised the French president’s campaign on foreign policy.
Drawing on his own experiences in the United States, Araud told a reporter in 2015, “I think the strength of this country is its extraordinary unity.” Then came the 2016 election, which he said unexpectedly showed him how similar American politics and French politics are: the same backlash to opening borders, the same bucking populism, the same sense among voters that their government hadn’t kept up with the country.
Still, Araud was surprised as everyone else on election night. As late as 6 p.m. that evening, French officials were hearing from Hillary Clinton campaign’s that she’d won, but by the time the results were clear, he took to Twitter (as he often does): “A world is collapsing before our eyes. Vertigo,” he wrote. Then later, “It is an end of an era, that of neoliberalism. It remains to be seen what is next.”
He deleted both. But he didn’t erase the thoughts. “I was wrong to send it,” he told me, “but I think I was right in my analysis.”
All through last year, diplomats, members of Congress and Obama administration officials were talking about how Trump’s candidacy was making foreign governments reconsider what kind of international engagements Americans really had the appetite for anymore. That was when the assumption was that Trump would run reasonably strong but lose, just like Remain was supposed to squeak by in the Brexit vote.
“Obviously a lot of our citizens are telling us, have told or are telling us that they have suffered from globalization … and basically our citizens say, ‘Enough is enough with that,’” Araud said. “Democracies, we are obliged to respond to the concerns of our citizens.”
One of the great ironies of Trump’s Euroskepticism is that it’s pushing France and Germany—traditional rivals for the leadership of Europe—together. Macron wants nothing more than Angela Merkel’s re-election in the fall, and Haddad says he’s “going to try to use the Trump presidency as an opportunity to push for the Europeans to integrate.”
But the trolling will continue sometimes, like when Macron responded to Trump’s decision on the Paris Accord with a “Make Our Planet Great Again” website.
Araud said Trump was simply wrong when he repeatedly insisted in his Rose Garden announcement on the Paris Accords that the world had been laughing at the United States during negotiations over the non-binding carbon reductions. He echoed a comment reportedly made by Macron last month during a leaders’ meeting at the G7: “Now China leads.”
“You’re never laughing at the United States. No, it’s really more, I think, sadness. You know, really we are in a paradoxical situation now when China is lecturing the U.S. about the world order. And saying, ‘We will be exemplary in fighting climate change ourselves,’” Araud said. “It’s obvious that for the Europeans, the Europeans can’t think of building a future without the Americans. You know, we are belonging to the same civilization.”
But Araud insists that fears there’s been a breakdown in allies’ relationships with America are overblown. He says he’s in regular touch with Trump’s National Security Council, and notes that Macron’s new national security adviser has quickly established working ties with McMaster.
In that sense, Araud says, rumors of a disruption have been greatly exaggerated, though the French can’t figure out the dynamic between Macron and Trump: They thought Trump liked the fact that Macron spoke English and was a fellow political outsider, and are confused about reports that once he got back to Washington was steaming over the length of that handshake.
But Araud said the foreign policy challenges remain the same as they were under Obama, and the strategy so far does too.
“Frankly, whatever people are saying, it’s impossible for the U.S. simply to leave the world,” Araud said. “This administration, of course, is trying to define a new policy, but this administration knows that the U.S. is an essential part of the world order.”
Araud noted, though, that he has still has never met Trump himself.