At times during President Emmanuel Macron's visit to America this week, he may have seemed like Donald Trump's French poodle. But by the end, it was clear that this dog has teeth — and is tugging at the leash of the man who thinks he's the master.
The French newspaper Le Monde captured the ambiguity with an editorial Thursday headlined: "A double-edged visit." Macron's touchy-feely encounter with Trump Monday and Tuesday was "gesture," the paper argued, but the baseline was in Macron's speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday that was "on the edge of brutality" in its critique of Trump's policies. Le Figaro put it more gently in a headline Thursday: "Macron seduces Congress."
Macron emerges from his Washington trip as a clever, somewhat devious French counterpoint to Trump — a flatterer, manipulator and charmer. Most of all, Macron is an opportunist who sees a way, at a moment when Britain is down and Germany mute, to put France at the center of European diplomacy for the first time in many decades.
I asked Macron at a small gathering of journalists Wednesday afternoon whether he truly found the mercurial Trump a trustworthy partner. "Yes, I trust him very much," he answered, " because I want him to move" to be a protector of multilateralism and Western values. In other words, Macron trusts Trump to the extent he thinks he can maneuver him.
Even some of Macron's French diplomatic colleagues are skeptical that this new "entente cordiale" will end happily. Most people come away from Trump's embrace tarnished by the encounter. During this visit, Macron's stature was both diminished (by Trump's domineering over-familiarity) and enhanced (by Macron's undeniably charismatic public performances).
Macron already seems to have lost his battle to convince Trump to remain within the Iran nuclear deal. His "bet" is that Trump will announce May 12 that he's withdrawing from the pact. Macron is focusing on what comes next. He told us he accomplished two main things with Trump: getting his support for continued U.S. "involvement" in stabilizing Syria; and encouraging his "openness to a new comprehensive deal" on Iran — a "bigger deal," in Trump's words, that would replace the "terrible" deal President Obama signed and would last longer, cover ballistic-missile testing, and address Iran's regional behavior.
Macron is coaxing Trump toward a very big idea. He's talking about a grand bargain that would draw in all the major players — Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. — to create a regional security architecture that would start with an agreement to revive Syria. This isn't a new idea; diplomats have been exploring versions of it ever since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. And it has a kind of inevitability; when the Syrian war ends, it will surely be through some such formula.
But who can take on such a daunting project? Here's where the weird synergy of Trump and Macron is interesting. A Middle East grand bargain is exactly the kind of "big deal" that Trump dreams of doing. Yet to get anywhere, he needs a smart, smooth-talking but unthreatening helper. Enter Macron.
The French president told us he sees his role as an "honest broker," facilitating U.S. diplomacy with Russia, Turkey and Iran. On his flight to Washington, he had telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin. After he left, he planned to call Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. Macron said he understands that Trump's style is to bargain aggressively, and that Trump thinks this bellicose approach has worked with North Korea. Macron seems to imagine himself out on the edge of the cliff with the Great Disrupter, after Trump guts the Iran deal, helping him avoid disaster.
Listening to Macron spin his strategy, I was reminded of another smart, manipulative man whose diplomacy rescued a European status-quo power in decline: Count Metternich of Austria, who crafted the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which stabilized Europe for nearly a century.
Henry Kissinger unforgettably described Metternich in "A World Restored," his 1957 Harvard doctoral dissertation: "His genius was instrumental, not creative, he excelled at manipulation, not construction." Metternich was a man who "preferred the subtle maneuver to the frontal attack" and sometimes "confused policy with intrigue." Does that sound like anyone who visited Washington this week?
Macron told us that he sees himself as a man like Trump, because both are "mavericks" within their systems. He might have added that both men are also users, and that, amid the cringeworthy kisses and hand-holding, they may have found a way to use each other.
David Ignatius writes a foreign affairs column. He has also written eight spy novels. "Body of Lies" was made into a 2008 film starring Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He began writing his column in 1998. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.