Why is the global left so bad at choosing its heroes? Joe Biden was supposed to be the anti-Trump, the savior of Western multilateralism; Emmanuel Macron was the poster boy for European centrism, the brilliant reformer who was to save the continent from falling into populist turmoil. Yet the two men turned out to be terribly bad, hastening the disintegration of the West.
It might not seem like it at first glance, but Biden, the oldest president of the United States, and Macron, the youngest French head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte, have a lot in common. They clashed in an extraordinary fashion last week, with France withdrawing its ambassador on the Aukus pact, but it was a classic case of Coulomb’s law: the same charges repel each other.
Both men are overrated accidental presidents who rose to the top because they were seen as the less terrible option; both see themselves as great technocratic administrators, but are in reality shockingly incompetent, as evidenced by the withdrawal from Afghanistan or France’s endless botched reforms; both are hypocritical semi-nationalists who believe in the power and sovereignty of their own nation, but not that of others; and both preside over the acceleration of the economic, social and moral decline of their country.
Perhaps most sadly, both are anti-British: they share an aversion to this country, or at least are ready to disparage the UK for national political purposes. Biden’s aversion stems in part from his support for Irish nationalism and his uniquely American misunderstanding of the history and politics of the British Isles. His State Department hates and still misunderstands Brexit.
Macron sees himself as a Charles de Gaulle of the last days, the leader of the Free French who has never forgiven Britain for hosting him and allowing him to liberate Paris. Being served hand and foot at the Élysée tends to turn presidents into megalomaniacs, but the effect on Macron has been particularly toxic. More prosaically, denigrating Britain helps it in the polls and, he hopes, dissuades East Europeans from leaving the EU.
His attitude towards Britain since 2017 is unforgivable. He spent the Brexit negotiations pushing the toughest position possible, deliberately seeking to undermine the city, helping to rule out a more comprehensive and appropriate free trade deal that respected regulatory autonomy, and capitalizing on what should have been a technical issue resolved on the Irish border to permanently damage the UK. He later threatened to cut off electricity in Jersey and wrongly denigrated the AstraZeneca vaccine. His government has now reached new lows, rejecting Britain as a junior partner of the United States and describing Boris Johnson as the “fifth wheel of the chariot”.
Macron treats Britain as an enemy to be contained, not as a partner with whom to navigate a treacherous world. Why? In a more rational and more truly Gaullist world, Brexit could have been accepted and followed by an Anglo-French partnership of equals, by a new cordial agreement on matters of mutual interest. Instead, Macron’s miscalculations will ensure more Aussie-style rebuffs and an even faster dampening of French influence. What a terrible, heartbreaking mess.
Biden’s behavior has been equally appalling. He no longer has any real allies: he sees in other countries only a means of carrying out the American interest, useful instruments in his foreign policy. There is no respect, let alone friendship or gratitude. Other residents of the White House at least had the good sense to pretend to care; some, like Ronald Reagan or George Bush, did, at least some of the time.
While the French got their fair merits on the Aukus deal – their support for Australia was far inferior to the US-UK offer – Biden’s secretive and non-diplomatic manner was improper. For such reasons at least, Macron was right to be annoyed, even if his petulance was ridiculous.
Biden’s treatment of Britain is particularly egregious. If Democrats now believe in free trade, they should be pining to reduce trade barriers to the UK. Why, then, is a trade deal with the United States impossible? Why could a small set of mutually acceptable arrangements not be achieved? Or why couldn’t Biden be able to invite us to join the USMCA, the successor organization of Nafta, a proposal that has been talked about in Eurosceptic and Republican circles for as long as I can remember?
Why seek to “punish” us (and, since free trade is mutually beneficial, American consumers and businesses) for being a staunch ally of the United States? Why continually distort the Good Friday Agreement? Why reduce the chances of peace in Northern Ireland? As with Macron, that’s not the way to treat friends.
The French president’s fury against Aukus will intensify his quest for a European army and an integrated EU foreign policy. It cannot end well.
It makes sense that the world no longer blindly follows America: Almost all of Washington’s foreign policy decisions since the end of the Cold War have failed disastrously. But when the French talk about going their own way, they are referring at best to silly semi-colonial adventures in Africa, or at worst to being more supportive of just about all authoritarian regimes.
It was the French who sold the Osirak nuclear reactor to Iraq, who were most keen on signing deals with Iran after the ill-fated nuclear deal was signed, and Macron who made a major deal for Airbus with the Chinese in 2019 following Sino-American tensions. France remains a Colbertist nation, obsessed with mercantilism; his state economic policy at home guarantees stagnation, so that deals with the despots are his only hope. An integrated Franco-German foreign policy would be even worse – suck both Russia and China.
The dream of European strategic autonomy – European defense no longer resting on America – will lead to disaster. Nobody wants to spend the money, especially not the semi-pacifist Germans. He will complete NATO and tear the EU apart. Who in Eastern Europe would trust a Paris-Berlin axis on Washington for its defense?
The left hailed Macron and Biden as the saviors of the liberal international order; but the two men have already done more to wreck it than anything Donald Trump has ever concocted.