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Opinion Macron’s visit with Biden was a lovefest. But bigger frictions remain.

President Biden speaks to French President Emmanuel Macron at a White House state dinner on Thursday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
4 min

President Biden’s state dinner on Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron was a mutual lovefest. But no amount of bonhomie can mask the inevitable incompatibility between the two men’s visions for Europe’s future.

Biden is an Atlanticist at heart. He is fully committed to the U.S.-European relationship, supports NATO wholeheartedly and has courted European leaders since his inauguration. His international and cosmopolitan liberalism also aligns him closely with the values of most Western European leaders, especially on matters such as combating climate change. He is as friendly an American president as European elites could hope for.

Yet he is an American president, and as such, he acts primarily in America’s interests. The U.S. foreign policy consensus places the United States at the center of a global network of alliances that ultimately serve U.S. interests. The United States wants powerful allies, but it does not want genuinely independent allies that have the power and will to compete with it in setting the global agenda. Deviations from the American line have always been tolerated, but not at the expense of putting U.S. primacy within the alliance structure at risk.

Macron, by contrast, is both French and European. Like many European elites, he has chafed at this unbalanced partnership. At times, he has suggested Europe should have its own integrated defense forces that theoretically could act independently of the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance. Such “strategic autonomy” would extend to other matters as well, especially Europe’s relationship with China. Macron recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example, and continued his call for European engagement with the Communist dictatorship, eschewing U.S. efforts to align Europe’s policies with those of the United States.

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All the happy talk about shared values and democracy cannot square this diplomatic circle. Either Biden and the United States will prevail, or Macron will. Either Europe, however sullenly or inconsistently, rearms to become the eastern flank of the U.S. alliance structure and falls into line with U.S. efforts to contain China, or it doesn’t. Given the latter course, the only sensible pathway for Europe is to move toward Macron’s long-term goal of making the continent a fourth force in global geopolitics.

Macron’s vision faces resistance within Europe. Eastern European nations fear Russia more than their Western friends do. They also trust Paris and Berlin less than they do Washington on combating the threat. National populist parties in Western European nations envision the European Union more as a collection of nation states than a federalist union. These facts mean that right-wing leaders that the Washington establishment often disdains, such as Poland’s Andrzej Duda or Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, could be Biden’s best allies in steering Europe on a course consistent with long-term U.S. interests.

Biden will need to offer carrots and deploy sticks as he tries to cajole Macron and other European leaders to play their parts in his vision. Europeans are angry, for example, at the electric vehicle subsidy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. These provide substantial subsidies to purchasers of electric cars and trucks, but only if the components are sourced and manufactured in the United States or in countries with which it has a free-trade agreement. This excludes most European products, as they both source their materials from places such as China and export their vehicles from European factories. This gives Biden significant leverage he can use to draw European concessions on China: Give the United States something, and we will remove our leverage on EVs in exchange.

This is precisely the type of uneven bargaining power that Macron’s vision of Europe seeks to unravel. A genuinely united Europe, with its own capable military, would be able to meet U.S. pressure on equal terms. The E.U. has 447 million people in its member nations, more than 100 million more than the United States has. Its GDP measured in purchasing power parity is nearly equal to the American behemoth. The United States has not had to deal with a Western democratic power equal to its own since before World War II.

The short term likely favors the U.S. vision, but the long term might favor Macron’s. Republican administrations may not want to make the cultural and economic deals necessary to entice Europeans into the renewed global U.S. alliance. Even Democratic administrations might not want to provide European firms with the sort of privileged access to North American markets that they would likely need to be willing to significantly reduce trade with China. If future presidents decide the price for European cooperation is too high, the lure within Europe of a stronger union might become irresistible.

For now, the U.S.-European relation is all joie de vivre. Soon, however, both sides will have to decide: Will we have a renaissance or a fin de siècle?