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While Washington is checked out, Macron is pushing to lead the Western world

French President Emmanuel Macron in New York on Tuesday after a news conference at the French mission to the United Nations. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — Britain is consumed by Brexit. Germany’s leader is a lame duck. President Trump is seeking to scale back U.S. entanglements with the world and facing an impeachment showdown at home. And so French President Emmanuel Macron, surveying the empty field, appears to have put in a bid for leader of the Western world.

Macron has sought to be the last hope of the faltering Iran nuclear deal — shuttling between the U.S. and Iranian delegations at the United Nations in New York this past week. He has tried to stand out as the toughest voice in the room in Brexit negotiations and as the visionary proponent of a European “renaissance” to counter far-right nationalism. All remain works in progress, with shaky chances of success. But even as those efforts hurtle forward, Macron is pushing to reset relations with Russia in a gambit that is unsettling Eastern Europe. 

His supporters say that if he pulls off his globe-spanning initiatives, he will have proved the power of diplomatic engagement in a confrontational age. Critics say he is setting himself up for a fall.

French leaders have rarely been spotlight-shy. Presidents from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac, who died Thursday, have taken delight in confronting the White House and other allies. But usually their ambitions have been hemmed in by Washington, Berlin and London. Seldom have their ally-rivals been so uniformly distracted.

Even Canada — not necessarily a superpower, but a friendly proponent of the Western, free-trading, pro-NATO world — has taken a holiday from stability, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embroiled in scandal and a bitter election fight.

Macron, by contrast, has been on an upswing. His polling numbers have recovered after he spent months fending off the “yellow vest” movement, which took over France’s streets in bitter opposition his “elitist” economic policies and attitude. Unveiling his global ambitions for the second half of his five-year term, Macron described a “strategy of boldness, of risk-taking,” and an effort to put France “at the heart of the diplomatic game.”

“There’s nobody else” to engage in this type of diplomacy, said François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel is on her way out. Boris Johnson is a one-trick pony, and God knows for how long. Trump is part of the problem rather than the solution. The Italians — well, the Italians. And, of course, Justin Trudeau is having a difficult election.”

Macron’s season of global power plays began when he managed to install an ally, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, as president of the European Commission. Although von der Leyen is a confidante of Merkel, it was Macron who pushed for her to assume the role that will shape European Union policy for the next half-decade. Von der Leyen then gave France control of efforts to integrate European militaries independently of the United States — a top Macron focus, and one that makes NATO and Washington nervous. 

Then, as host of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, last month, Macron was credited with deftly managing Trump — averting the sort of eruptions of pique that have torched other international gatherings.

“When it comes to President Trump, what I think works is working one-on-one with him and giving very respectful explanations and coming up with efficient compromises,” Macron said at a news conference. The French president even made a point of reining in his penchant for long-winded lectures, so as not to bore the U.S. president.

Of course, Macron has regularly struck out with Trump. He famously failed to persuade the U.S. president to stay in the Paris climate accords — and at the G-7 couldn’t even get Trump to attend a session on climate change and biodiversity.

Similarly, Macron could not dissuade Trump from abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. In Biarritz, the French president appeared to score a small victory on U.S.-Iran relations. He invited Tehran’s top diplomat to jet in for a surprise cameo, and by the end of the summit, Trump had indicated a willingness to meet with the Iranian leadership and ease some of the U.S. sanctions against Iran’s faltering economy. But within weeks, after strikes on the Saudi oil industry that the United States linked to Iran, Trump said he had ordered a substantial increase in sanctions.

At the U.N. General Assembly this past week, Macron failed in his attempts to get Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to engage with each other.

Macron’s most quixotic ­endeavor, though, may be his effort to win over Russia — and win over Europe to the idea of reassessing its relationship with Moscow.

The initiative is especially fraught, because it partly overlaps with Trump’s own dovish impulses about the Kremlin.

Macron has painted himself as interested in rapprochement not out of political expedience but as a way to bring more stability to Europe.

“I am in no way naive” about Russia, he said last month in a speech to French ambassadors. “I believe we must build a new architecture based on trust and security in Europe, because the European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia.”

Macron is thinking beyond the threat of direct confrontation. Also of importance to Western security: Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest enabler. It has joined forces with other Western powers to try to slow Iran’s nuclear program, but it has retained friendly ties with Tehran. And it could draw closer to China, which Macron cites as the real long-term strategic rival to Europe and the United States.

Russia “has gained room for maneuver thanks to our weaknesses,” he said.

Macron’s overtures to Moscow — including hosting Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at the French president’s summer retreat — have made European countries nervous.

Many policymakers, especially in Eastern Europe, are wary of giving Russia any concession that would appear to accept recent geopolitical misbehavior: the annexation of Crimea, a nerve agent attack in Britain, election interference. Macron himself claimed to be the subject of a Russian cyberattack. The servers of his Onward party were hacked just ahead of the 2017 elections.

“What could you possibly put on the table that could get the Russians to talk?” said a senior NATO diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to voice concerns about an ally.

Other analysts downplay the need for concern.

“Macron is actually quite careful on the policy implications of changing tack via Russia,” Heisbourg said. “He’s changed the discourse. He hasn’t changed tack.”

And, as with Macron’s other global ambitions, his hopes for a Russian reset may not get far.

He had hoped to gather the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Germany to discuss how to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. The “Normandy Format” of leaders helped calm the worst of the fighting in 2015, but they have not met in three years as the conflict, still violent, has faded from headlines.

A prisoner swap this month between Russia and Ukraine helped fuel hopes for a resolution. But then the Ukraine-related firestorm that engulfed Washington — with a whistleblower reporting that Trump was pressuring Ukrainian leaders to investigate his political opponents — derailed the already-faltering plans for a meeting.

The challenges in Ukraine may point to a broader difficulty for Macron’s attempt to take over the world with aggressive multilateralism: If your allies are busy, it’s tough to be multi or lateral.

As a Western diplomat in Kiev put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuvering, “No one can replace the United States when it goes AWOL.”

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