As Macron Pays State Visit to U.S., Ukraine Tests an Old Alliance

PARIS — As if to demonstrate that old alliances prove their worth in times of war, President Emmanuel Macron of France will be feted this week in Washington on the first state visit by a foreign leader since President Biden took office.

The 21-gun salute and elaborate reception that will be accorded to Mr. Macron, starting Wednesday, reflect the resilience of the very old but sometimes fractious relationship between France and the United States. They also indicate the renewed centrality of Europe to American interests since the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia nine months ago.

A world now living with Mr. Putin’s nuclear blackmail is a changed world, where the ideals of liberty, democracy and universal human rights, central to both American and French identity, are directly threatened.

“The state visit is symbolically significant as the return of the trans-Atlantic relationship to the center of American strategy in the world, and it’s notable that the country getting the first nod is France, not Germany or Britain,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

Mr. Macron’s restlessness, as he seeks some new “security architecture” for Europe and greater “strategic autonomy” for the continent rather than continued dependence on the United States for defense, has at times been an irritant to the Biden administration. But at a moment when the United States needs a strong Europe it has no more forceful interlocutor than the French president.

A photograph released by Russian state media showing Mr. Macron with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in February before the start of the war.Credit…Sputnik, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Britain marginalized itself through Brexit, for which it has paid a heavy price, and Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, took office only last month. Olaf Scholz, the cautious German chancellor with whom Mr. Macron has an uneasy relationship, has not yet developed anything resembling the broad European authority of his predecessor, Angela Merkel.

The State of the War

  • A Pivotal Point: The Ukrainian army is on the offensive, and the Russians are in a defensive crouch. But with about one-fifth of its territory still occupied by Moscow’s forces, Ukraine has a long way to go, and the onset of winter will bring new difficulties.
  • A Bloody Vortex : Even as they have celebrated successes elsewhere, Ukrainian forces in the small eastern city of Bakhmut have endured relentless Russian attacks. And the struggle to hold it is only intensifying.
  • Russian Missile Barrage: A wave of Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s essential services has caused blackouts in hospital operating rooms and cut off power and running water in cities.
  • Dnipro River: A volunteer Ukrainian special forces team has been conducting secret raids under the cover of darkness, traveling across the strategic waterway that has become the dividing line of the southern front.

The war in Ukraine will be at the heart of talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. Macron, with subtle differences certain to surface, both in how to end the fighting and how to share the burden of the conflict’s harsh impact on Western economies.

“We have a demanding political dialogue in the sense that we are allies who are not aligned, if I may put it that way,” said a senior adviser to Mr. Macron, who declined to be named in line with French diplomatic practice.

Mr. Macron, while emphasizing that Ukraine recover its full sovereignty and accusing Moscow of an “imperial” invasion, has repeatedly insisted that the war must end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. The French president recently said that he would soon talk again with Mr. Putin, a conversation he has maintained throughout the war.

President Biden has been more emphatic on the need for Ukraine to win the war, insisting that only the Ukrainians can decide when they should stop fighting, although in recent weeks, as winter approaches, the idea of negotiation has gained some ground.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested this month that a “dialogue box” may have opened with the Russian withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson. But senior officials close to Mr. Biden have made clear they do not think the moment is ripe.

In practice, with Ukraine ascendant on the battlefield and determined to keep recapturing Russian-occupied land, no avenue for talks seems to exist for the moment. The “good cop, bad cop” routine, combining Mr. Macron’s outreach to Moscow with Mr. Biden’s resolve that Mr. Putin be denied victory, appears likely to endure, bolstered by a shared determination to avoid escalation.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a French-donated CAESAR self-propelled howitzer at a Russian target in the Donetsk region June.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In the week leading up to Mr. Macron’s visit, French ministers and officials have expressed growing exasperation with what they see as unfair economic competition from the United States.

It is only 14 months since France briefly recalled its ambassador to Washington in fury at a secretive deal reached by Mr. Biden to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines. The agreement, which also involved Britain, scuttled an earlier French contract to provide conventional submarines.

Intense diplomacy laid the dispute to rest as Mr. Biden called U.S. actions “clumsy.” But other economic differences have since emerged. Europe has none of America’s self-sufficiency in energy and is bearing the brunt of the soaring prices the war has caused, as it scrambles to find new sources of oil and gas.

In particular, France has taken aim at aspects of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, including massive subsidies to American green industries, which France believes could lead European companies to relocate to the United States.

“We want a loyal and strategic form of competition,” the adviser to Mr. Macron said. The buzzword of French officials is “synchronization” of the economic response to the war.

“China favors its own production, America privileges its own production,” Bruno Le Maire, the French economy minister, told France 3 television on Sunday. “It’s perhaps time that Europe favor its own production.” Mr. Macron’s government is determined to push a “Buy Europe” campaign.

The Biden Administration contends that its legislation will expand the pie for clean energy investments, not split it up in ways damaging to Europe. It also expects that even with incentives for domestic manufacturing, the U.S. economy will continue to rely on imports of renewable energy technologies.

A French flag flies alongside U.S. and Washington D.C. flags in front of the White House on Monday.Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A task force chaired by senior officials from the White House and the European Commission has already been created to engage with Europe on its concerns about American subsidies — something French officials have not alluded to over the past week.

President Biden, who will soon faced a Republican-controlled House, seems very unlikely to budge on one of his signature achievements.

This will be the second state visit by President Macron, 44, after former President Trump invited him in 2018. Then he was a fresh face, a young man still hoping in vain to charm Mr. Trump and so sway him toward staying in the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords.

Today, the sheen is off and Mr. Macron is struggling to give direction to his second term. The president still tends to get ahead of himself sometimes, and nations on the fringe of Russia, including Poland and the Baltic States, which knew Soviet totalitarian rule, do not share his belief that Mr. Putin’s Russia can somehow be integrated one day into a new European security structure.

“With a surer grip on a highly differentiated Europe, Macron would gain a lot more traction,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He too often veers toward the philosophical in a way that is politically tone deaf.”

But as the leader who twice won elections keeping the extreme right from power, and the boldest innovator in Europe, Mr. Macron is essential to Mr. Biden’s core global objective: that democracies prevail over autocracies, not least Russia and China.

Back to top button