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French president confronts new American direction

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke in West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate and called for Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” referring to the Berlin Wall, which had been erected by the Soviets to keep defectors from fleeing East Germany to the West.

Subsequently recognized as one of Reagan’s greatest speeches, it has long been upheld as an example of the U.S. leading the Western world in the effort to promote open borders and freedom. A little more than four years later, the Soviet Union imploded, and its communist political and economic systems became part of history.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has actively promoted its style of democracy and capitalism. After the war, the U.S. used trade as a tool to rebuild Europe and Asia. Countries such as Germany and Japan, two former enemies of the U.S., used trade to build their economies into global powerhouses. The close political relationship that the U.S. enjoyed with the United Kingdom and France during the war was made even stronger through trading ties forged with these allies.

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron walk to the Oval Office on April 24. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

So, on April 23-25 when French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to the U.S. on the first state visit by a foreign leader during President Donald Trump’s administration, I was intrigued about how he would interact with the U.S. president. He had been invited to speak to a joint session of Congress, so I also was interested to hear the points he would convey.

Trump, through his denunciation of trade structures and long-standing agreements/institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations, has strained relations with traditional U.S. allies in western Europe. Macron has been trying to position himself as the bridge between the U.S. and the European Union; thus, he was expected to put his charm on full display during his visit to Washington, D.C. And this is precisely what he did, by referring to the long history of cooperation between the two countries, the warm regard each has for the other, and the sufferings each has experienced during wartime.

Trump, entranced by Macron’s charm and approach, seemed genuinely happy, and at times giddy, to be in his presence. In one instance, Trump actually grabbed Macron by the hand to lead him to the Oval Office of the White House.

However, during Macron’s speech to Congress, neither his charm nor his beliefs in democracy, cooperation, and anti-isolationism wavered. The chumminess with Trump of the previous days was set aside to deliver hard messages to the U.S., and Macron delivered what was equivalent to an economic version of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech. According to Macron, “We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism. This is an option. It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears, but closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. It will not douse, but inflame the fears of our citizens.”

Macron also gently called out U.S. integrity when discussing his conversation with Trump, in which they both agreed to seek a new deal with Iran on its nuclear program. While they will pursue this new deal, Macron said that both countries should abide by the current agreement. “We signed it, both the United States and France. That is why we cannot say we should get rid of it like that. France will not leave the JCPOA because we signed it.” This statement could also easily refer to other agreements Trump wants to rescind or modify, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And speaking about trade, Macron reminded the U.S. that it had invented the current global system, which was now at a critical juncture. He said that U.S. leadership is needed more than ever to preserve this system. According to Macron, “This requires more than ever the United States’ involvement, as your role was decisive for creating and safeguarding this free world. The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism. You are the one who has to help now to preserve and reinvent it.” Continuing, Macron said, “We need free and fair trade for sure,” Macron said, but added, “A commercial war opposing allies is not consistent with our mission, with our history, with our current commitments for global security.”

Macron also signaled the alternative if the U.S. chooses not to lead and weakens its relationship with its European allies. “Other powers with the strongest strategy and ambition will then fill the void we would leave empty. Other powers will not hesitate once again to advocate their own model to shape the 21st century world order.”

After watching Macron’s speech, I was flabbergasted that a French leader had come to Washington to school the U.S. on what it means to be the U.S. In his speech, he evoked patriotism, democracy, leadership, free trade, and keeping your word when signing agreements – all characteristics for which the U.S. is known around the globe. Macron did a great job of resembling a traditional U.S. politician delivering a patriotic speech hitting on all things American.

I also thought to myself, when did we as a nation become scared of the rest of the world, and perceived by one of our strongest allies that we are hopelessly stuck in neutral? Thirty-one years after Reagan’s speech in Europe, a European came to our country and delivered a speech essentially pleading with the U.S. to tear down this wall we are building between us the world.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

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