Last week in Poland, Donald Trump declared, “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
“Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?” the president asked. “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
On Thursday, Emmanuel Macron answered these questions in the affirmative — by reiterating his commitment to protecting the European Union from Donald J. Trump.
Ahead of Trump’s trip to Paris, the French president told Ouest France that the Western world “has been cracking since the American election.”
“The United States expresses doubts about multilateralism, the U.N., the WTO and the climate,” Macron said, according to a translation from Politico. “The world order of 1945, recomposed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is now in crisis … In this context, Europe is an absolute necessity.”
Trump was not expected to cross the Atlantic for Bastille Day. The president recently canceled a planned state trip to the United Kingdom out of concern that his presence in London would inspire widespread protests. It is hard to see why Trump would expect a gentler reception in Paris. But the president was reportedly persuaded to make the trek when “he learned there would be a military parade.”
As the Washington Post reports:
French President Emmanuel Macron told Trump in a June 27 phone call about the event, which this year will feature U.S. and French troops marching through the historic streets near the Arc de Triomphe, fighter jets cutting through the skies above, and flags, horses and military equipment on display — the sort of spectacle that Trump wanted to stage at his own inauguration in January.
Trump told Macron he would be there, according to a White House official, and French and U.S. officials rushed to schedule a last-minute trip that will last about 27 hours and include dinner at an opulent restaurant in the Eiffel Tower and a visit to Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb.
An affection for martial spectacles isn’t the only thing these two leaders have in common.
One is a career businessman who boasts a paucity of political experience and an excess of ego; won high office by humiliating the discredited Establishments of both major parties while appealing to his nation’s secret longing for an authoritarian ruler; and has since bridled at every institutional check on his power, worked to quash the power of unions, invited outrage with (allegedly) chauvinistic comments about women in developing nations, and demanded his enemies give way to the will of the people — while vowing to rule like a Roman god.
The other is Donald Trump.
But these similarities only serve to make their differences more starkly dialectical. There are many aspects to geopolitics in 2017 that feel like details from an overwrought political satire. The fact that Macron and Trump work as near-perfect literary foils — stand-ins for two competing ideas of the West’s future — is surely among them.
For Trump, Western “civilization” is defined less by its commitment to liberal democracy, than by its ((Judeo-))Christian character. The primary threat to that character is mass nonwhite immigration (especially that of the Muslim variety) — and the effete liberal globalists who aid and abet it. Thus, the preservation of the West requires reasserting the sovereignty of nation-states, which are more responsive to their electorates’ enlightened aversion to open borders than international governing bodies dominated by cosmopolitan elites.
For Macron, the West is defined by its commitments to liberal pluralism, open markets, and secular rationalism. And those values are inextricably linked to the European Union. Thus, one primary threat to the West is populist nationalism, which poses a challenge to those foundational values in the abstract, and a clear and present danger to the EU in the here and now. Further, since Macron is a rationalist (and/or not a member of the only political party on planet Earth that denies the reality of climate change) he also sees impending ecological catastrophe as a peril facing the Western project. And there can be no effective response to climate change without maintaining — and expanding — our institutions of global governance.
Each man embodies the very forces that the other wishes to defeat. The fundamental question of their meeting — and, arguably, of “our time” — may be this: Whose West is it, anyway?