Almost everything French president Emmanuel Macron has said recently on the topic of foreign affairs, the United States, and nationalism and patriotism is silly. He implicitly rebukes Donald Trump for praising the idea of nationalism as a creed in which citizens of sovereign nations expect their leaders to put the interests of their fellow citizens first and those of other nations second. And while critiquing nationalism, Macron nonetheless talks and acts as though he is an insecure French chauvinist of the first order.
The French president suffers from the usual dreams of some sort of European “empire” — Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler . . . Brussels? He probably envisions a new Rome steered by French cultural elites whose wisdom, style, and sophistication would substitute for polluting tanks and bombers, and who would play Greece’s robed philosophers to Europe’s Roman legions: “It’s about Europe having to become a kind of empire, as China is. And how the U.S. is.”
But aside from the fact that the immigration-wary eastern and financially strapped southern Europeans are increasingly skeptical of northern European imperial ecumenicalism, can Macron cite any “empire” in the past — Persian, Roman, Ottoman, British — that was not first and foremost “nationalist”?
Would an envisioned non-nationalist “European empire” put the interests of the United States or China on an equal plane with its own? Would it follow U.N. dictates? Does Macron object to nationalism only because other nationalists are more powerful than he is, with his own brand of nationalism (whether defined as French or Europe Unionist)? And does he therefore seek competitive clout through a nationalist, imperial European project? Would nations not be nationalist singularly, but be nationalist collectively?
Macron is abjectly ignorant of history. He references the wearied bogeyman called “nationalism” that supposedly on autopilot caused the 20 million deaths of World War I. In fact, nationalism finally saved Western civilization from aggression. Recall French resilience at Verdun, British courage in Belgium, and American confidence and national pride in sending more than 2 million doughboys to Europe to stop a German kaiser from creating a German pan-European “empire.” Bolshevist internationalist dreams of a shared European Communist collective helped to ruin Russia, as Communists signed away much of industrialized European Russia to Prussian authoritarian occupiers under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of early 1918.
What had nearly ruined Western civilization by 1918 was not nationalism per se, but rather authoritarian militarism, as embodied by Kaiser Wilhelm’s assumptions that Germany was economically, culturally, and militarily superior to its neighbors. In its cost-benefit analysis, Berlin therefore thought it would be profitable to take by force what Germany felt it naturally deserved.
Twenty years later, the very absence of British and French nationalism — whether symbolized by the Oxford Union debate of 1933 or the reluctance of French schools in the 1930s to reference the bloody heroics at Verdun — led to appeasement and a fatal reliance on a weak and a morally neutered League of Nations, a series of unenforceable arms-limitations treaties, and “international opinion.”
The League bragged of its collective wisdom and ethical clout, but it simply allowed Hitler to systematically violate the Versailles Treaty. And it stood by as Japan began annexing swathes of Manchuria, and as Italy sent its troop ships unimpeded through the Suez Canal, en route to creating its new Italian “empire” in Abyssinia. Stopping Mussolini demanded more than British “internationalism” and collectivism. It required nationalist confidence in his majesty’s vastly superior British fleet, whose battleships and carriers could have easily blown Mussolini’s expeditionary forces out of the Mediterranean before they were able to machine-gun, gas, and bomb poorly armed Ethiopians.
What saved Europe a second time, in World War II, was a rediscovery during the Blitz that the British were singular and proud people who were capable of rallying to the nationalist spirit of Winston Churchill; they no longer relied on the failed and appeasing internationalist diplomacy of Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and the Earl of Halifax. What later restored continental Europe was the mobilized Americans who arrived confident in their country’s values and empowered by their national economic strength and frenzied patriotic civilian efforts at home.
Macron, as is faddish today in the era of Trump, sees nationalism as a toxic corruption of patriotism. That may be understandable given that in France’s recent past, Philippe Pétain (whose World War I career, ironically, was praised by Macron) hoped for an independent, nationalist, and colonial Vichy France, in league with Nazi Germany, a state empowered by anti-Semitism, racism, and colonialism.
So Macron suffers from the psychological condition known as projection in which one’s own faults and worries are fobbed off onto others as a way of assuaging one’s insecurities and guilt. Given that race-based authoritarian fervor in 1930s France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain derived from pseudoscientific ideas of genetic superiority, and the notion that citizenship was based on race, it may be natural that Macron is defensive on the topic of European-style “nationalism.” Perhaps it’s comforting to blame Europe’s prior race-based dictatorships on a more generic “nationalism” that all countries are supposedly prone to.
Macron misses entirely that when small groups of racialist nationalists in America self-identify, they do so with necessary adjectives: the “black” nationalists of the 1960s, the “La Raza” nationalists of the same era, and today’s “white” nationalists. By their own nomenclature, all accept that without such qualifying adjectives, the idea of American nationalism would not be their own but naturally and normally understood as an ecumenical notion that all Americans of every race see their own collective and united future as often distinct from and occasionally at odds with the agendas of other peoples and nations.
Americans overseas, even when of different ethnicities and races, more easily identify with one another than they do with foreigners who appear superficially similar to themselves. When I go abroad, I naturally have more in common with and care more about an African-American tourist or a Mexican-American expatriate than I do Scandinavians. I bear my ancestral Scandinavians no ill will, but I have little in common with them, and I worry about their country far less than my own.
Macron also warns against Russia, China, and the U.S. as equal new rivals or enemies of his envisioned European military. The idea of a pan-European army that would in theory deter the U.S. is as crackpot as it is historically ungracious. Countries that currently cannot even meet their promised 2 percent of GDP for their own defense expenditures can hardly talk of creating yet another transnational military alliance. In Macron’s conception of a NATO and an EU force, do airmen in Greece fly NATO missions on Mondays and EU missions on Tuesdays, or maybe they fight each other on Wednesdays? Isolationists in the U.S. would be only too willing to accept the idea, because it would free the U.S. from what they see as the costly European albatross.
In theory, without the surety that an interventionist America would intercede on Europe’s behalf, maybe Macron’s Europeans would be forced to defend themselves — not a bad thing at all. In reality, given the history of the 20th century, there is little evidence that the United States poses any threat to the Europe — or that a threatened Europe is safe without the partnership with America.
Is the lofty idealist Macron in truth a cold realist who accepts that there is nothing different between a constitutional American republic and dictatorships in China and Russia? Was that the real lesson of World Wars I and II: that France had to defend itself from authoritarian regimes in Germany and Italy as well as from an aggressive democratic America? In 1944, was France worried that a liberating America would hang on to the French ground it liberated, as the Germans had done with what they conquered and exploited in 1940? Are U.S. cemeteries in France Periclean proof of U.S. imperialism?
Does Macron consider the United States — both in its 20th-century role and in its present status as an ally with a much weaker France—as largely irrelevant? Does he really believe that the U.S. poses as great a threat to France as China and Russia do? Does he grasp that if these are true, then American today obviously has no need to partner with France or even to consider it an ally? Of course, the American government does not see France as a potential enemy, as it does China and Russia. But are we to ask Macron: Should we?
What makes a Macron reveal his idiocy so candidly, aside from his innate ignorance?
One, he sees opportunities arising from the problems in Germany, the erosion of the Merkel government, and the growing European fears over a would-be Fourth Reich. Perhaps Macron envisions himself as another Charles de Gaulle punching above France’s weight. As an “idea” man, he offers a counter-vision that might inspire a Europe increasingly more influenced by Donald Trump’s notion that when nations take care of their own affairs first, then they are more likely to be able to help others.
Two, Macron cannot accept that an uncouth Trump has had much more success than a dandified Macron. In all major recent economic indicators, the U.S is widely outperforming France: unemployment (American’s 3.7 percent versus France’s 9.3 percent;), GDP growth (3.5 percent versus 0.4 percent), and in all the various global indicators of consumer confidence. In recent American foreign-policy decisions, from rejecting the Iran Deal to moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, French warnings of chaos and catastrophe have proven hollow.
Three, French leaders in extremis (Macron’s popularity is at 25 percent) often gratuitously slander the U.S. and extol France’s unrealized greatness. Do we remember the former Communist, convicted crook, and oil collaborator with Saddam Hussein, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, and his foreign minister, the stylish pompadour Dominique de Villepin, author of a Napoleon panegyric, who turned the U.N. debate over the Iraq War into an anti-American circus?
Four, Macron is not really an anti-nationalist but an opportunist who for that matter is not consistently anti- or pro- any idea. In 2003–04, it was useful for French politicians and intellectuals to blast the United States as naïvely interventionist, supposedly bumbling about the world amid George W. Bush’s high-minded talk of universal freedom and realizing the desire in the hearts of every man to live in democratic liberty. The French sneered at that internationalist idea as much as they condemn Trump’s nationalist notion that Americans will take care of their own business first and not push on others their own ideas of the good and secure life.
Five, current nationalism is expressed in Europe not really as racial supremacy but as deep dislike of the EU elite, which is viewed as both arrogant and immune to the consequences of its own utopian bromides. In honest referenda, voters in about a third of the EU countries might now reject their prior EU pacts. What keeps them in for now is a realist calculation that the redistributed money they receive is greater than the taxes they put in — not love for Brussels, a desire for a continental army and more pan-European solidarity, yearning for Macron’s empire, or hatred of the United States.
Monsieur Macron posed as the European grandee implicitly schooling Donald Trump on the lessons of history and political science — and therein proved only that his supposed elite education and professional training proved no substitute for common sense, a basic understanding of history, and some practical experience in the world as it is.