When it comes to leadership of what still calls itself the “free world”, it seems the battle is on; and a fine old anthropological spectacle it is, worthy of a commentary by David Attenborough. For a while, after Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, there was an assumption that the real leader of the western democratic world was now Angela Merkel, Germany’s no-nonsense Chancellor.
Since May last year, though, a new and more popular star has risen in the west, in the shape of France’s dynamic young president, Emmanuel Macron. Aged only 39 at the time of his election, Macron is a small man of huge ambition, not unlike that other great French moderniser and disruptor, Napoleon Bonaparte; and now, on his state visit to Washington, Macron has thrown down an elegant Gallic gauntlet, and invited the western world to start making a choice, about which vision it prefers.
So in the red, white and blue corner (stars and stripes), we have Donald Trump, the “America First” president, the threatened builder of walls and wrecker of international deals, who believes that trade wars are good, and easy to win. And in the other red, white and blue corner (tricolor) we have Macron, the only centrist western leader with an overwhelming recent popular mandate, fully as patriotic as Trump, but also determined to resist the bonfire of Enlightenment values apparently planned by Trump and other populist leaders, across the world.
In a sometimes electrifying speech to both houses of Congress on Wednesday, Macron therefore made clear his belief that to depart from the Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and fraternity – for which both France and the United States fought, against the imperial and monarchical powers of the 18th century – would be to betray the very foundations of the 250-year bond between the two nations, of which he spoke warmly, and at length.
He also spoke, though – in terms that often implied strong criticism of the Trump administration – of the meaning of those Enlightenment values in the face of the challenges our world now faces. He spoke of the need for multilateralism and enhanced co-operation, rather than nationalistic isolationism. He spoke of the importance of women’s equality, and of the #MeToo movement. He spoke of the need for rational regulation of markets, including the market in “fake news” that fills the minds of voters with “irrational fears and imaginary risks”. He spoke of how reason is the basis for all truly democratic decision-making, and defended the power of science and education. And he was cheered to the echo when he emphasised the need for a smooth and rapid transition to a low-carbon economy, suggesting that the lives of the current generation of politicians would have no meaning if we fail to pass on a habitable planet to our children and grandchildren.
All of which is fine stuff, and music to the ears of those horrified by the current mood of angry unreason in national and international politics. Yet despite the French president’s youth, his obvious vigour, and the sheer force of his arguments, I was left with the strange feeling that the encounter between Macron and Trump in Washington was not as decisive, or as one-sided, as it perhaps should have been – and all that, despite a torrent of strange and embarrassing visual imagery showing Trump trying to physically dominate and patronise Macron, whether by poking imaginary fluff from his lapel, or grabbing him by the wrist and towing him across the White House terrace.
Macron’s defence of Enlightenment values is both eloquent and welcome. Yet like Tony Blair, the recent European leader he most resembles, he seems bent on trying to square the circle between a strong centre-left commitment to peace, democracy, human rights and human dignity, and an equally strong commitment to globalised capitalism in forms that notoriously undermine all those values. And if he reads recent British and US history, he will learn all he needs to know about the dangers of becoming a chocolate soldier for the great Enlightenment ideals he embraces; fond of trumpeting them in public, while privately forging alliances that increasingly discredit those ideals and those who promote them, particularly with those on the sharp end of economic exploitation.
And as for us here in Scotland, where many of the key ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment were born or nurtured, well, I think it is fairly clear that in this stand-off between Trump’s roaring might-is-right attitude to politics, and Macron’s 21st century internationalist and constitutional approach, we would tend to side with France. As we are learning to our cost in the maelstrom of post-Brexit politics, small nations – whether inside or outside larger states – rarely have anything to gain from a decline in international constitutionalism, and an increasing resort to the raw power of large, centralised sovereign states.
Yet we would be fools, I think, to expect too much from Macron and his followers as defenders of some kind of new Enlightenment. At best, they may fend off the worst excesses of hate-driven racist politics in Europe, and promote some serious moves to protect our global environment; and those are crucial victories, well worth winning.
Yet as Macron himself acknowledges, the true defence of democracy and freedom runs much deeper than that, into a profound culture of respect for individual and minority rights, for rational and well-informed debate, and for the constant redistribution and renegotiation of political power in a free society. And even the very manner of Macron’s election – borne aloft on a tide of personality politics and wild enthusiasm, without any deep roots in French society – suggests that in the “age of rage”, those values are increasingly under threat. Despite Macron’s triumph in Washington, in other words, it may still be old man Trump, along with other brazen populists across the world, who is riding the big wave of history; and young President Macron who is struggling to defend a set of values that no longer beats strongly in the hearts of the people – strongly enough, that is, to survive the coming onslaught, or the range of global threats he so eloquently described, in Washington this week.