By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
What an occasion, President Biden’s first state dinner. Better late than not at all, given it came last Thursday evening, nearly two years after he took office. Apart from guests of honor Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron, monsieur le président et sa femme, all manner of grand people were there. Mika Brzezinski and spouse Joe Scarborough were there, and who better to represent the Great Craft? Anna Wintour was there, standing up for all those who never take off their sunglasses.
Hunter Biden was there and representing something, let us dare to assume, at least marginally above board.
State dinners are like this—resplendent, lots of glitter, needless to say stately. John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s dinners were famous for their top-drawer guest lists. But a good state dinner is supposed to be the setting for marking and celebrating some important piece of state business. The Biden–Macron fête seems to have left this out. The French leader had plenty on his mind but appears to have returned to Paris with nothing in his hands.
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Do we count the Biden–Macron encounter a failure, then? I don’t think so. You have to bear in mind what was actually on the agenda. It was not statecraft.
This may be the first such occasion in living memory when the glitz was the only true point. To me, last Thursday’s grandeur indicated precisely the absence of what it was intended to demonstrate. If you propose a display of trans–Atlantic unity when trans–Atlantic drift is the reality, hollow spectacle is your only resort.
At least on paper, Macron arrived in Washington with two complaints and a diplomatic initiative he has more or less trademarked over the course of his presidency. France is among those European nations that have objected with surprisingly public vigor to U.S. profiteering as the Continent shifts its natural gas purchases from Russia to American suppliers. Europeans accuse the latter of charging up to five times the Russian price. This was Macron’s complaint No. 1.
No. 2 concerned the Biden administration’s new Inflation Reduction Act, which provides subsidies for the electric-vehicle and clean-energy industries. Europeans are irate—again, very publicly—that this is sabotaging their industrial sectors just when the U.S.–led sanctions regime imposed on Russia has them reeling. As the Financial Times explained late last month, European corporations are beginning to move operations to the U.S. to take advantage of the administration’s incentives and—not to be missed—because natural gas is cheaper than what price-gouging American suppliers are getting in Europe.
On the diplomatic side, Macron once again assumed his role as the Western alliance’s emissary encouraging contacts with Moscow in the cause of a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine crisis. The French leader, who nurses a pronounced de Gaulle complex the way a lot of British prime ministers want to be the next Churchill, has been at this kind of thing since his earliest days in office. In Washington he urged Biden to commit to direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These were the matters on Macron’s clipboard as he arrived for talks with Biden. He got absolutely nowhere with any of them so far as we can make out.
I have read no report indicating the shameful war-profiteering of U.S. suppliers of liquefied natural gas even registered with the man from Scranton. Why would it, how could it, in the land where free markets are the objects of a perverse idolatry? What’s the matter with making a buck when U.S.–directed sanctions hand you captive buyers?
As to Biden’s beggar-thy-neighbor industrial subsidies, the American president said flatly, “The United State makes no apology and I make no apology since I wrote the legislation we are talking about.” Or not talking about, which is how this posture must have landed with Macron.
As to Macron’s effort to open a channel between the White House and the Kremlin, Joe Biden was entirely in character once again, declaring a commitment he systematically made it impossible to fulfill.
“I’m prepared if he”—Putin—“is willing to talk to find out what he’s willing to do,” Biden said at a post-summit press conference. “But I’ll only do it in consultation with my NATO allies. I’m not going to do it on my own.” I do not recall any previous president abrogating his autonomy, his diplomatic prerogative, in this fashion. But things soon enough clarified. He can’t talk to Putin, we learned last Friday, because Putin isn’t interested in diplomacy. Here is John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, in a Friday press conference with White House correspondents:
The president has been very consistent about that. He’s got no intention to talk to Putin right now. As he also said, Putin has shown absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind.
Wow. I’ve seen a lot of historical rewrites in my time, but few as daring and Orwellian than this. The Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation have tried since Gorbachev’s day to negotiate a stable, mutually acceptable security order in Europe. The U.S. and the Europeans, full of post–Cold War hubris, never listened.
A year ago this month Putin sent basis-of-negotiations draft treaties to Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels in this same cause. Those were declared “nonstarters”—end of story. On the Ukraine question specifically, Putin spent eight years trying to get the Kiev regime to abide by the Minsk I and Minsk II accords, which, as noted previously in this space, would have provided for a federalized Ukraine that accommodated the different interests and perspectives of its population.
But no. Biden cannot talk to Putin because, as Kirby elaborated, “Everything he’s doing shows that Mr. Putin is interested in continuing this illegal, unprovoked war.” I have developed a special affection for the “unprovoked” in statements such as this.
President Macron is many things—a weather vane, more than occasionally a poseur, a wannabe Great Man in the de Gaulle mold—but Manny Macron is not stupid. He surely knew he would break his pick talking to his not-very-bright, not-very-subtle American counterpart about the topics he crossed the ocean to raise. As a dear friend put it the other day, everyone walks away from the Biden White House empty-handed with the obvious exception of the Israelis, who always go home with exactly what they came to get.
Why did he make the journey, then? In my read last week’s state dinner was a mutually self-serving occasion that had zero to do with any fundamental shifts in economic or diplomatic policy but from which both leaders drew a measure of aggrandizement that suits them especially well in present circumstances.
Macron has spent years advocating a Europe more independent of the U.S.—except when he doesn’t. Onward from the notable Group of 7 session he hosted in Biarritz three years ago, he has stood for—except when he doesn’t—a Russia fully integrated into that “common European home” Gorbachev touchingly wanted to see but never did.
Displays of statesmanship of this kind have long been Macron’s refuge when things are going badly at home. And as has been well reported, his second five years at Élysée Palace—he was reelected last April—have got off to a stony start. Never mind a more independent Europe: It’s time to stand for unity under the U.S. leadership that has for decades left many Europeans feeling they are on the brink of suffocation.
The dovetail with Biden’s equally personal interests may by now be evident. We have read for months that Joe “America is back” Biden has reasserted U.S. leadership and reunified the Atlantic alliance in the cause of Washington’s proxy war in Ukraine. It is increasingly clear he has not done either to any great effect. And as the cracks in each of these façades widen, what better to paper over the problems than an ostentatious show of unity with a too-big-for-his-britches European leader only too pleased to help obscure the uncomfortable realities.
Macron is an overly ambitious 44-year-old who bends like a reed in the wind to whatever cause makes him look good. Our 46th president is at bottom a serially corrupt local pol with outsized pretensions—but a punk when put against any truly great statesman.
The two had dinner together. Biden called Macron “my friend.” Macron called Biden “Cher Joe.” It was expensive. Anna Wintour didn’t remove her sunglasses. The Atlantic lake grows wider. The Maine lobster was good. The war in Ukraine will go on as it has.