When President Trump visited France for a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he walked alone, fleeing the European leaders who marched together along the Champs-Elysees. He then left the city before a peace conference intended to highlight cooperation between democracies.
Three years later, Vice President Kamala Harris, the tallest American to visit France since Trump left, tries to argue that the United States is a team player.
She started a five-day trip here stating that “the best kind of work” happens with “scientists from all over the world coming together.” Her visit on Tuesday to the Institut Pasteur scientific laboratory, where Americans are working alongside Europeans to fight COVID-19 and where her mother of Indian origin has researched breast cancer, was one of the numerous events aimed at contrasting with Trump’s “America First” program.
On Wednesday evening, she met French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace for almost two hours. The two leaders told reporters they agreed it was “the start of a new era” that required working together.
“When the United States and France have worked together on challenges and opportunities, we have always had great success because of shared values and priorities,” Harris told Macron before reporters. Neither leader responded to shouted questions.
Harris’ efforts to rename America as a collaborator come amid a major disagreement between the Biden administration and the French government over an arms deal that has yet to fully heal and amid lingering questions about whether America can truly be counted on for the long term, despite the administration’s motto “America is Back”.
Nicholas Dungan, a senior researcher at the Atlantic Council think tank that focuses on France, said Europeans were eager to return to America.
“The problem,” Dungan added, “does that mean?”
Dungan said Europeans’ concerns about US leadership extend deeper than how Trump handled foreign policy. European allies believe Trump was likely just a head-to-head iteration of long-term changes in American attitudes about world engagement.
Among the indications that the United States is struggling to regain its leadership role, Dungan said, are its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and its patchy attempts to tackle climate change. The US government’s increasingly aggressive stance with China – a continuation of the Trump administration’s hard line – has also caused angst in European capitals.
“The idea that Trump was an aberration once in a century or in a lifetime is not something people believe,” said Dungan, who resides in The Hague.
With the success of Republicans last week in regional and local elections and the drop in approval ratings for Biden and Harris, European and world leaders have new evidence that Biden’s power may be tenuous and that Trump, who continues to making statements and supporting the candidates, remains a force in US politics.
Macron, for example, raised implicit doubts about America’s role in world affairs. He argued that Europe should build its own defenses, so that it is not so dependent on American protection.
The Biden administration says it is seeking to address broader concerns about US leadership.
An administration official who briefed reporters on Harris’ trip said there was a “common thread” to his meetings here, “to exercise US leadership on the challenges and global issues that arise from them.”
In addition to speaking Thursday at the peace forum that Trump skipped in 2018, Harris is joining a separate conference on the future of Libya that includes 20 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, co-host , who had a particularly icy relationship with Trump. on his lonely style.
Harris laid a wreath on Wednesday at a U.S. military cemetery and will attend a second Veterans Day ceremony Thursday with Macron.
Thomas Wright, director of the Center for the United States and Europe at the Brooking Institution think tank, said the allies seemed keen to engage in such meetings with senior U.S. officials because they know how to what to expect – a return to normalcy in international relations after four years of supporting Trump’s “America First” policies.
“They were concerned that ‘America First’ would deliberately undermine the multilateral order they really cared about,” he said, calling the differences with Trump “more existential” than those with Biden.
A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the still sensitive issue, said Biden had put America in “the right direction” by joining Paris climate accords after Trump pulls out and engaging in efforts to distribute vaccines to the poorest countries.
But there are still deep challenges and differences. Harris’ trip is largely intended to reestablish relations with France after the controversial struggle over submarine technology.
France briefly withdrew its ambassador to the United States in September after the Biden administration struck a secret deal with Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines, blinding France. Following the US deal, Australia canceled its own $ 65 billion contract to purchase French-made submarines.
Biden met Macron in Rome, just before the Glasgow, Scotland, climate change summit, calling the deal’s handling “awkward” as he tried to restore relations. Harris’ journey is an extension of that effort.
Macron appeared satisfied with the meeting but not exuberant.
“Confidence is like love,” he said in Rome. “Statements are good, but proof is better. “