eyes on the U.S.

Kisses For Macron. Cold Shoulder For Merkel?

The German chancellor's upcoming visit to Washington will be a sober affair, particularly in contrast to the glitzy, red-carpet welcome the White House gave her French counterpart.

Macron and Trump in Washington on April 24
Macron and Trump in Washington on April 24
Clemens Wergin


WASHINGTON — The contrast couldn't be greater. Washington has been celebrating French President Emmanuel Macron's state visit — the first of its kind in the Trump era — with no shortage of pomp and circumstance. First, there was a tour of George Washington's Mount Vernon mansion. Then a state dinner at the White House, and a speech to both houses of Congress.

On Friday, Angela Merkel will make her own visit Washington. Only her trip is short — lasting only a single day — and will be limited to the essential tasks of the work itself. Compared to the effort the White House is making for Macron, Merkel's visit is a demonstration of Protestant sobriety.

For one thing, this shows that France — now under Macron after five years of François Hollande — is back as an important European power on the international stage. But it also shows that the French president has proved to be much more skillful than either Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May at establishing a good relationship with the difficult U.S. president.

We have this very special relationship.

While there was complete silence between Merkel and Trump during the several months it took her to form a government, the U.S. president has been talking on the phone with his French counterpart at least once a week, more than with any other foreign politician. When Macron invited Trump to the military parade on Bastille Day (July 14) last year, he hit the spot with a president who has a well-known penchant for glamour. Trump was so thrilled that he now wants to have his own military parade in Washington.

Charm offensive

Berlin is well aware that the two visits invite comparisons that are unfavorable for the Germans. But it was important for Angela Merkel to keep her appointment so as to demonstrate her ability to act internationally again after the long and difficult process in Germany of forming a coalition government.

Still, international politics are above all a question of personal chemistry and Macron has undeniably been handling his relations with Donald Trump a lot better than Merkel. This also has to do with character traits. Macron is a charmer, who wants to win everybody's favor and excels at selling himself.

"It's Macron's nature," William Drozdiak, who is working on a biography of the French president, told The Washington Post. "He walks into a room, sees a chair and tries to seduce it." That's why on Sunday, on the eve of his visit, Macron gave an interview to Trump's favorite network, Fox News, in which he pointed out the similarities between himself and Trump.

"We have this very special relationship because the both of us are probably the mavericks of the system," said Macron, who, like Trump, has blown up the political landscape in France. "I think President Trump's election was unexpected in your country, and probably my election was unexpected in my country. We are not part of the classical political system."

But Macron is above all a pragmatist, one who knows how important America is for the preservation of the international system and who therefore tries to maintain Trump's America as a guarantor. "The United States is the dominating power; it is our most important partner in multilateral endeavors; it's our first partner in the fight against terrorism; it's important for collective security," the French leader said in January, in an interview from Davos. "We can be angry with the United States, we may disagree about the methods — as we do on Iran — but in the end, we are in agreement."

Macron is currently trying to convince Trump not to rush into withdrawing from Syria, which would leave the field to the Russians and Iran.

Fading star

The French leader's tone clearly differs from the one Merkel established with Trump from the very beginning. When Trump was elected in November 2016, the German election that would take place 11 months later was already casting a shadow. Merkel had to distance herself from Trump, who is extremely unpopular Germany. Her hands, in other words, were tied by domestic politics.

This left her with little room to maneuver in terms of charm offensives, which aren't the Chancellor's strong suit anyway. Macron then used the long period in which Merkel was busy trying to form a government — a time of international paralysis for Berlin — to reestablish France as an important European player, including by seeking proximity to Trump.

Merkel may still stand for stability, but Macron stimulates the imagination.

On top of it, France continues to have a different culture than Germany regarding military intervention, as well as a much more robust and ambitious strategic tradition. Thus, despite the domestic protests, both London and Paris insisted on taking part in the American military strikes against Syria. This is a league in which Germany neither wants nor can play, making Berlin a less useful partner for Washington than Paris, for instance.

It is, in any case, telling that Trump always takes aim at Germany — chiding its meager military spending and strong, auto-industry exports — when it comes to disparaging Europe, while the French usually get a pass.

After Trump's election victory, some U.S. newspapers were quick to proclaim Merkel the new leader of the West. That was never a particularly realistic assessment of German abilities. And since then, Merkel's star has faded noticeably. While the chancellor is still held in high regard, she's now seen as a politician in the autumn of her career, including on the other side of the Atlantic.

Macron, in contrast, represents a fresh and youthful face that inspires hope and the possibility of French revitalization. Merkel may still stand for stability, but Macron stimulates the imagination.

Shared agenda

Beyond personal and national vanities, however, as far as Europe is concerned, it is actually of secondary importance whether Paris or Berlin has the better cards in Washington. In terms of content, both are largely pulling in the same direction. Both Merkel and Macron will try this week to stop Trump from ending the nuclear deal with Iran, which the U.S. President wants to "fix" before May 12.

And both will try to turn the exemption from the punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum, which Europe has been granted until May 1, into a permanent one. "You don't make trade war with your ally," Macron said on Fox News. The U.S. indeed needs to ask itself what its own priorities are in the face of a very complicated world situation.

Undoubtedly, Macron has a much better relationship with Trump than Merkel has. He has managed to ensnare Trump while at the same time retaining the freedom to criticize him time and again. The decisive question now is whether this good personal relationship can also be translated into results. And whether Macron and Merkel will succeed together this week in obtaining concessions from Trump, as far as the most important transatlantic disputes go.

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016


Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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