Gérard Araud, the charmingly blunt French ambassador to the United States, is famous for two things: the lavish parties he hosts at his Kalorama mansion, and his willingness to say (and tweet) things that other ambassadors might not even think, much less state in public.
Araud ends his nearly five-year tenure in Washington today, and when I spoke with him last week, he was, even by his usual standards, direct to the point of discomfort. He told me his view of the U.S.(“The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over”) and Donald Trump (“brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right” on free trade), and he shared his opinions of John Bolton (he’s a “real professional,” even though “he hates international organizations”) and Jared Kushner (“extremely smart, but he has no guts”).
He also had a warning to anyone who assumes it will be “business as usual” once America’s Trump fever breaks. The idea that the Trump presidency is some sort of accident, he says, is a fantasy.
Trump’s presidency complicated Araud’s diplomatic work in several ways. Like everyone else in Washington, he scrambled to respond to the abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Syria, the demise of the Iran nuclear deal, and the U.S. pullout from the Paris climate accords. But the most difficult moment of his career, he told me, came in the early hours of November 9, 2016, just after Trump was elected, when Araud tweeted: “After Brexit, after Trump, a world is collapsing.”
The tweet was only up for two minutes, but the damage was done. In Washington, it was 2 a.m., and most of the Eastern Seaboard was in disbelief over Donald Trump’s victory. In France—which, despite the warts-and-all relationship, is still America’s oldest ally—there was a meltdown. “Hundreds of people were insulting me on Twitter, and of course nobody was defending me, and nobody called me,” Araud told me. “It was, really, a tough moment, all this hatred … Everybody was stabbing me in the back in Paris.”
And anyway, he added, “I was right on substance; I was wrong in the expression.”
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yara Bayoumy: Your career started out in the Middle East. Where do you see the situation there now, especially with the peace process?
Gérard Araud: I’m close to Jared Kushner … Everywhere in the history of mankind, when there is a negotiation between two sides, the more powerful [party] is imposing terms on the weaker party. That’s the basis of Jared Kushner’s [peace plan]—it will be a proposal very close to what the Israelis want. Is it doomed to fail? I should say 99 percent yes, but 1 percent, you never forget the 1 percent. Trump is uniquely able to push the Israelis, because he is so popular in Israel.
Bayoumy: But Trump hasn’t pushed the Israelis so far.
Araud: Exactly, but if need be, he may do it. Once Trump told Macron, “I have given everything to the Israelis; the Israelis will have to give me something.” He is totally transactional. He is more popular than [Benjamin] Netanyahu in Israel, so the Israelis trust him. That’s the first bet, Kushner told me. The second is that the Palestinians may consider, it’s their last chance to get limited sovereignty. And the third element is Kushner is going to pour money on the Palestinians. Don’t forget, the Arabs are behind the Americans. The plan is 50 pages, we were told, very precise; we don’t know what is in the plan. But we’ll see.
The problem is that the disproportion of power is such between the two sides that the strongest may conclude that they have no interest to make concessions. And also the fact that the status quo is extremely comfortable for Israel. Because they [can] have the cake and eat it. They have the West Bank, but at the same time they don’t have to make the painful decision about the Palestinians, really making them really, totally stateless or making them citizens of Israel. They won’t make them citizens of Israel. So they will have to make it official, which is we know the situation, which is an apartheid. There will be officially an apartheid state. They are in fact already.
Bayoumy: How do you feel Kushner approached the peace plan?
Araud: He is totally in real-estate mode. He is totally dry. He’s extremely smart, but he has no guts. He doesn’t know the history. And in a sense, it’s good—we are not here to say who is right, who is wrong; we are trying to find a way. So in a sense, I like it, but at the same time he is so rational, and he is so pro-Israeli also, that he may neglect the point that if you offer the Palestinians the choice between surrendering and committing suicide, they may decide the latter. Somebody like Kushner doesn’t understand that.
Bayoumy: Do you believe there will be irreparable damage from [the Trump] presidency, or even a break in the transatlantic alliance?
Araud: You are offering us a test case of what happens when a populist is elected in a liberal democracy. So thank you very much for the test case. What is important in this crisis is the strength of your institutions.
I don’t think that anything irreparable is happening in the U.S. I don’t know what would have happened in France if Marine Le Pen had been elected, because our institutions are much weaker.
Let’s look at the dogma of the previous period. For instance, free trade. It’s over. Trump is doing it in his own way. Brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right. What he’s doing with China should have been done, maybe in a different way, but should have been done before. Trump has felt Americans’ fatigue, but [Barack] Obama also did. The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over. Obama started, Trump really pursued it. You saw it in Ukraine. You are seeing it every day in Syria. People here faint when you discuss NATO, but when he said, “Why should we defend Montenegro?,” it’s a genuine question. I know that people at Brookings or the Atlantic Council will faint again, but really yes, why, why should you?
These are the questions which are being put on the table in a brutal and a bit primitive way by Trump, but they are real questions. Where the shift is going to push us, I really don’t know.
Bayoumy: Why were Americans so surprised by the populist movement? Was it a sense of naïveté in the run-up to 2016?
Araud: You had of course the [financial] crisis of 2008, which was managed very well by President Obama in particular, but which has been devastating. We have underestimated the trauma of the crisis.
Bayoumy: When was the moment you realized Trump knew exactly how to tap into this populist sentiment?
Araud: You know on the eighth of November, 2016, at 6 p.m., we were calling the people on the [Hillary] Clinton side, the Trump side. We were calling pollsters, and everybody was telling us, “She’s elected.” And we said, of course, “This guy can’t be elected.” It was so shocking to have Trump elected that basically [Democrats’] conclusion was either the Russians are responsible or she was a very bad candidate.
The case of Trump for me, it’s not so much Donald Trump, it’s not so much a person, but it’s a political phenomenon.
Bayoumy: Obvious parallels can be made here with France and the rise of populism there. Has what it means to be French changed?
Araud: For me, the identity crisis is the symptom, but it’s not the disease. In France, we optimistically believed that Macron’s election meant that we had found the recipe against populism. He was a new leader, with new ideas, elected on a centrist platform. Apparently we were wrong.
The “yellow vest” demonstrations against Macron are basically the demonstrators who, more or less, voted for Trump here. It’s people coming from small cities, from rural areas, lower-middle-class, saying, “We have been left behind.” And, on the right, our conservative party is moving in the same direction as the Republicans are here. Suddenly this party which was traditionally conservative is becoming really protectionist, obsessed by immigration, and obsessed by questions of identity. You know: “France is a Judeo-Christian country,” which means basically anti-Muslim. There is a uniformity in the crisis, and you see it also in Brexit.
It’s not by chance that your president has been elected by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, while our Rust Belt, in the north of France, has elected five or six members of Parliament on the far-right.
Bayoumy: What was the moment when you thought, Okay, I’m no longer going to be surprised by what Trump says?
Araud: The climate-change agreement. I tried discreetly to tell the Americans that the agreement itself is not imposing any obligations. So if you don’t like the commitments made by the Obama administration, we wouldn’t love it, but why don’t you change the commitments without leaving the agreement? They decided to denounce the agreement. But what was shocking was … Trump’s speech saying the agreement is imposing on the Americans.
[Another surprise was] on the Iran deal; we were negotiating with the administration on an agreement to complement the Iran deal, on missiles, terrorism, and Iran’s regional activities. And we were close to an agreement.
Bayoumy: How close were you?
Araud: People say 90 percent; I don’t know. There was a negotiation. There was absolutely no crisis in the negotiation. And suddenly overnight, everything was over. It was decided overnight; it was decided by Trump. Nobody was warned, and the day after, nobody was able to tell us what it meant for us.
Bayoumy: Macron was in town around that time. Was he coming with the understanding that he could influence Trump?
Araud: During the tête-à-tête, Trump told him, “We are going to leave.” And Macron argued, saying we could negotiate a global agreement. Macron said we should try to work together, and Trump said yes. So we left. I didn’t have a lot of illusions, but we left with the impression that maybe something was possible.
Bayoumy: Do you feel they were negotiating in good faith?
Araud: The guy in front of us was negotiating in good faith, Brian Hook. But the problem is that this bureaucracy is so dysfunctional. Obviously there is only one person who can commit the United States, and it’s Donald Trump.
Bayoumy: What’s sparring with John Bolton like?
Araud: It’s possible to work with him. You define your agreement, which usually is a very narrow agreement, and you can work together. The guy is a real professional, but is also an ideologue, so it’s a bit difficult. He has been working on foreign policy for 40 years … which is not the case with the secretary of state. Admittedly, you have to know what the narrow limits are of working together—his nationalism, the fact that he hates international organizations.
But on some issues he is a realist, so we can work with him. Syria is a very good example. The president took the decision of withdrawing from Syria. He consulted nobody. Bolton didn’t know that the decision would be announced. After that, what they tried to do is not to actually to negate the decision, but to alleviate the consequences of the decision.
Bayoumy: What’s the biggest misconception Americans have about the French, and vice versa?
Araud: There is a misconception about Trump which is American and French: saying Trump is an accident, and when Trump leaves power, everything will go back to business as usual. That’s the dream of Washington, D.C.
Bayoumy: You are relocating to New York shortly. Why not go back to France?
Araud: I am 66, but I don’t feel 66, and in France, at my age, you don’t find a job. You are supposed to play bridge and to write your memoirs. I want to remain in the real life.
Bayoumy: Tell me about your memoirs.
Araud: My career had started with the election of [Ronald] Reagan, and my career is finishing with Trump. From Reagan to Trump you have, more or less, the neoliberal era—taxes were bad, borders were bad, and you have to trust the market. It’s also the period of the triumphant West … that the West was in a sense doomed to win. That sooner or later all the world will march triumphantly, to the triumph of the market. And suddenly the election of Trump and the populist wave everywhere in the Western world is for me, and I may be wrong, but for me means that this period is over.