Macron’s reckless diplomatic defiance

Dr Oliver Hartwich
18 April, 2023

It would be an understatement to say France has long sought to define and assert its position. Because with France, you sometimes do not even know who it regards as its friends and foes.

Under President Charles de Gaulle, France co-founded the European Economic Community in 1957, then boycotted the EEC’s institutions for a year in 1965/66, and long blocked Britain’s entry into the EEC.

France also co-founded NATO in 1949, then withdrew from its military command in 1966, and re-joined in 2009.

France also recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1964, a full 15 years before the US did. Two years later, de Gaulle was the first Western leader to visit the Soviet Union. And President Jacques Chirac famously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So, France doing its own thing on the world stage is not an exception. It is the norm.

Yet, what current French President Emmanuel Macron just did in his foreign policy with China is still noteworthy, if mainly for its recklessness.

During his three-day state visit to China, Macron called for Europe to reduce its dependence on the US and avoid being drawn into the US-China confrontation over Taiwan, seeking “strategic autonomy” and avoiding becoming a “vassal” of Washington.

What Macron’s Chinese hosts would have taken from Macron’s statements is obvious. It was a signal that in any future military conflict between China and Taiwan, Europe (or at least France) would not automatically side with the Taiwanese.

Macron’s statements have alarmed political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, though this move aligns with France’s history of diplomatic defiance.

Indeed, Macron’s remarks continue his own tradition of pithy – and yet unhelpful – comments about international security. Famously, Macron spoke about NATO “suffering from brain death” only a few years ago, right as then-US President Trump was openly pondering whether to quit NATO.

And now this. There is so much wrong with the French President’s remarks, it is hard to know where to start.

Well, perhaps we should start with the only thing that is right with it. Europe should indeed seek to stand on its own feet in defence and military capability. It should realise that it cannot free ride on the United States forever.

Since the Cold War, Western Europe has banked on the United States for security – and after the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe joined the old Western structures to do the same.

The reliance on the US was obvious when, in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Europeans relied on the US’s military force to end the massacres in Bosnia. Later, the US was also instrumental in brokering the Dayton Accords to bring peace to the region.

A quarter century later, the Ukraine war is once again evidence that Europe remains unable to organise its security. Without support from the US, both in weapons deliveries and perhaps more crucially in intelligence, Ukraine would have long ago lost the war.

So, in this situation in which Europe is once more relying on the US to help in continental security, France’s President goes to China. He visits the most powerful ally of the Russian aggressor – and perhaps the only country which could force Putin to stop the war.

More than that: Macron visits a country which watches the Ukraine war and the world’s response to it with eager self-interest. China benefits from having access to cheap Russian commodity exports which Russia can no longer sell to the West. It is glad to see Western military capacity absorbed by the war. And it watches with interest how long Western unity survives against Putin’s ongoing campaign.

Macron’s comments during his visit to China, in this context, are not just politically tone-deaf. They are also strategically naïve. The French president is effectively signalling to China that Europe’s commitment to the United States and Taiwan is wavering, providing Beijing with a potential opportunity to exploit this perceived weakness.

Macron’s statements in China risk alienating not only the United States but also other European nations that view the Taiwan issue as a matter of vital concern. Not because Taiwan matters directly to them but because it is a litmus test for the unity of the world’s liberal democracies.

If you are Moldovan and fear to be next on Putin’s list, it matters if the French President does not instinctively side with countries fearing aggression from their autocratic neighbours. By appearing to waver on such a fundamental of geopolitical order, Macron risks sowing division within Europe.

While France has historically pursued an independent foreign policy, there is a fine line between independence and recklessness.

De Gaulle’s defiance was often tempered by pragmatism and a keen understanding of the geopolitical landscape. Macron’s recent actions, on the other hand, seem to lack the same nuance and foresight.

But there is an even worse problem with Macron’s remarks. Because what he ignores is that the relationship Europe has with the United States is not purely transactional. It is not just about defence or trade.

The trans-Atlantic relationship is about shared values, common interests, and a deep history of cooperation. Indeed, the NATO Treaty spells this out in its preamble. This is an organisation of liberal democracies aiming to protect their joint foundational values.

It would have been appropriate for a French President to call for greater European capacity to pull its weight within NATO. It would have been right to talk about Europe’s ambition for Europe to become a more capable partner of the United States.

However, what Macron did was the opposite. Instead of talking up the unity of the West, he talked it down. Instead of strengthening Europe, he weakened it. Macron’s ill-judged venture to China and his contentious remarks have thus ignited more uncertainties than clarity.

The President is no stranger to controversy and confrontation, as evidenced in his domestic economic reforms (Macron’s reform dilemma: progress or popularity?, 21 March 2023). Regrettably, Macron’s most recent foray into international politics mirrors this divisive approach.

With four years to go in his second presidential term (and no constitutional possibility of a third), Macron would do well to reflect for which legacy he would like to be remembered, both domestically and internationally. Though there is a Gaullist ghost around his blunders, that alone will not make Macron a great President.

Read more

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates