What Macron Doing?

April 11, 2023

The entire Western press is buzzing with analyses of Macron’s visit to China, and the interviews he gave in its wake. I was not planning to write about this — for reasons that will become clear soon enough — but it seems like the Politico article set off a firestorm of indignation (and gleeful retweets from anti-American / pro-Kremlin types), and I was asked for my take. Since I already dashed off a quick reply, I thought it might be useful to offer a slightly more elaborate version here.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the TL;DR: Macron just talks too much, and while what he said is nowhere near as inflammatory or problematic as critics made it seem, it’s also not timed very well. If all our ally can be really accused of is bad timing, I think we’re fine. Storm in a teacup.

I should also say that people who flocked to Macron’s defense also did not do him any favors: Eric Garland, who claims 25+ years of professional experience as a translator offered such a tendentious misinterpretation of what Macron said that even Google translate did a more faithful job (not to worry, I have verified the important parts with a native French speaker who happens to be my colleague).

The Politico article is not very good because (a) the outlet is a notoriously unreliable rag that often publishes thinly veiled propaganda pieces & (b) in this case it did not really provide the entire interview but choice quotes framed in a purposefully denigrating way. This is how the article opens,

“Speaking with POLITICO and two French journalists after spending around six hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip, Macron emphasized his pet theory of “strategic autonomy” for Europe, presumably led by France, to become a “third superpower.””

From the dismissive “pet theory” to the scare quotes around “strategic autonomy” and into the snickering “presumably led by France,” one can immediately detect that what we are going to get isn’t journalism but an opinion piece, and this one with a clear intent of portraying Macron’s statements in the most uncharitable light designed to cause consternation among the Western allies. Leave it to Politico to do Kremlin’s job for them.

Let us instead begin the interview he gave to Les Echos, which you can read in full translation here. It contains all the themes critics have touched upon, and in fact gets quoted as often as the Politico article, so one can take it as a fair representation of Macron’s thinking without the slanted filter of the other publication.

On Europe’s Strategic Autonomy

This really has been a favorite theme of Macron’s (and other European leaders), and — somewhat ironically — is also that the US has pushed for quite hard for decades, at least certain aspects of it. Since 1949, NATO has been the security framework through which Europeans organized their defense together with the Americans. Given the military power of the Soviet Union, the only real option was to have the backing of the other superpower, and the Europeans took a backseat on military matters. For a while, there was reluctance to rearm Germany, then there were the suspicions arising from WW2 to overcome, but as economic cooperation deepened with the establishment of EU’s precursor, the Western Europeans started to evolve a common political structure. This took decades, and military matters were left, almost by default, to the United States to lead on with one singular exception: France. The French (well, de Gaulle) were upset that NATO’s unified command always went to an American and the deputy position to a Brit, leaving France in the lurch. He also wanted control of French forces and would not subordinate them to NATO’s chain of command. From 1966 to 2009, France remained outside that command despite being a member of the alliance, working out plans for coordination and cooperation, and participating in many of its activities. The chaffing under Anglo-Saxon leadership is not a unique Macron trait, but something that has a long and distinguished pedigree in French politics. The French stance on NATO (which also included the removal of American troops from the country and the ban on placing US nuclear weapons there) were popular and so de Gaulle’s successors kept the policies in place. It should come as no surprise that as NATO cooperation deepened in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some voices in France raised the old “independence” banner and demanded that France — once again — quit NATO, this time for good. In 2022, Presidential candidate and far right-winger Marine Le Pen promised that if she got elected, she would withdraw France from NATO.

Against this background, French calls for strategic autonomy might sound especially ominous, and cannot be regarded as empty rhetoric.

But what should one make of it? The United States has spent decades trying to get the Europeans to invest more in their own security, preferably through NATO. Just as consistently, the Europeans preferred to free-ride on the US efforts, for which they ceded some policy-making power (under the time-honored principle of no representation without taxation). This arrangement suited both parties as European politicians could focus on economic and domestic matters in their spending, and occasionally criticize the US or ride anti-American waves as convenient without really ever endangering the alliance. The US was never quite able to get the Europeans to “toe the line” with respect to the Soviet Union, and there were occasional dustups over the way they interacted with Moscow. While the Soviet threat existed, however, things were bound to be resolved in favor of cooperation.

The end of the Cold War challenged NATO’s raison d’etre. After all, the main antagonist was gone, and the Russia emerging in its place seemed different, offering tantalizing possibilities for cooperation, and it was certainly much, much weaker militarily than the USSR. On both sides of the Atlantic, the idea of “the end of history” seemed to have achieved total dominance and the few voices that warned about being complacent about Russia were easily silenced. The European NATO members — who, aside from the British and the French were never really too keen on arming themselves — proceeded to let their defense industries decay, and their armies to become a shadow of their former selves. Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I do not think many non-specialists had realized just how bad the situation had gotten. The Europeans felt there was no threat to worry about and that trade/economic ties would bind even potentially dangerous regimes like Russia and China to them in a way that would render military confrontation unthinkable. American politicians also wanted to enjoy the “peace dividend” and the US similarly allowed its defense industry to consolidate (transforming it from a competitive market into an oligarchy ruled by several very large conglomerates — with all attendant inefficiencies and price tags), and then decay (remember the Sequester?). Still, after 9/11 the US at least had to maintain its military readiness to a degree that the Europeans did not, and they did not.

As a result, Europe drifted — yet again — into defense dependence on the United States, which included falling behind in industries that would be critical to a robust defense sector, where they relied on imports. This is not a desirable situation for either the Europeans or the Americans. Whatever losses our companies might incur after being displaced by European ones in these markets must be offset by the gains of having rich and friendly nations bear some of the burden of defense spending. Strategic autonomy is about that — it’s about the Europeans becoming more self-reliant for their defense needs. Now, of course the US would prefer that this does not duplicate or replace NATO, and I cannot see that Europeans would actually want to do that (contrary to what Macron’s critics allege). The Russo-Ukrainian War has laid bare the fact that Europe does not have such a strategic autonomy, that much work remains to be done to get anywhere near it, but that hopefully there might be political will to do so. The war has deepened Europe’s dependence on the US and raised the importance of NATO now that Finland has joined and Sweden is about to. By bringing in two countries that had to be self-reliant for defense for decades, the Europeans might have better chances too although it’s unlikely to happen under exclusively French leadership.

So what does Macron have to say about this in the present context?

We have won the ideological battle, from a Gramscian point of view if I may say so. Five years ago, it was said that European sovereignty did not exist […] We have also installed the idea of ​​a European defence […] We have started to set up factories for batteries, hydrogen components and electronics. And we have equipped ourselves with defensive instruments which were completely contrary to European ideology only three or four years ago! We now have very effective protection instruments.

The subject on which we must be particularly vigilant is that the war in Ukraine is accelerating the demand for defense equipment . However, the European defense industry does not meet all needs and remains very fragmented, which leads some countries to turn to American or even Asian suppliers on a temporary basis. Faced with this reality, we must step up our game.

Strategic autonomy must be Europe’s fight. We don’t want to depend on others on critical issues. The day you no longer have a choice on energy, on how to defend yourself, on social networks, on artificial intelligence because we no longer have the infrastructure on these subjects, you leave the story for a moment.”

Now, one might quibble with him attributing all this realization of the need to provide for one’s own defense to his leadership — typical Macron, frankly — but the gist of it is clear and non-controversial. Europe cannot be relevant on the world stage if it’s dependent on the US (or anyone else) for its security, and this includes energy (where they had tried to “diversity” with Russia, and are now having the US plug the gaps). I see no downside to Europeans building more factories to produce critical components instead of getting them abroad. This is in US interests as well, and while it will take years to do so — as Macron himself acknowledges — it’s a process that one can never start too early. This is the European awakening that many on this side of the Atlantic had been asking for.

Now, Macron believes that the “ideological battle” has been won (you don’t often hear a politician tell you about “Gramcian point of view”) and that Europe has embraced this idea. I rather think it’s the grim reality of the Russian invasion that caused a lot of people to reconsider their sacred cows on the matter.

Reducing Dependence on the United States

The larger problem for many critics isn’t really the notion of strategic autonomy but Macron’s insistence on the need for less dependence on the US:

The key to less dependence on the Americans consists first of all in beefing up our defense industry, in agreeing on common standards. We all invest a lot of money but we can’t have ten times more standards than the Americans! Then it requires accelerating the battle for nuclear and renewables in Europe. Our continent does not produce fossil fuels. There is a coherence between reindustrialisation, climate and sovereignty. It’s the same battle. It is that of nuclear power, renewables and European energy sobriety. This will be the battle of the next 10 to 15 years.

Strategic autonomy means assuming that we have similar views with the United States, but whether it’s on Ukraine, the relationship with China or sanctions, we have a European strategy. We don’t want to go into a block-to-block logic. On the contrary, we must “de-risk” our model, not depend on others, while maintaining wherever possible a strong integration of our value chains.

The paradox would be that when we put in place the elements of a real European strategic autonomy, we began to follow American policy, out of a kind of panic reflex. On the contrary, the battles to be fought today consist on the one hand in accelerating our strategic autonomy and on the other hand in ensuring the financing of our economies. I take this opportunity to insist on one point: we must not depend on the extraterritoriality of the dollar.”

I struggle to see the big rift with the US (or other Europeans) that critics see in these paragraphs. In the first, he’s riffing on the idea that Europe must secure its energy sources in a way that does not repeat the mistakes made with Russia. Yes, the US isn’t Russia, but I think that diversification cannot hurt, and the US can also definitely benefit from reducing the perception that it can control Europe (which it can’t anyway, but many people seem to think it does).

Note in particular the very clear statement that “strategic autonomy means assuming we have similar views with the United States” but that there might be divergence in the strategies to achieve these common goals (“European strategy”). I can’t, for the life of me, understand how people see this as driving a wedge between France/Europe and the US. Macron is telling them, in plain French, that the entire concept of strategic autonomy is predicated on being on the American side generally because of common interests. Unless one wants a hierarchical relationship where the senior “partner” subordinates the junior one, this is the best one could hope for. While it might be exasperating to deal with divergence of opinion on strategy, robust disagreements on that could often lead to superior solutions. The “go it alone” attitude did not work well for the US during our “unipolar moment.”

The last bit about not depending on “extraterritoriality of the dollar” does sound more ominous because it seems to echo the constant refrain emanating from Moscow and Beijing about “ending the dominance of the dollar.” To me, it seems that the French motives are much more prosaic than the grandiose plans of Putin, Xi, and the like. The US really is somewhat unique in the extraterritoriality of its reach, and the fact that so many transactions are done in dollars offers the US opportunities to investigate foreign companies, and discriminate against them (which is part of the reason the Europeans were so unhappy about the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which privileged domestic American producers at their expense). This is not the same as China trumpeting the “impending collapse of the US dollar” (which has been happening for quite some time, apparently), and trying to get other countries to conduct transactions in other currencies. There are very good reasons people trust the dollar around the world, and these cannot be overcome with wishful thinking or proclamations. What Russia and China want is very, very different from what Macron wants when it comes to the dollar — and some of that is now happening as the EU is implementing its own measures to curb the preferential treatment of American firms. Trying to yoke the French position to those of Russia and China is what the latter would love to see, and the critics are just giving it to them.

On China and the Ukraine War

Here’s where things really start to heat up. When asked “what can we really expect from China on Ukraine,” Macron had this to say:

I think that China makes the same observation as us, namely that today, the time is military. The Ukrainians are resisting and we are helping them. This is not the time for negotiations, even if we prepare for them and if we have to plant the milestones. This is the purpose of this dialogue with China: to consolidate common approaches. One: support for the principles of the United Nations Charter. Two: a clear reminder on nuclear power and it is up to China to draw the consequences of the fact that President Putin deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus a few days after having made the commitment not to do so. Three: a very clear reminder of humanitarian law and the protection of children. And four: the desire for a negotiated and lasting peace.

I note that President Xi Jinping talked about European security architecture. But there can be no European security architecture as long as there are invaded countries in Europe or frozen conflicts. So you see that there emerges from all this a common matrix. Is Ukraine a priority for Chinese diplomacy? Maybe not. But this dialogue makes it possible to temper the comments that we have heard about a form of complacency on the part of China with regard to Russia.”

I am just going to go ahead and say it: this take on China’s role in the conflict is correct. I have explained the Chinese dilemma before, so I won’t go into it. Remarkably, Macon, the arch-let’s-talk-to-Putin-guy is very clearly saying that “this is not the time for negotiations,” but time for military action. Notice further that amid the diplomatic fluff (supporting the principles of the UN Charter and desire for lasting peace), Macron actually said two very important things. The first was to remind Xi of how Putin embarrassed him by sending nukes to Belarus days after promising not to do so in a joint statement with Xi.

The key words here are “draw the consequences”, which I think are a clumsy translation of a phrase that means “draw own conclusions” — that is, it should be obvious to the Chinese that Putin is unreliable and a danger to them as well. This one I actually had to verify with a native French speaker because Garland’s take: “Second, a clear reminder about nuclear power, that China should be accountable for Russia’s move” struck me as entirely preposterous. How can China be “accountable” for Russia’s move? It makes zero sense in the context of Xi’s predicament with Putin, and it makes even less sense for a French President to be lecturing the Chinese on that. In other words, Macron is neither wagging a finger at China — as Garland would have us believe — nor is he conceding anything to the Chinese.

The other bit was the part about humanitarian law and protection of children, which — one should recall — is precisely the basis for Putin’s arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court. In other words, it’s a reminder that the guilty would have to be brought to justice — or at the very least not expect to be able to avoid it.

Note further that while all the talk about “strategic autonomy”, “reducing dependence on America,” and being against the “extraterritoriality of the dollar” must sound like music to Chinese ears — meaning that Xi might have been pleased to discuss with Macron “European security architecture” where the two probably talked past each other with words that both liked — Macron still held to the clear position that none of these things can happen while Ukraine is invaded or even if there’s an artificial cease-fire that freezes hostilities. If Europe is to achieve some autonomy for the US, it cannot happen while the war is going on. To me, this is a very obvious invitation to the Chinese to consider the consequences of Putin continuing the war in relation to their desired goals of Europeans not being so tight with the US. It’s a carrot for the Chinese, a diplo-speak for “if you want Europe to play some mediating role between you and America, you might want to consider curbing Putin’s ability to continue the war in Ukraine.” It’s a good argument, actually, and one that illuminates the next paragraph well.

When asserting — correctly — that Ukraine is not a priority for Chinese diplomacy (which is much more singularly focused on Taiwan and relations with the US… mirroring the US in this, actually), Macron says that perhaps China should make it a priority and get more involved in the effort to end the war, which could also silence the people who say that China is helping Russia, that China cannot be worked with, and so on. In other words, if Beijing helps bring about the end of the war — on terms that would not permit conquest by Russia — then it could help in China’s relations with Europe and the US in very specific ways. Again, this makes sense to me.

On China and Taiwan

The other bug brouhaha is about Macron “abandoning Taiwan” or some such nonsense. Here’s Macron on this:

As Europeans, our concern is our unity. It’s been mine forever. We are showing China that we are united and that is the meaning of this joint visit with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen . The Chinese are also concerned about their unity and Taiwan, from their point of view, is a component of this. It is important to understand how they reason.

The question posed to us Europeans is the following: do we have an interest in speeding up the subject of Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans should follow suit on this subject and adapt to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction. Why should we go at the pace chosen by others? At some point, we must ask ourselves the question of our interest. What is the pace at which China itself wants to go? Does she want to have an offensive and aggressive approach? The risk is that of a self-fulfilling strategy of number one and of number two on this subject. We Europeans need to wake up. Our priority is not to adapt to the agenda of others in all regions of the world.

The trap for Europe would be that when it achieves a clarification of its strategic position, where it is more strategically autonomous than before the Covid, it is caught in a disruption of the world and crises which would not be the ours. If there is an acceleration of the conflagration of the duopoly, we will not have the time nor the means to finance our strategic autonomy and will become vassals whereas we can be the third pole if we have a few years to build it.”

The first paragraph is just an acknowledgment of the fact that China regards Taiwan as its renegade province, hardly a revelation, and hardly a problem to assert that one must understand the other side’s view of the issue in order to engage with it productively.

Now, “do we have an interest in speeding up the subject of Taiwan”? No, Europe does not, but then again neither does the United States. The status quo has been working for a long time, and we certainly do not wish to speed up any sort of showdown that would “clarify” (at the price of a war?) the status of Taiwan. In the very next sentence, Macron says that Europe should not adapt to the “American rhythm and Chinese overreaction,” clearly meaning the recent moves by prominent US politicians to either visit Taiwan or meet with its president — these, by the way, often driven more by American domestic politics than any sound foreign policy — and the Chinese equally clear overreaction as taking them as signifying foreign policy and trying to counter this with own, very aggressive, military exercises and statements that escalate the confrontation. One could be easily understand a European watching this from the side thinking, “these two are going to get themselves into a war over a misunderstanding.”

Macron does recognize that Xi’s drastic change of Chinese policy on Taiwan is a huge problem, and the main driver of this conflict. We cannot simply sit back and watch dispassionately as Beijing is arming to the teeth and escalates the rhetoric about retaking Taiwan, by force if necessary (and it would be necessary). So he notes that we have to ask ourselves whether China wants to have “an offensive and aggressive approach”? There is a risk, just as he says, that the Chinese might overreact to what they think the Americans are doing. There is, of course, the alternative, which is that the Chinese intend to conquer Taiwan. One must prepare for the latter without triggering the former, and that’s not an easy task. Macron seems to think that Europe could play some sort of “calming down” role in this instead of just blindly following the American lead. Given our domestic politics that sometime produce these foreign policy flare ups, I can’t really see an issue with that either.

In this context, it also makes sense that Europe could be caught in a crisis which would not be theirs. Again, this is not about resisting a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force — as critics allege — but about being the helpless spectator in a major avoidable war. If the conflict between the US and China heats up too fast, there will be no chance for Europe to establish itself as a potential mediator, and it will be forced to fall into line with America’s policy… much to China’s chagrin. While the use of the word “vassal” might be unfortunate, to me it clearly communicates the implication that in such a confrontation Europe would “do its duty” and stand with America, like any vassal would for their liege. If I were Chinese, I would be seriously worried that no amount of clever diplomacy would drive a wedge in the West over Taiwan if I were to provoke a military confrontation there.

In Conclusion

You can now see why I believe that too many people are using Macron’s interview to grind their own axes at French (or American) expense. Nothing he said is new to me, or even controversial. In fact, my reading of this is very encouraging since I see no evidence of the delusions of last year when it came to dealing with Russia. The idea to sell European autonomy to the Chinese in this context is also pretty clever. Most importantly, I do not see anything there that threatens Western unity or that could be used by China or Russia to drive any sort of wedge between the West on Ukraine or Taiwan. In fact, it seems Macron has warned China that this unity could become something of an imperative if the war in Ukraine continues or ends in Russian victory, or if China would to “accelerate” the situation with Taiwan. Even though couched in impeccable diplomatic language, I do not think the Chinese would misread his message.

2 thoughts on “What Macron Doing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s