Macron is Macroning Again

A French president promoting “strategic autonomy” again? Sacre bleu! 

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School

Winter has turned into spring. Hooray! A new season is upon us, with new fashions and colors and trendy statements about world politics from the French! In other swords, the change in seasons means it’s time for French President Emmanuel Macron to say things suggesting he wants some separation between European foreign policy and U.S. foreign policy. 

After the French president wrapped up recent visit with China’s Xi Jinping, he opened up to Politico’s Jamil Anderlini and Clea Caulcutt about how he currently sees France’s role in the world. And guess what — Macron does not want Europe to be a follower of the United States:

Europe must reduce its dependency on the United States and avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview on his plane back from a three-day state visit to China.

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.” 

He said “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy,” while flying from Beijing to Guangzhou, in southern China, aboard COTAM Unité, France’s Air Force One.

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have enthusiastically endorsed Macron’s concept of strategic autonomy and Chinese officials constantly refer to it in their dealings with European countries. Party leaders and theorists in Beijing are convinced the West is in decline and China is on the ascendant and that weakening the transatlantic relationship will help accelerate this trend.

The reason that “currently” is italicized above is that Macron’s foreign policy musings are inherently fickle. As Drezner’s World pointed out last four months ago: 

Macron is a bit flighty on foreign policy — or as the New York Times’ Roger Cohenput it, “forever testing new ideas and changing tack.” Cohen elaborated, “One minute he insists that Russia must one day become part of Europe’s ‘strategic architecture,’ the next he dwells on the unacceptable, ‘imperial’ aggression of President Vladimir V. Putin, which must never be allowed to stand. One minute he declares NATO ‘brain dead,’ as he did in 2019, the next he hails the inviolable strength of the alliance.” In other words, if you don’t like something Macron says, wait five minutes and see if he says the opposite. 

It’s also worth noting that Macron said his latest after a state visit in which he got very little from Xi Jinping. The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher and David Piersonconcluded: “The French president’s charm offensive appeared to have limits. Mr. Xi gave no indication that he would be willing to answer Mr. Macron’s call on Thursdayto ‘bring Russia back to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table.’” Changing the conversation from what Macron did not get in his personal diplomacy to what he would like to get in the future is a classic way of shifting the news cycle.

Finally, one senses that Macron might be caught up in a personal rivalry over Europe’s strategic future with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Much more so than Macron, it was von der Leyen who coordinated effectively with the Biden administration and ensured a common European front with respect to Russia. She accompanied Macron on his China trip, and that Politico story made it clear there was some daylight between the two of them on the Taiwan question:

Macron and Xi discussed Taiwan “intensely,” according to French officials accompanying the president, who appears to have taken a more conciliatory approach than the U.S. or even the European Union.

“Stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied Macron for part of his visit, said she told Xi during their meeting in Beijing last Thursday. “The threat [of] the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.” 

So, with every caveat under the moon being noted, does Macron’s statement amount to anything? 

Not really, no. The problem Macron faces is that whether Europe follows his desire to pursue strategic autonomy or decides instead to pursue a more Atlanticist foreign policy, the policy conclusion is the same; the European Union needs to reduce its dependency on China as well as Russia. To be a strategically autonomous actor, Europe cannot be dependent on China. And to be a strategic partner of the United States… Europe also cannot be dependent on China. 

Indeed, this was the conclusion that Sabine Weyand, the Director-General for Trade for the European Commission, told the Financial Times last September: “We found out that we are dependent on Russia not just for fossil fuel, but on a number of critical raw materials. We can’t afford that… Then we realize that there are certain dependencies with respect to China, and there we also have to be careful: we never know when dependencies might get weaponized.”

It’s theoretically possible for the EU to pursue a course of economic decoupling while being more accommodating on Taiwan. In practice, it is far more likely that less European dependence on China means a more clear-eyed view on the Taiwan question. So as much as Macron might want warmer ties with Russia and China, he’s fighting against some serious headwinds. 

In other words, it is the considered opinion of Drezner’s World that Macron is playing his part of the French President and trying to call attention to himself. In my role of U.S.-based international affairs observer, my considered response is a polite shrug.

(This post was republished from Drezner’s World.)

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