In December 2022, while on a visit to the United States, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that any possible peace talks with Russia should take Russian security concerns into consideration. For many, this was a surprising stance from a NATO ally, but France has been balancing the United States and Russia since before the conflict broke out in February 2022. The reaction of the French government to the military build-up in early 2022 was to reach out to Russia and get the tension to de-escalate. Even after the conflict began, Mr. Macron continued making an effort to showcase France as the engine of European diplomatic mediation between Russia and Ukraine, a phenomenon rapidly gaining popularity by the name of European strategic autonomy. This article attempts to analyze various motivations of France to act as a flagbearer state of European strategic autonomy.
De-hyphenating From Cold War Era Bloc
At the advent of the Cold War, the importance of Europe, especially Western Europe, quickly gained prominence as the foundation of the American liberal bloc. Moreover, the war-torn economies of Europe found a way to reconstruct without over-investing in the military while the United States provided the security guarantee under North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Hence, the dependence of Europe on American security guarantees was more of a need than a desire. However, countries like France always strived to possess a certain level of strategic autonomy, separate from the US influence. This resulted in France developing its nuclear program and creating deterrence independent of the United States. Moreover, the country has repeatedly shown signs of acting separately from NATO, one of the most striking instances being the rejection of the US invasion of Iraq. The calls of the present-day French government to consider Russian security concerns while responding to the crisis in Ukraine can be seen as a continuance of the movement towards European strategic autonomy and away from the US sphere of direct influence.
The China Factor
The beginning of the Twenty-first century saw the emergence of a rapidly growing and assertive China. If we were to believe Robert Gilpin’s Hegemonic Stability theory, this emergence challenges the hegemonic power – the United States. Nevertheless, China’s growing economic and political influence makes Europe think more decisively about decoupling with the USA, as trade conflicts between the USA and China will undoubtedly drag the European economies in. As a response, France is understandably pushing for such strategic autonomy for Europe that Europe manages to balance the US and its own interests.
Creating a European Bloc by Roping in Russia
France’s softened stance regarding Russia makes sense when seen through the lens of European strategic autonomy. France hopes to bring Russia to the table of talks and integrate Russia with Europe. The Russian economy, badly wounded by the Russian offensive in Ukraine, is in desperate need of resuming relations with Europe. Moreover, Russia can use strategic forums like European Politic Committee (EPC) to negotiate the least self-damaging end of the seemingly unending Russian offensive. Through such maneuvers, France hopes to create a comprehensive and autonomous European bloc that includes Russia, thereby practically ending the possibility of the creation of a China-Russia bloc and preventing the European economy from involuntarily involving in US-China trade wars.
However, France’s grand strategy of European strategic autonomy has hit several roadblocks, the most prominent of which has been the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead of uniting it into a single bloc, the attack has divided Europe in several ways. The countries of Eastern Europe that are proximate to Russia are filled with rejuvenated mistrust and suspicion towards Russia, thereby making any possibilities of integration far-fetched. Secondly, one of the largest economies in Europe, Britain has capitalized on the anti-Russian sentiment in countries like Poland and Finland by providing arms against Russia. The most significant challenge comes from the policy of the United States that keeps the European military capacity partially dependent upon the US. Also, the United States’ consistent sale of weapons to Ukraine has kept the conflict alive. The US strategy of draining Russia’s resources remains on track at the expense of French ambitions. Despite the challenges, France strives for a comprehensive European bloc that is autonomous strategically, and President Macron sees France as the driving force for achieving European strategic autonomy.
[Photo by the Foundations World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Suyash Dwivedi is a final year Master’s student in International Studies at Christ (deemed to be) University. He has worked as a research intern at the Center for Air Power Studies (CAPS India).