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After Munich, a Macron doctrine on strategic affairs

BLOG - 26 February 2020

Emmanuel Macron's speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 15 brought to an end, at least provisionally, a remarkable "strategic" sequence. Started with his "pivot to Russia"  this summer, it continued with The Economist interview on NATO being "brain dead", followed by the Atlantic Alliance summit in London and finally the speech on nuclear deterrence at the École Militaire on February 7. It is also worth mentioning the Pau Summit on January 14 regarding France's commitment in the Sahel and a visit to Poland at the beginning of February.

A Macron doctrine on strategic affairs?

A Macron doctrine has emerged on strategic matters, clarified and strengthened across these various positions. It is not unusual for a doctrine to be asserted halfway through the President's time in office, since it deals with subjects that can in fact only be learned from practical experience: peace and war, the balance of power in the world, France's capabilities and play. Does the "doctrine" developed by Emmanuel Macron mark a shift from his foreign policy positions at the beginning of his five-year term? Yes and no. There are undoubtedly shifts in emphasis, suggesting that the French President’s approach is iterating by trial and error and according to circumstances. His first impulses were in favour of greater European integration around a strengthened eurozone, with the Sorbonne speech, and towards acting in a mostly national capacity for crisis management whether in Libya, Syria or until recently, Iran. These themes have not disappeared but are becoming less prominent. The presidential discourse was also shaped by a "progressive versus nationalist" phase, but only for a rather short period of time. If the concern to defend liberal values is still present in Emmanuel Macron's mind, very clearly reaffirmed at the Munich Conference, Orban’s visit at the Elysée and the charm offensive towards Poland have put an end to a temptation to anathematize the rise of illiberalism at the heart of Europe.

What could be distinctive elements of Emmanuel Macron’s strategic doctrine? Let us retain a particularly striking feature of the President's approach which is the "extension of the strategy field". In his speech at the Ecole de Guerre and amidst remarks on disruptions to the international order or nuclear deterrence, we find this revealing formula: "to build the Europe of tomorrow, our standards cannot be under American control, our ports and airports under Chinese capital and our digital networks under Russian pressure".

"To build the Europe of tomorrow, our standards cannot be under American control, our ports and airports under Chinese capital and our digital networks under Russian pressure".
Emmanuel Macron

In other parts of his speech, Emmanuel Macron explains that our vital interests are now defined in terms of sovereignty over "5G infrastructures, the cloud, which is decisive for data storage, operating systems, submarine cable networks, which are the central nerve of our globalized economy". Yet, this sovereignty – another distinctive feature of the Macron doctrine – can only exist at a European level. Although the President's thinking may have evolved in light of experience, it remains anchored around the advent of a sovereign Europe.

    This dual message – sovereignty is today no longer defined exclusively in military terms and can only be restored at the European level – was already a component of the interview with The Economist. The President again discussed this theme in Munich, in the great hall of the Bayerischer Hof, not without a certain amount of gallantry for the benefit of his audience: a gathering of the transatlantic relationship. Adept of a language of truth, he once again called on the European Union to get its act together on standards, technology, the environment, neighbourhood policy and so on, as much as in the military sphere itself. As was the case with The Economist, he questioned Europe’s policies of budgetary consolidation which result in American investments being financed by European savings.

    To illustrate the diplomatic consequences of Europe's dependence on the United States, he stated: "if we have not built real financial, economic and military sovereignty, we cannot have a diplomacy of our own. We have experienced this on the JCPOA".

    Partly to back up his wake-up call to Europe, but more surely because of his experience, Emmanuel Macron did not hesitate to once again insist on the threats hanging over our old continent. While the United States’ Secretary of State, Mr Pompeo, proclaimed that "the West is winning" against China, Russia and Iran, President Macron developed the theme of the "weakening of the West" in the face of China’s rising power, "regional powers that do not share our values but are in our neighbourhood" and not least because of "America's relative retreat". In this temple of the transatlantic community, the President insisted, with more forthrightness than in other speeches, on the divergences that may exist between American and European interests or even on different hierarchies of priorities: "Mediterranean policy and policy towards Russia must be European policies".

    Taking this approach, defense issues are dealt with in a way that is relatively classic for a French Head of State but that has acquired a new resonance. The search for a European defense pillar, within NATO or as a complement to NATO, has been part of the French repertoire at least since Jacques Chirac. Certainly, the President can now showcase some advances – in fact rather fragile – such as a European Defence Fund or the European Intervention Initiative, and more recently Franco-German projects towards a joint ‘Future Combat Air System’ and the Main Ground Combat System, although these are struggling to take off. The real strength of Emmanuel Macron's reasoning probably lies elsewhere, in the evidence of American remoteness, which even the "big shots of Atlanticism" cannot deny, and perhaps also in his unprecedented ability to put the finger on the wound. In Munich, Emmanuel Macron made no secret of the many divisions that exist between Europeans and called on them to transcend the fear of the future that is currently yielding paralysis. He spoke frankly of a "dual unthinkable" of European defence balancing between a post-World War II Germany refusing to assume its power  and Central Europeans obsessed with American protection. If there is a need for a European defence, he asserted, it is because Europeans need room for action and ought to respond to the US’ pressing demand for a stronger European defense effort.

    Let us note another element of the Macron doctrine which is characteristic of his ability to take risks. In his speech at the École de Guerre, as he had done in London and later reiterated in Munich, the Head of State felt that Europeans as such must take part in the debate that will open on nuclear intermediate forces in Europe, following the United States' denunciation of the INF agreement. This is a position which makes some sense at face value, but which in fact raises formidable problems because, among other things, the Americans intend to handle this matter on their own whereas the best that can be imagined at the European level is a vague consultation within NATO.

      Finally, one cannot discuss a Macron doctrine in strategic matters without mentioning his arguments for relaunching the dialogue with Russia.

      Russian policy and other stress tests

      Finally, one cannot discuss a Macron doctrine in strategic matters without mentioning his arguments for relaunching the dialogue with Russia.

      How much of the Russian policy advocated by the President is based on personal intuition and how much of it is strategic reasoning? Two excellent journalistic investigations by Piotr Smolar in Le Monde and Rym Momtaz in Politico indicate it is rather based on personal intuition. One of the dangers to which the President exposes himself as a result is to over-rationalize his initiative in an attempt to compensate for his European and American interlocutors’ scepticism. In Munich, the President said, among other things, that one could not all at the same time fear, be weak with and refuse to talk with Russia. He advocated developing a strategic dialogue, which he had explained in his speech at the École de Guerre as needed for "improving security conditions" in Europe. In his view, it is a matter of dialogue from a position of strength. He argued in the same breath that sanctions were ineffective, but that these should be maintained for as long as was deemed necessary. He observed that Russia will "continue to destabilise democracies" through cyber-warfare, and immediately suggested countermeasures – though of questionable effectiveness.

      In any case, the revival of the dialogue with Moscow has taken an important part in the French President's strategic vision. We saw this during his visit to Poland where he devoted a great deal of energy and time to defending his approach. There is a risk that if he does not succeed in demonstrating the validity of his Russian initiative, it could weaken the credibility of his calls for European sovereignty and defense.

      Three other tests of the same type came to light in Munich.

      • Nuclear deterrence and Europe: this may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but the way Emmanuel Macron approached the European function of our French nuclear deterrent was considered by many observers to be the main issue of the speech – a ritual for any French Head of State – that he delivered at the École de Guerre on February 7. This is always a hazardous topic for a French leader. To evoke, even if only subliminally, a French "umbrella" extended to other Europeans would be to expose oneself to criticism of unrealism and overreaching; to present the French deterrent as exclusively intended to protect vital French interests would be exposing the limits of European solidarity.

        To escape this dilemma, Emmanuel Macron followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in pointing out the European dimension of our deterrence. Well advised, he broke new ground nonetheless in proposing to those of our partners who are prepared to do so "a strategic dialogue on the role of the French nuclear deterrent in our collective security. European partners who wish to take this path will be able to be involved in exercises by French nuclear deterrent forces. This strategic dialogue and these exchanges will naturally contribute to the development of a genuine strategic culture among Europeans". The offer is limited enough not to frighten, while acceptance by some partners would send an important signal in the direction of a reaffirmed European identity on these issues. We shall return in a moment to the German reactions in Munich. NATO’s Secretary General, Mr. Stoltenberg, was not mistaken about the impact of the French proposal. In an interview with Le Figaro directly after Munich, and in order to dissuade our partners from examining the French Head of State’s offer, he maintained against evidence of the contrary that "a European nuclear deterrent capability" already exists within NATO. Let us note here that the nuclear weapons systems assigned to NATO are American and under American control.
         
      • The Franco-German couple: in what was a remarkable opening speech at the Munich Conference, President Steinmeier stated that Berlin should accept President Macron's offer of strategic dialogue. The German Foreign and Defence Ministers also gave positive signals, though more cautiously in the case of the latter. Should we expect a positive response from Germany? On this topic, let us not forget the slow pace of decision-making in the Federal Republic. It should also be noted that for several years now the Munich Conference has been the scene of unambiguous statements by German government figures, including the Chancellor, on the need for a greater role for Germany in defense matters, without this having had much effect.

        More generally, the future of Emmanuel Macron's European ambitions depends to a large extent on the renewal of a Franco-German tandem that is for now in more or less of a coma. To a question from the Munich Conference’s President, Ambassador Ischinger, Emmanuel Macron replied that he was not "frustrated" by the lack of a German response to his proposals but "impatient".

      It may be that the visit to Poland was the first milestone in a new phase in which the French President will try to move away from the image of a knows-it-all to instead be a unifying leader and coalition builder.

      He spared Mrs. Merkel, in the end. But while he was in the Bavarian capital, he took the opportunity to dine with the two Green leaders and to meet with a cross-section of the German political class – surely a way of laying the groundwork for the post-Merkel era, the day and time of which no one knows. It is significant that it was through the angle of the Franco-German couple that the Financial Times, for example, reported on the Munich Conference. Or that many of the American participants left with the idea that if "the French president channeled his inner Charles de Gaulle", such as Richard Fontaine in his article for War on the Rocks, there is in fact nothing very new to expect from a Europe that can only be defended by NATO. For most of them, moreover, the subject of the conference was not European security but China and more specifically 5G.

      • What actions? The Munich 2020 conference will be remembered as the one where Emmanuel Macron, in a brilliant Q&A exercise, set out his ideas with the greatest frankness while correcting some of the rather abrupt formulas he had used in The Economist. He thus showed more flexibility on enlargement to Albania and Northern Macedonia. He opened the door to a UK partnership with the EU's strategic policy. It may be that the visit to Poland was the first milestone in a new phase in which the French President will try to move away from the image of a knows-it-all to instead be a unifying leader and coalition builder.

        His ideas will be all the more likely to build consensus, or at least a majority assent in Europe, when starting to be put into practice. Perhaps something like this is taking shape on 5G, at least in the refusal to give too much grip in Europe to the Chinese company Huawei, though it remains to be seen what the alternative is. Regarding Russia, all expectations are now suspended for the next summit on Ukraine in "Normandy format" including Germany, France, UK, Russia and Ukraine. On the European Defence Fund front, the budget debate will start in the next few days and the Americans alongside other non-EU NATO members have already made it known that its appropriations cannot be used exclusively for European companies. Above all, it is of course striking that in the real world, that is to say in the Sahel, Syria and Libya in particular, Europe's profile remains hardly discernible. While experts and leaders of the transatlantic world were meeting at the Bayerische Hof, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were fleeing Russian bombs and the Assad regime's militants in Idlib province. Contrary to what is too often said, the media and the UN were tirelessly alerting public opinion and governments. Yet, this was hardly mentioned at the Munich Security Conference in spite of European interests being clearly engaged and a NATO member, Turkey, being directly involved.

      Let’s conclude with a final remark: two weeks after the Munich conference, a first lucid assessment should highlight that President Macron's ideas have prompted reserved reactions on the whole - beyond diplomatic politeness - on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be important to identify and prioritise more precisely the blocking elements. It is also very likely that the reticence of some will encourage that of others: Europeans will hesitate to support the "Macron doctrine" if they feel that it is perceived negatively in Washington, and inversely American decision-makers will only revise their conservative approach if they see Europeans rallying to the French proposals.

      If one believes in the need for an in-depth change in the relationship between Europe and the United States, it is therefore time for a transatlantic coalition of enlightened minds to be put in place to get things moving. The components of the "Macron doctrine" provide a very solid starting point for such an endeavour. Macron’s ideas will truly be a success if and when his doctrine becomes a European and de facto transatlantic doctrine.

       

       

      Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

       

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