So it is not a question of French leaders replacing a mental map (geopolitical) with another one (geo-economic), but rather of superimposing the two analytical models, of combining them into action as efficiently as possible, amidst a deteriorating economic and budgetary context. This certainly presupposes, if not "reinventing a foreign policy", at least re-examining our options.
To contribute to such a re-examination, let’s bear in mind two key forthcoming periods, namely the American presidential election on November 3, and the French presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. We could also mention two "key forthcoming German events", the German presidency of the EU in the second half of 2020 and the German general elections next year (Angela Merkel will no longer be in office when France takes over the presidency of the EU). We suggest the following guidelines:
Guideline no. 1: laying down the terms of a new transatlantic contract
It may seem counterintuitive to put this recommendation first, as certain commentators claim that the Covid-19 crisis has in a way sealed the fate of the post-American world. We believe that whatever the direction of American policy from November onwards, it will have a great influence on global developments, even if, as we have already said, there will be no return to an all-powerful America (which never really existed for that matter). France must be all the more on its guard in that respect, as to a great extent the options adopted by the next American administration will determine its room for maneuver and its ability to act on both the geopolitical and the geo-economic arenas (the two aforementioned "mental maps").
It will therefore be in the best interests of the French authorities to engage in as meaningful a dialog as possible with the American leaders elected in November, whoever they are – and to prepare for that straightaway. Our contacts in the United States would have us believe that the task will not be easy, even if Joe Biden is elected. On many subjects – European defense, the Middle East, Turkey in particular (a major headache nowadays for French decision makers) – the agendas are in discord. A Democratic administration will not in principle be interested in ideas or concepts, but rather in initiatives already underway, offering it a starting point to develop its own policies. In this scenario, it will be interested in European or even "Indo-Pacific" initiatives, rather than bilateral ones (as had been the approach of the E3 on Iran, which the Obama administration had then built on to engage in his own opening up vis-à-vis Tehran). We therefore need to think in terms of a multilateral approach wherever possible, targeting points of entry that match the interests of a new American administration. That primarily means China, and should Biden be elected, Iran and other crises, climate change and other global issues (such as digital, data governance and artificial intelligence, and thus the "multilateralism of the 21st century"). The fight against authoritarianism and rejuvenating some key international institutions could also be elements of a common new transatlantic contract.
Guideline no. 2: putting forward a strategy vis-à-vis China
Ideally, it would be desirable to approach the next American administration with a "Chinese strategy" approved by all Europeans, or at least, as Norbert Roettgen has suggested, on the basis of a "Franco-German initiative" vis-à-vis China. For a number of reasons, it is uncertain whether Berlin is ready to partner with France in such an exercise for the time being, especially because for Angela Merkel, relations with China will be the focal point of the German presidency of the EU from July 2020 onwards. Moreover, the postponement of the EU-China summit in Leipzig (initially scheduled in September) has left key ongoing negotiating subjects with Beijing on hold: an agreement on investments, reciprocal opening up of markets, subsidies for State enterprises, climate, medical cooperation, etc. It would appear, however, that the online conference on June 22 between Xi Jinping and EU leaders has opened Brussels’ eyes to the fact that China will approach Europe as long as it thinks it can settle its affairs with Washington. Having reached an initial trade agreement with the Trump administration, the Chinese consider themselves to be in a position of strength in the triangle.
In consultation with our main partners, especially with Germany, we could nonetheless send out a number of "signals" to China on positive measures (potential cooperation on climate, and others), but also on defensive measures (a drastic reduction in Huawei's footprint in Europe, red lines on foreign investment and technology transfers. etc), and perhaps even offensive measures (taking the lead on the competition of influence). Such signals, worthwhile in themselves, could be a framework for the upcoming dialogue with the United States.
Guideline no. 3: recalibrating our European policy
Europe's destiny hinges primarily on the success or failure of the recovery plan, in economic terms admittedly, but also in political terms. This plan is indeed a historic opportunity to overcome at least some of Europe's divisions– in particular to avoid Italy’s exit from the EU. It is also the best weapon against the drift towards populism. Our interest therefore lies in making this plan an absolute priority, setting aside, for the time being, plans for reform or aspirations for a "political Europe", which are detrimental to the union between the partners. This is not the time to be speaking about the "radical reform of Europe" when a radical reform is possibly taking place surreptitiously, through concrete advances according to the method recommended by Jean Monnet.
Such a conservative institutional approach could enable France, under its presidency of the EU, to bring federative projects to a successful conclusion, with regards to economic sovereignty, borders and migrations, or even climate change (see below). Like the health issue today, these subjects could restore the loosened connection between the EU and public opinion.
Guideline no. 4: reviving a proactive climate change diplomacy
Since 2015, France has constantly defended an ambitious climate agenda, though it hasn’t, found a guiding principle that would restore the momentum halted by the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. And yet, the Covid-19 crisis has reawakened awareness about the climate emergency on a global scale. It has also put the cost of carbon and the notion of border taxes back into the European debate (see: European Commission), among the most promising courses of action. The idea, supported by Eric Chaney in a June 2020 paper for Institut Montaigne, has admittedly come up against a battery of political objections, in Europe (Germany until recently, Poland) and elsewhere. It should therefore be meticulously recast in diplomatic terms. Particular attention should be paid to the need to support Africato and to avoid a split between the two continents on this crucial subject.
Subject to this condition, a renewed climate change diplomacy could offer the EU a key lever vis-à-vis China. If Joe Biden is elected, it could also provide an opportunity for dialogue with the United States. For France, especially when it comes to biodiversity, this could also become a key area for climate diplomacy, where France is still perceived as a leader. It could thus be the subject of in-depth discussions with Berlin right away, with the aim of further developing it under our presidency.
Guideline no. 5: engaging a geo-economic pivot
France is also one of the most proactive countries in global issues. Our "economic diplomacy" has also been a success in terms of attracting investment. In a pragmatic vision of our foreign operations, we can only hope to stay in the race between powers if we return to a path of growth driven by innovation and cutting-edge technology. This presupposes an effort of competitiveness in domestic terms. In foreign terms it also requires us to master the conditions of international competition (access to markets, reciprocity, re-industrialization in certain sectors, etc.) and increase the EU's influence in regulating globalization. Let’s not forget: the growing Sino-American rivalry means stronger competition between the United States and China in standard-setting, which risks marginalizing the EU on one of its few strong points. One of the most important courses of action over the long term is the capital structure of European companies (a key factor for regaining a degree of "sovereignty"), all the more determining as it conditions the level of investment in research and development.
Therefore the context created by Covid-19 crisis forces us to "change gear" both on geo-economic questions and on global challenges.
Guideline no. 6: reconfiguring our partnerships
In parallel with this "geo-economic pivot", it would also appear necessary to intensify France's "Asian pivot" (vis-à-vis non-Chinese Asia). The purpose would not be to "contain China", but rather to join forces with countries that have demonstrated their dynamism and are now prime movers in the global economy, to find partners to revitalize global governance, and to gain bargaining power in the dialogue with the powers of the Pacific, including China and the United States. In reality, Europe will not truly exist in the China - US - EU triangle if it cannot increase its presence in South and Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific area.
To that effect, we can rely on the "Indo-Pacific strategy" that the French authorities have been developing for several years, specifically at the instigation of President Macron. The current context probably provides room for closer political ties and greater cooperation with Australia, Japan and India in specific areas (maritime safety, harbours, etc.). One of the conditions for achieving this is undoubtedly to openly discuss the relationship with China and the relationship with the United States. But this "Indo-Pacific strategy" is not enough: we need to forge ties with other countries in the region (France already has a strong relationship with South Korea for instance), and above all we must achieve a minimum "critical mass" of European presence, above all in economic terms ,but possibly in other fields too.
With regards to global challenges, a particular Europe - Asia-Pacific format (excluding China) could be tested, if possible as early as this year, within the framework of the Paris Peace Forum.
Efforts vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific region should not be made at the expense of our presence in Africa or the Maghreb, which are still two neighboring regions that are vital to France. Vis-à-vis Africa – the continent of the future, the India of tomorrow – the efforts made as members of the G20 and the Paris Club could serve as a springboard for reinforcing our partnerships. In the Maghreb, the diversification of value chains could pave the way for new cooperations structured around Africa.
Guideline no. 7: maintaining the dialog with Russia
The Covid-19 context prompts us to keep channels of communication open with Russia, while at the same time reducing the visibility of our policy. It could indeed be worthwhile to explore the possibility of Moscow subsequently opting to distance itself from China. It would also be desirable to forge closer ties with a Russia that is not just about Putinism. We should, however, avoid overestimating the "prospects" of dialogue, firstly for reasons of credibility (it is highly unlikely that Russia's current leadership will modify its approach to international affairs), and secondly, to again avoid poisoning a contentious subject with some of our European partners.
Guideline no. 8: reassessing some security policies
It is a matter of convention to regularly reassess some of the policies that structure our external operations.
Although defense-related issues are beyond the scope of this paper, we wish to draw attention to two core subjects of our foreign policy, of which the current context justifies an early re-examination: firstly, our involvement in the Sahel (which must remain compatible with the parameters of the "new normal"), and secondly, our ability to respond to cyber-coercion, the threats of which have become even more palpable with Covid-19. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, a review of our policy vis-à-vis Turkey is required, not least in the context of a possible revival of the transatlantic dialogue, if there is a change in the Washington administration. And obviously, we should also address the type of cooperation we want with the post-Brexit United Kingdom: Covid-19 may have crystallized the vocation of "Global Britain" as one that is not aligned with continental positions (see the "Five Eyes" statement on Hong Kong and the proposal for a "D10" – i.e. a G7 plus Australia, South Korea and India).
Guideline no. 9: having a long-term vision of multilateralism
Is the attachment of French leaders to multilateralism simply a vain attempt to prolong it? Can’t the "Alliance for multilateralism" – primarily headed by France and Germany – be likened to a "league of lesser powers" that will not move any mountains? These questions must be raised with a long-term perspective. Both China and the United States will come up against the limits of their power in the post-Covid-19 world. Both countries could be interested in better functioning multilateral institutions, or some of them at least, unless they bear the increasingly high cost of unmanaged "negative externalities".
It is Europe’s role, in partnership with others, to lay the groundwork, without any illusions about the "sincerity" of China in its approach to global governance or about the extent of possible American re-engagement on these subjects. One test in the short term will be the capacity to make treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19 a widely available global public good. In addition to the reform of the international health architecture, for which French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian has put forward proposals, international coordination of post-crisis recovery policies should also be a priority. Mainly owing to the manner in which the G7 and G20 are chaired, such coordination is lacking for now, which is dangerous for developing countries, but maybe even more so for Europe.
Guideline no. 10: rethinking our modes of action worldwide
Some of the guidelines outlined in our analysis represent reorientations of our external operations: a new transatlantic contract, European policy, recasting certain policies, etc. Others involve radical repositioning, mainly towards geo-economy, on the one hand, and towards the Asia-Pacific, on the other, rendered indispensable by the emergence of the China - US - EU triangle. The current crisis should lead France not to radically change course but rather to broaden the ambit of its external operations. Unless, of course, we are to destined to an ill-fated conjunction of the stars : completion of the American "turnaround" against the international order, unmanageable crises at our Mediterranean borders, failure of the "European kickstart", inadequate internal upswing, etc., which would then force us to limit our ambitions.
But the best way of averting such a scenario is precisely to broaden the scope of our foreign policy. Such a conclusion – once again a preliminary one – raises a key question, one that we cannot address here. That is the question of the resources that France must mobilize to defend its external interests, as well as the action that should be taken in a world of challenges, changes and immense uncertainties. How do we enter into dialogue with civil society? What are our means for exercising "soft power" abroad? How do we counter "carnivorous diplomacies"? What synergy can we create between ministries and other actors (private-sector players), not least to effect the twofold "pivot" towards a geo-economy and towards Asia? We should remember that the extraordinary diplomatic success of the COP21 was underpinned by a remarkable organization. Allow the diplomat who has authored this paper to add: what will be the role for the great "Ministry of International Affairs" that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be? In short, what new comprehensive system is needed to better support the French President who, under the Fifth Republic, naturally plays the central part in France's foreign policy?
The author warmly thanks Anne Gadel and Pierre-Joseph Beauchamp, who were of great help in the drafting of this paper. He also shows his gratitude to his colleagues of Institut Montaigne and to the numerous personalities who willingly shared their assessments and thoughts with him. This note only reflects the views of the author.
Copyright: Eliot BLONDET / POOL / AFP