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France’s Foreign Policy Outlook 2020

France’s Foreign Policy Outlook 2020
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

2020 has just begun and  tensions in the Middle East have suddenly risen to a new level. The duel between the United States and Iran, hitherto handled with kid gloves, has this time changed in nature, with the elimination of General Soleimani, the legendary leader of the Quds Force, the Islamic Republic’s armed wing in external theatres. It is very likely that in retaliating on January 8 with strikes on American bases without causing casualties, Iran has not said its last word. In fact, we are facing a temporary truce.

This is all the more so since the year 2020 will be an "American year": until the presidential elections in November, President Trump's geopolitical compass will be pointing in the direction of that deadline. The New York billionaire can be just as pacifist in his quest for the Nobel Peace Prize as he can be quick to escalate his military actions, as has been seen over the past few days, to show that he is making America respected abroad. At the same time, his opponents or partners will also position themselves vis-a-vis him according to the same deadline – on the Middle Eastern stage for instance, the Iranians certainly wonder how to "play the American presidential elections". The same goes for the Russians, the Chinese, etc.

Turning the spotlight on French politics, this year’s first summit is the one that has just taken place in Pau, at President Macron’s initiative, gathering the G5 countries, namely France's partners in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel. In December, the death of 13 French soldiers in Mali was a stark reminder that our country has engaged a very tightly knit operation in this part of the world, bearing high risks. As always, crises are at the top of the foreign policy makers’ list of priorities  – or at least those taking place on our doorstep and directly threatening our internal security interests such as Syria-Iraq, Libya, the Sahel. The year 2020 is also likely to be particularly difficult for the various fronts of multilateralism, of which President Macron, like his predecessors, has become a strong advocate. Finally, questions arise surrounding projects launched by the President in recent months, such as resetting relations with Russia and redefining the European project.

Storm warnings on three major battlegrounds for France

Let us not dwell on the overall risk of the region setting ablaze as a result of the antagonism between Iran and the United States, and their regional allies. French interests are more specifically engaged on three battlegrounds.

  • Syria-Iraq: will the Americans be able to maintain their military forces in Iraq, while Iran and its Iraqi supporters are going to great lengths to get them to leave? Will they maintain their "leadership" in the international coalition against Daesh, of which France is a member? Days of a US’ military footprint in the Syrian Northeast seem to be numbered in any case, in the dual context of upcoming elections in the United States and the situation in Iraq. How, then, shall France continue its action against the inevitable resurgence of Daesh and deal with the issue of French jihadists still remaining in the region?
  • Libya: There too, the last few weeks have seen a deep deterioration of the situation. The fracture between a "Haftar" camp and a "al-Sarraj" camp has only worsened with the Russian commitment to the former and the Turkish backing of the latter. What can therefore be expected is either a spiral of escalation, or instead a Russian-Turkish agreement to share areas of influence in accordance with the approach previously adopted by Putin and Erdogan in Syria. In either case, Europeans seem to be marginalized, if not taken hostage with risks of blackmailing on the topic of immigration. No one can be fooled any longer that the German initiative for a peace conference on Libya will bite the dust.
  • Sahel: In addition to the difficulties that the French had in mutualizing risks with their regional and European partners, many other issues have arisen since. For example, the political cost of our military presence in Mali with "Operation Barkhane" is increasing, both regionally with anti-French feelings brewing in the region, and most likely domestically, even if opinion remains consensual at this stage. Likewise, the reconfiguration of its external military commitments may lead the United States to reduce its (vital) support to Operation Barkhane. Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the jihadist insurgency is spreading and strengthening, less for security reasons than because of bad governance on the part of local authorities.

In December, the death of 13 French soldiers in Mali was a stark reminder that our country has engaged a very tightly knit operation in this part of the world, bearing high risks.

Is there, in political terms, a common thread between these three situations? Yes, of course. The de facto withdrawal of the United States, or the confirmation of its absence in the Libyan case, the rise of Russia and regional powers, mainly Turkey, as well as the role of non-state actors of the "entrepreneurs of violence" type, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but also militias in Libya, terrorist groups in the Sahel, or even Russian or Syrian mercenaries, on the payroll of the Turks for the latter. It is hard to see how the French government could in these conditions escape dramatic revisions on these three battlegrounds, involving on a case-by-case basis the search for new partners (Russia, Turkey, NATO?), the launch of new strategic initiatives, or even a possible military disengagement, at least partially.

Multilateralism's path strewn with obstacles

Support for multilateralism i.e. institutionalized international cooperation has long been one of France's foreign policy’s pillars. With Emmanuel Macron, this orientation has taken on new prominence. First, due to the President's personal commitment, for example by launching the Paris Forum for Peace on November 11-13 2019, of which Institut Montaigne is a founding member. Second, the paradoxical increased need for international cooperation to deal with global environment or non-proliferation issues in the backdrop of an American backlash against international institutions of which the United States had often been the initial supporter, from the UN to the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NATO, etc.

Yet, the dynamic in favor of multilateralism will be particularly difficult to preserve throughout the year 2020.

  • JCPOA and WTO: the Iranians decided on January 7 to free themselves from most of their obligations under the JCPOA nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and the EU. As the Americans themselves have withdrawn from the agreement, there is little left of the JCPOA. On a completely different note, Washington's decision to no longer appoint representatives to WTO arbitration bodies paralyzes the very organization which would make an effective instrument for stabilizing trade at a time when the "trade wars" launched by the Trump administration make it so necessary;
  • G7 and G20: the next G7 is due to be held in June at Camp David under the US presidency. The Trump administration is already preparing this annual meeting of the major industrial democracies... by eliminating most of the preparation channels. Does Donald Trump intend to turn the summit into a  great moment of rehabilitation for Vladimir Putin or an anti-Beijing war council? It will require much dexterity on the part of other participants to demine this exercise. The meeting under Saudi chairmanship of the G20 (the 20 richest countries) in Riyadh in November, at about the same time as the American presidential elections, also raises many concerns such as timing, the Saudi administrations’ inexperience, regional tensions and especially Saudi Arabia’s limited capacity to resist the desires of Washington;
  • The COP 26 in Glasgow (9-19 November): the Paris Agreement (COP 21 in December 2015) provided that the 2020 meeting would be one of increased commitments by the States. The last COP meeting, held in Madrid a few weeks ago, ended on a pessimistic note: the leap towards a less carbon-intensive economy called for by the Paris Agreement did not happen; greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1.5% per year over the last decade, putting the planet on a warming path of 3.2°C by the end of the century instead of the 2°C envisaged by the Paris Agreement. Here again, it was the United States’ negative attitude, marked by their withdrawal from the agreement, that was decisive, but also China and India’s hesitations, Europe's poor performance and Brazil's turnaround – all of which could not be offset by Russia's rallying to the Agreement.

In such circumstances, the French authorities must ask themselves how the future can be safeguarded, as Emmanuel Macron brilliantly did at the G7 summit in Biarritz last August, and how the idea of multilateralism be given new impetus. Is it conceivable to find a substitute for the currently failing groupings, or "formats" as diplomats say of the G7, G20 and others?

What role, if not alternative at least incentivising, can the "Alliance for Multilateralism", a club of countries that have remained faithful to international cooperation, or the Paris Forum play? How can we also capitalize on some opportunities? For instance, won't the Australian government come out less environmentally sceptical of the current and dreadful bushfire storm? Could there be a response through international cooperation – and therefore through reinvented multilateralism – to the wave of social upheavals that is shaking up a large number of countries?

Support for multilateralism i.e. institutionalized international cooperation has long been one of France's foreign policy’s pillars.

Dialogue with Russia and the emergence of a geopolitical Europe

Two projects that especially carry Emmanuel Macron's brand will also be put to the test in the coming months.

  • Dialogue with Russia: Professor Jackson's reading of General de Gaulle's biography shows that the French approach to relations with Russia, apart from domestic political considerations, is inspired by two factors: a long-term historical purpose to reintegrate Russia into the European sphere, and a short-term tactical concern to have leverage vis-à-vis allies and partners. Considering the reset wished for by the French President since the summer of 2019, it is up to Vladimir Putin tol set the cursor between these two aims, by making concessions in Ukraine or in his diplomatic handling of  the announced participation of the French President in the May 9 ceremonies at the Kremlin – the rehabilitation campaign of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact being a bad omen on this point. Paris' ability to overcome the Russo-scepticism of a large part of Europeans will be greatly contingent on the Russian attitude;
  • Will there be a geopolitical Europe? The European 2020 agenda will be particularly busy with the Brexit follow-ups, the negotiation of a new multiannual budget, discussions on the "Green Deal" courageously launched by the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and many other dossiers, including European defense and EU-China relations. There is no doubt that with the compositions of the current Commission and the Strasbourg Parliament, France has more assets at its disposal than in any recent years. There is also no doubt that the brief inventory we have just taken here demonstrates the inadequacy of purely national responses to the formidable international challenges before us. It also demonstrates the urgent need for a cultural shift within the European institutions in order to acquire the will to achieve the geopolitical impact that they have lacked until now. In the face of rising tensions between the United States and Iran for instance, Europe must invest in Iraq, mobilizing not only its diplomatic resources but also Brussels authorities’ expertise, financial resources, development aid capacity, etc. As with many other issues, the year 2020 will, as we have seen, be a crucial, pivotal year.

In this respect, one would be tempted to say that an important test will take place in the wake of the US presidential elections: whatever the outcome of these elections, will Europeans collectively be able to offer the next US administration a "new transatlantic contract" likely to restore Europe's relevance in the eyes of US leaders? In the French domestic debate, many commentators often indulge in a double Pavlovian conditioning: whatever the subject or event, France (or Europe) is always decreed as "powerless" on the one hand and "aligned with the United States" on the other, even when Paris and (often) Brussels are opposed to Washington on climate, the JCPOA, Syria, etc. This was again observed in the Soleimani affair. European governments refrained from supporting the elimination of the Iranian general, yet they were somewhat criticized for having not gone further by outrightly condemning Washington's action.

The reality is much more complex than any summary judgments. What holds true is that the time has now come for Europeans to use all the room for maneuver they have, less restricted than is often said, to take the initiative on a series of issues that are critical to the world’s evolution. It is in this spirit that Institut Montaigne for its part, wishes to continue offering its contribution to the public debate.



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