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Russia’s War in Ukraine Forces France to Rethink its Foreign Policy

Russia’s War in Ukraine Forces France to Rethink its Foreign Policy
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Six months ago, Russia launched a war against Ukraine. Once again, the political map of Europe is changing through "blood and iron". The consequences for France are, naturally, profound. Multiple facets of its foreign policy now appear to be obsolete. Below are three examples of policy areas that need to be revised.

European policy 

First of all, France needs to rethink its policy with regard to Europe itself. The French wanted a more sovereign Europe, one that is able to protect itself against the turbulence in the world and play a role alongside the emerging US-China bipolar hegemony. They thought that the Russian problem should be dealt with firmly, of course, but also through strategic dialogue in which Moscow's legitimate interests are acknowledged. This view on the relationship with Moscow was hardly shared by the other Europeans. Current events have belied the approach. France has had a change of heart since February 24. It has acted in unison with the other Europeans, imposing sanctions against Russia and providing military, economic and political aid to Ukraine. However, the French president’s enduring patience with Putin, along with dissenting positions on NATO, have damaged France's credibility with eastern and northern Europeans. The latter consider that they have understood the meaning of History better than the French. Germany is also having a credibility problem. The legitimacy of the Franco-German tandem has suffered. From the French point of view, the risk is that the majority of Europeans come to believe that any agenda for EU autonomy should be abandoned in order to better secure lasting protection from the US.

How can this trend be reversed? On the intellectual level, France’s leaders must acknowledge that, following its mad venture, Putin’s Russia will emerge weakened but also even more aggressive in its approach to Europe. It will retain considerable capacities to destabilize both the countries it previously dominated in Central and, through economic and political pressures, western Europe.

It is incumbent upon French policymakers to make an effort to reach out to other Europeans regarding the Russian threat and Europe's new borders. 

Bolstered by its status as a nuclear power, Russia has demonstrated that it has no inhibitions against the use of force. In terms of action, it is incumbent upon French policymakers to make an effort to reach out to other Europeans regarding the Russian threat and Europe’s new borders. President Macron has begun to do so by strongly denouncing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union.

Defense issues will continue to grow in importance. NATO's role will be strengthened. Perhaps it would be appropriate to turn "European defense" into an industrial-financial project, under the patronage of the EU and complementary to NATO. Finally, if they are to convince their counterparts, French decision-makers should repackage the quest for European sovereignty according to the confrontation imposed on them by Moscow. In terms of resilience, energy policy or defense capacity, it is in the face of the Russian threat that the idea of European sovereignty takes on its full meaning for the time being, even if it remains relevant on other fronts.

France in the Indo-Pacific

Secondly, the return of "blood and iron" may not be limited to Europe. What is happening around Taiwan at the moment is indicative of a new state of the world. China has been tightening its grip on the island for months. If the United States does not react, it will feel encouraged to continue; when the Speaker and members of the US House of Representatives visited the island to extend support for the status quo, Beijing cried provocation and launched threatening military actions. The same scenario occurred with Ukraine: if the country had not been armed by the US, the UK and others for several years, it would have been easy prey for Moscow, but NATO's support for the Kyiv government was ultimately used as a pretext for Putin to embark on a mad "preventive war".

In this context, it appears increasingly necessary to strengthen and reorganize western alliances worldwide. France has an interest in carving out its place in this process, by negotiating with the United States and its major allies in the Indo-Pacific region, especially Japan and Australia. In the face of growing danger, these countries and others are looking for support. 

It appears increasingly necessary to strengthen and reorganize western alliances worldwide. 

France - with the United Kingdom, if the latter is willing - should be associated with the "Indo-Pacific Quad" (Australia, Japan, India, United States) in some way. France holds a distinctive place in the Indopacific. It also has the second largest exclusive economic zone in the world. The main problem is that it lacks a navy to match these assets. It could hence start by placing less emphasis on aircraft carriers, and more on acquiring anti-mine or anti-aircraft frigates or cruise missile submarines.

Playing the long game with the Global South

The third preliminary lesson from the war in Ukraine is that the Global South seems to be declaring its independence by refusing to choose between the Moscow-Beijing axis and the West. There are many nuances, of course: in reality, there are "several Souths". India, a member of both the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the Indo-Pacific Quad, and now almost at the level of the giants, is courted by all parties. Comforted by the oil price hikes, the Gulf states are seeking to maximize their advantages. Many African states are reluctant to condemn Russia, and are diversifying their options by turning to China or Turkey more, while counting on the support of the West in order to weather the multifaceted crises they are undergoing because of Covid, and now because of the war.

This is a disappointing state of affairs for Europe, and especially France. The Europeans have relied heavily on the diplomacy of global issues, regarding for instance development, climate change, aid to Africa, and more recently public health, in order to overcome the North-South divide. This has been one of the hallmarks of President Macron's foreign policy. In addition to the observations above, France has seen a dramatic shift for the worse in its position in West Africa. Obviously, this has been aggravated by Russia's hostilities in the region over the past years. Faced with these major changes, the "democracies versus authoritarians" dichotomy is not very relevant. At the same time, the battle is not lost from the outset. It remains uncertain that China, and even more so Russia, can transform the implicit "declaration of independence" of the Global South into tangible geopolitical advantages. It is up to the West - starting with the Europeans, including the French - to keep their cool and play the long game.

This is the English version of an op-ed by Michel Duclos published in Le Monde on August 22, six months after the Russian attack on Ukraine. 




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