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JUNE 2020

Covid-19 the Clarifier:
The Impact of the Virus
on France's Foreign Policy

Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Michel Duclos is Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow, Geopolitics and Diplomacy.

Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

Mahaut de Fougières était responsable du programme Politique internationale jusqu'à Février 2023. Dans ce cadre, elle pilote les travaux de l'Institut Montaigne sur la défense, la politique étrangère, l'Afrique et le Moyen-Orient, et mène des projets transversaux au sein du pôle international. Auparavant, elle était chargée d'études sur les questions internationales, depuis 2018.

Diplômée de King's College London et de University College London (UCL) en relations internationales, elle a également étudié à l'université américaine de Beyrouth (AUB).

Covid-19 is like lightning, violently exposing a familiar landscape, which it will lay to waste after the storm.

We call it a clarifying virus because it not only reveals existing trends but, more importantly, it accentuates or accelerates them. It is also, therefore, a transformational virus. It crystallizes trends that are now familiar: the Sino-American rivalry, exacerbated by the crisis; the abdication of American leadership, brought to a head by Trump's handling of Covid-19; the crisis of multilateralism (now virtually brain-dead?), illustrated by the failings of the World Health Organization (WHO). Other significant developments exposed to view by Covid-19, especially Europe’s potential rebound, must also be factored into the "new normal" that could ensue from current events. In the purely political interpretation we offer here, we will also point out that history has not yet been written. The repercussions of Covid-19 will only be felt in the long run, and the "clarification" will only be complete after the other "game changer" of 2020: the American presidential election.

We should not fully rely on the current picture when the thunderstorm is far from over. We will nonetheless endeavor to make an assessment of some preliminary tendencies of our foreign policy.

A New Normal

China’s breakthrough and the intensification of Sino-American rivalry

The emergence of China as a power virtually on a par with the United States, at least in economic terms, was already well-known. Its decisive influence in the organization of globalization has been a cause of growing concern. We could also not ignore the shift in strategy – the end of a low profile on the international stage – implemented by Xi Jinping, more particularly since he became (potential) "president for life" in 2018.

But what was harder to predict was the determination with which, in its handling of Covid-19, China has launched an international counter-offensive. It has capitalized on a quick exit from the health crisis to showcase its governance model abroad, with a blend of seduction and unabashed brutality. This forceful public diplomacy offensive could have mixed results. But what should hold our attention is China's patent intention to consolidate a zone of influence, or a juxtaposition of areas of clientelism: Africa, whole areas in Europe, some Middle Eastern states, Central Asia, the Silk Roads, etc.

Furthermore, the exit from the crisis "with Chinese characteristics" goes hand in hand with a "double game" remarkably analyzed by François Godement in an article titled "Two Chinas, One System", published on Institut Montaigne’s blog on May 29:

  • A (at the very least) relative opening up at the G20, or even at the WHO, regarding the debt of developing countries.  This has generally created a sustained impression that China is still interested in a multilateral management of global public assets (health, climate, development).
  • In parallel: provocations in the South China Sea, the tramp of feet on the borders with India, a hardening line on Taiwan and a very serious undermining of Hong Kong's independence  (the law "on national security" passed by the National People's Congress with regards to Hong Kong stands as a violation of an international agreement, the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration).

The "Chinese breakthrough" can be explained at least in part by the American President's unprecedented back-down from his country's global responsibilities in this crisis.

Against this backdrop, the recent overriding impression of a ramp-up in the "Sino-American cold war", is also somewhat paradoxical. The Chinese have essentially been on the offensive. In the meantime, Donald Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo, admittedly outdoing each other in their verbal aggressiveness, have in fact proved to be more flexible on core issues (though there is the counterexample of additional restrictions on Huawei). The "Chinese breakthrough" can also be partly explained by Trump's unprecedented backdown from his country's main responsibilities in this crisis.

The idea of a Sino-American cold war is also misleading in that it suggests that China's rise to power is only an American problem.

In line with lessons learned from Covid-19, and unless the Chinese economy is significantly damaged after the crisis, Beijing will probably see new predatory opportunities in the post-crisis era. It will likely look out for technological and industrial flagships in Europe, or for strategic assets and critical infrastructures in numerous developing countries, while discretely securing the loyalty of local elites and reinforcing Chinese influence (as is the case of Central Asia, to Russia’s concern). China might also have to be doubly aggressive in its foreign trade, in order to ensure a vigorous recovery of its economy.

When assessing this situation, we should take note of the intensification of the Sino-American rivalry, without forgetting the risk that Europe might find itself apprehensively drawn into it. We must also note lose sight of Europe’s need to restore balance in its relations with China. This is true for Europe’s economic and technological needs, as well as for its political interests. In parallel, restoring the balance with China – which presupposes economic sovereignty measures (adjustments in value chains, controlling investments, etc.) – must be compatible with preserving the core tenets of globalization.

In other words, one of the most obvious repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis is the creation of this China-US-Europe triangle, which is likely to remain a structural element for the new few years. But can we be certain that this basis is not misleading?

The rise of the geo-economy and global challenges

The Covid-19 crisis is a global geo-economic crisis, in that it has brought to light the global interdependence of economic, health, technological, human, and cultural systems. It does not do away with States, as both health and safety are chiefly a matter of national sovereignty. It does put into perspective the notion of state sovereignty, while also making a return of the nation-state more likely.

In the short term,  the main focus is on the diversification of value chains, an idea that was already circulating before the crisis. We are also focusing on the question of health, which had apparently been quite underestimated by global governance. The idea of socio-economic resilience now has far greater resonance, as a direct result of Covid-19. In the particular case of France, our industrial fabric has proven very weak, compared not only to Germany, but also to Italy and Spain.

The idea of resilience – both of societies and of economies – has greater resonance as a result of Covid-19.

However, the list of geo-economic and global issues brought to light by the current crisis is virtually infinite:

  • Aid for developing countries, whose economies have been hit hard by the global recession, and the fall in the prices of raw materials and oil which adds to the effects of the pandemic. The situation in countries in sub-Saharan Africa warrants our attention, not least because of the risk of new migratory pressures.
  • Technological competition, an important facet of the confrontation with China (5G in particular), but also a key factor of innovation, growth and the balance of power between governments and certain private-sector players. The Covid-19 crisis has seen a triumph of the digital economy, for instance with remote-working (encouraged by our political leaders, who otherwise lament the growing influence of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), or the role of e-commerce. In all likelihood other (unavoidable) crises will push other technologies (space, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc.) into the limelight.
  • Global warming and biodiversity, with a paradoxical twofold effect: the risk of economic recovery curbing our ongoing decarbonization efforts; and at the same time, the growing realization that mankind could be faced not with a "systemic crisis", but rather "a system of crises", with a prevailing environmental plight.
  • Inequalities, the fate of whole sections of industry like aviation or aeronautics, the issues of mobility, the future of towns and cities, online security, sustainable development, etc.

At the time of writing, a twofold tendency is appearing in policies in Europe, both at the national level and in the European institutions. On the one hand, we are seeing a re-emergence of (at least) selective economic sovereignty policies, colored by the objectives of "greening" and "digital transformation". On the other, global challenges (primarily climate change, but also health and development) are making a major comeback, including in the conscience of civil societies. One of the challenges in the phase we are entering is to not disappoint the new expectations of non-state actors and the public opinion.

Europe’s potential rebound

As far as the European Union is concerned, the clarifying effect of the virus is oddly combined with a ripple effect as well. Initially, it was the shortcomings and divisions of Europe that were made obvious: the slow reaction of Brussels institutions, a lack of solidarity between Member States, aggravated rifts between North and South and between East and West.

Covid-19 has confirmed the EU’s approach to navigating crises.

The image of the "somnambulistic handling" of the crisis was then corrected when the Commission and the ECB announced firm budgetary and monetary decisions. The speed with which these decisions were made shows that the lessons of previous crises (2008, 2012) have been learnt.

Subsequently, Covid-19 confirmed the EU's approach to navigating crises. An agreement impossible to consider a few months ago was reached on a budget of nearly 2% of European GNP; France and Germany are rallying behind the Macron-Merkel initiative of May 18; the recovery plan put forward by the Commission, going further than the Franco-German proposals (€750 billion), is based on a common debt issued by the Commission, as a form of budgetary coordination and an asymmetrical recovery package introducing transfers to the worst affected States. That said, one cannot rule out the Brexit problem, with Europe still under the threat of a sovereign debt crisis, and still tempted by an inward-looking future. However, it is worth noting the attitude of the Von der Leyen Commission with regards to Africa, and the TeamEurope operation, which raised 20 billion euros in early April.

In a political reading of the European response, several points should be borne in mind for the future.

  • The German about-face we are witnessing is impressive. It is striking that this time, Angela Merkel's decision was not a "last-minute" one (see the Greek precedent), and that it has hardly been contested within the country. However, this switch cannot be put down to a conversion of the Chancellor or German politicians to the idea of a more integrated Europe, or even less so to a return to the vision of either Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl. More pragmatically, the triggering factor was the need to conserve productive sectors and markets essential to German industry.
  • In response to the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic, we have seen the same reaction as the one that helped maintain unity among the 27 member states in the Brexit negotiations, namely preserving the single market, which nowadays is the true cement of the European Union, at least on a governmental level. It is not a shift towards a "French-style" understanding of a political Europe, or an all-powerful Europe. It should be noted that Berlin's turnaround would probably have been impossible if the United Kingdom had still been a member of the European Council, because London would undoubtedly have objected to the European Commission's detour to manage German funding plans.
  • Another important lesson: the existing instruments have in fact proved surprisingly flexible, and by and large fit for purpose. In this we perceive a degree of "maturity of the European institutions", as stated in an opinion column in the Le Monde by Hubert Védrine, Luuk Van Middelaar and Pierre Sellal.

Lastly, and maybe more importantly, the public opinion's endorsement of Europe – more particularly in countries like Italy – now depends on the success of the recovery plan, which is still being negotiated, and whose outcome is therefore still uncertain.

The crisis of multilateralism, a reflection of a world without rules

International institutions have clearly not been able to keep up with the crisis. The WHO, too subservient to China, has not fulfilled its role, the Security Council is still crippled by its divisions, and so on. However, we would again warn against making an incorrect assessment.

  • Until now, the track record of multilateralism is more positive than it may seem at times. The two major breakthroughs of 2015 – the New York declaration on the Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change – have continued to be the driving force behind international cooperation, despite the "turnaround" of the Trump administration against the international order. One of the achievements of 2015 – the bridging of the North-South divide – has not been called into question. This, for instance, has enabled the Paris Peace Forum, of which Institut Montaigne is a founding member, to play an important role as a facilitator in the dialogue between the North and the South.

The public opinion's endorsement of Europe now depends on the success of the recovery plan, which is still being negotiated, and whose outcome is therefore still uncertain.

      • China, the United States and Russia have played a key role in undermining the multilateral system, and thus in escalating the crisis it finds itself in today. That is especially true for the collective security institutions created in 1945 by the UN Charter. Europe is now virtually alone in upholding a multilateral architecture that China is attempting to control (and for that matter, to replicate), that the United States currently wishes to destroy, and that is of no interest to Russia, except for when it serves its needs for legitimacy or disorder.

      It is difficult to grasp the disorganization of the international community in the face of Covid-19, without realizing what is behind the crisis of multilateralism: a world without rules, one in which interconnectivity provides the ideal arena for coercion, but without "real powers" actually needing to resort to war. Xi Jinping's "wolf warriors" have fully understood this, and have adopted the model perfected by Putin's Russia, that of a "cold hybrid war", as Dmitri Trenin put it. One telling point: in matters of cybersecurity, the Chinese no longer stop at espionage. During the Covid-19 crisis they have engaged in large-scale misinformation campaigns. The "5G/Huawei" case takes on its real meaning: besides the risk of espionage, the main danger of being dependent on Huawei is enabling a power relationship in which Beijing would be in control of systems crucial to our societies and economies (the essence of "cyber-coercion" -  see on this subject the op-ed by Bernard Barbier, Edouard Guillaud and Jean-Louis Gergorin published in Le Monde on January 28th.).

      A Very Uncertain Horizon

      The first unknown: the geography of power relationships in the post-Covid-19 world

      Even though the virus acts as a clarifier, we should not think that we now have a new world map rendered intelligible by the pandemic. The geopolitics of Covid-19 will only reveal all its effects in the long term, even though it is clear that the current crisis adds a factor of uncertainty to an already disoriented world.

      Even though the virus acts as a clarifier, we should not think that we now have a new world map rendered intelligible by the pandemic.

      This is especially the case for developing countries: the latest World Bank report states that the "massive economic contraction" resulting from Covid-19 will have lasting and profound effects on them (depending on the degree of poverty). It is now reaching the countries of the South, including in Africa. We cannot, for all that, measure these effects, as the virus has not yet run its course.  Neither can we know the long-term impact of the crisis on the balance of power between illiberal regimes and democracies.

      In the Middle East, Covid-19 does not appear to have changed previous balances or imbalances, for the time being. We should nonetheless witness a long-term weakening of oil-producing countries. The region is also expected to suffer the after-effects of changes in global balances: Russia running out of steam (but resolute in pursuing its policies), decreasing American engagement, the rise of China. For instance, we should be prepared for the scenario of a more influential China in the Gulf (closer ties both with Saudi Arabia and Iran), more present in Iraq and on the southern shores of the Mediterranean (Egypt, Algeria). We should also note the growing asymmetry between strongly-hit Iran and Israel, which has more successfully controlled the crisis (and who felt encouraged, as a result, to put its threats into action and annex the West Bank?).

      Among the great powers, Russia is a special case. Despite certain tensions due to the handling of the pandemic, the Russian leaders have for now chosen to echo China’s offensive attitude. In the intensifying Sino-American competition, they are seeking out an opportunity for triangulation, favorable to their diplomatic game. However, the combined effects of falling oil prices, the constitutional hold-up of Vladimir Putin and the country's greater dependence on Beijing should gradually weaken Russia's stance, though not enough for it to lose the ability to cause harm abroad.

      Generally speaking, together with Bruno Tertrais we can consider that Covid-19 is a "trial of weakness" rather than a trial of strength. No power will come out of the crisis stronger than before, but some will be more weakened than others. At the time of writing, four of the BRICS (Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa) seem to be in a sorry state, whereas the "Asian counter-models" (Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan) have the wind in their sails. In total, we don't actually know what new hierarchy of powers could emerge from the current earthquake. The US itself appears to be in a deep existential crisis. The only certainty is that there has been no respite for the crises most threatening to France’s interests (in the Levant, Libya, or the Sahel). To the benefit of the crisis or otherwise, a new danger to our security has appeared: that of Russo-Turkish control over Libya, which has numerous implications, including for migration.

      The second unknown: the American presidential election

      November 3, 2020 would in any case have been a turning point in the world's state of affairs. The challenges it presents have been further intensified by the Covid-19 crisis. Only after the American presidential election in November will we have a clearer picture of the devastated landscape left behind by the virus.

      The crisis, now combined with anti-racist demonstrations, seem to have made Donald Trump's re-election less certain. It has also made the rivalry with China a key issue in the presidential battle. All analyses agree on the fact that, whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins, the competition between the two new superpowers will continue to be the dominant focus of American foreign policy. The Middle East will continue to be a lower priority for Washington. Other elements of continuity seem likely, such as a tendency towards protectionism or a rejection of the principle of military interventions in foreign theaters.

      We know only too well which direction a second Donald Trump term would take: further dismantling of the international order, serious threats to American alliances, a "reset" with Russia, and one cannot rule out surprise agreements cobbled together with Beijing or with other antagonists of the West. We have to admit, however, that so far, President Trump has not made any strategic errors comparable to the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush in 2003, or the non-intervention in Syria under Barack Obama in August and September 2013.

      Covid-19 has raised Trump’s displays of contempt towards the US’s allies to unprecedented levels. It has also provided the occasion for an unusual rebuff by Berlin towards the White House (Angela Merkel's refusal to attend the G7 in Washington). If Trump is re-elected, we could face a pessimistic scenario similar to the one contemplated by Henry Kissinger, where Europe would turn into "an appendage of Eurasia", and America into an isolated "geopolitical island" in the midst of two oceans and no rules. 

      Regarding Joe Biden, the man himself does not embody change. Given the circumstances, he has however understood that he can no longer wage a campaign based on a return to the statu quo ante. In the field of international affairs his experts are known more for their experience than for their creativity. On the Chinese question, the Democratic candidate's advisers do not yet have a unified vision of the exact nature of the competition, or of the strategy to pursue. Regarding geo-economy, Biden's close advisers, like Jake Sullivan, recommend making better use of America's strengths (financial power, "decoupling" with China, sanctions, etc.). We should recall that through the misuse of sanctions, the extraterritoriality of laws or even the role of their intelligence agencies, Americans have – long before Trump – practiced the "culture of coercion", which marks the world's current interconnectivity.

      Covid-19 is a "trial of weakness" rather than a trial of strength: no powers will come out of the crisis stronger than before, but some of them will be more weakened than others.

      In any event, a Democratic administration should try to reconstruct the network of America's alliances, develop a less erratic Chinese policy than Trump's, and embrace international institutions again, at least to some extent. America will not carry as much weight in world affairs as it did ten or fifteen years ago, nor will it still be the "indispensable nation".  However, it could again become an anchor point for a minimum of stability, in an increasingly fragmented and uncertain world, subject to all sorts of tensions after Covid-19.

      France's Room for Maneuver

      A reality check for French foreign policy

      France – and its place in the world – has not escaped the clarifying effect of Covid-19. If only by a contrario proof, the crisis has confirmed the soundness of the guidelines defended by the French President on the need for greater international cooperation, and on greater "strategic autonomy" for Europe on questions of defense, not forgetting major critical infrastructure projects. To these we should now add the health and other sensitive sectors.

      There is a perception that France is now more in the category of Southern Europe countries than in that of Nordic countries.

      Above all, the contrast in track record between France and Germany has prompted many observers to speak of decoupling, which is all the more worrying as it decreases our ability for swift economic recovery. There is a perception that France is now more in the category of Southern Europe countries than in that of Nordic countries. We will discover the extent of the recession and the socio-economic effects it is having on our country (bankruptcies, unemployment, decreasing GDP, etc.) only very gradually.

      The risk of a double scissors effect

      Under these conditions, in the coming months or years, France’s foreign operations risk being faced with an initial scissors effect. France's relative influence could be diminished, without Paris being able to count more on its European partners, which are still far from sharing our vision of the world. We should even expect a dose of Schadenfreude from some of them, or even new claims on the Europeanization of our permanent seat on the Security Council.

      Another scissors effect relates to security questions: terrorist or other threats coming from our environment (more specifically: Libya, the Levant, the Sahel, or even the Balkans) will certainly not disappear. In the meantime, defense budgets – starting with the European Defense Fund – will be under great pressure. However, in parallel, both in Europe and in the United States, attention will be focused on the competition with China and geo-economic challenges, at the expense of geopolitical challenges (the case of the Middle East in particular).

      These two dilemmas underscore the main challenge of our foreign policy in the context of Covid-19: where our mental strategic map focused above all on the "crescent of crisis" and security issues (including Russia), we have to "pivot" towards Asia and the geo-economy. Or rather, we have to accentuate this pivot that obviously already existed, but not enough to respond to current challenges. But as we have just seen, there are still threats to our safety, which could even get worse and expand (cyber-coercion for instance).

      So it is not a question of French leaders replacing a mental map (geo-economic) with another one (geopolitical), but rather of superimposing the two analytical models.

      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:

      Laying down the terms of a new transatlantic contract
      In detail

      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.

      Putting forward a strategy vis-à-vis China
      In detail

      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.

      Recalibrating our European policy
      In detail

      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.

      Reviving a proactive climate change diplomacy
      In detail

      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.

      Engaging a geo-economic pivot
      In detail

      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.

      Reconfiguring our partnerships
      In detail

      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.

      Maintaining the dialog with Russia
      In detail

      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.

      Reassessing some security policies
      In detail

      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).

      Having a long-term vision of multilateralism
      In detail

      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.

      Rethinking our modes of action worldwide
      In detail

      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.

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