NICOLAS TENZER, PARIS
How is French foreign policy made? Which institutions must be strengthened—or created—to put it on a more consistent footing? An insider explains.
Alliances require a common narrative, and France can play a leadership role in these alliances if it is a principled power. In speeches before the UN General Assembly in September 2017 and September 2018, Emmanuel Macron invoked his support of people who are fighting for their freedom. He did so again recently, in Lithuania, supporting Belarusian demonstrators. He made the case for the universality of human rights, and took a clear stand against moral relativism and those who see these rights as a merely Western notion. These speeches lifted spirits, and particularly, the spirits of those in France who supported him because they share these values.
But Macron’s verbal blunders, and his deviations from the very principles he has articulated, have been dismaying. He condemned in no uncertain terms Assad’s crimes against humanity, but his actions against the regime in Damascus were limited. At first, he portrayed Russia as a partner in Syria, particularly in discussions of humanitarian relief, despite Russia’s war crimes and Putin’s unyielding support for Assad. His hopes for Russia’s cooperation have been, predictability, doused in cold water. He also suggested that Moscow, through the OSCE, could be a partner in resolving the crisis in Belarus, despite Moscow’s aid to the Lukashenko regime and the Kremlin’s control of Belarusian state media. Again, he was forced to abandon this unrealistic position.
Macron’s recent interview with CBS, broadcast on April 18, illustrates the predilection for equivocation that characterizes his foreign policy. It was marked by his signature phrase “en même temps,” meaning “at the same time,” which he used extensively during his 2017 presidential campaign. (France must have social solidarity and, en même temps, a free market; the state must be interventionist and, en même temps, embrace free enterprise; France must be tolerant and, en même temps, fearless in affirming its values.)
In the CBS interview, he properly called for a firm discourse toward Russia in the face of its massive deployment of troops to the Ukrainian border and within Ukraine, in the Donbass and Crimea, which has been illegally annexed since 2014. He advocated new sanctions, which is the proper stance. He even went so far as to speak of “red lines.” He did not specify these red lines, however, presumably to preserve strategic ambiguity or to avoid seeing them promptly flouted, as in Syria. En même temps, he called for discussions with Putin’s regime, even though these have never led to anything but the weakening of our position, and there is no reason to think this reality has changed.
More surprisingly, Macron accused others of naïveté about the Russian regime. He intimated that he had not been naïve, but other countries, which he did not name, had suffered from this affliction. Obviously, the term naïve might, charitably, describe such EU member states as Germany, Italy, Austria, and in particular Hungary. But most of our allies in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Nordic countries would respond that the term applies in equal measure (and with equal charity) to France.
One wonders, too, whether the Kremlin, as the French president again implied, can truly contribute to the resolution of crises—from Syria to Belarus, from Ukraine to any number of African countries—when it has been the main instigator of these crises. In any event, Macron’s plan for a new “architecture of security and trust” with Russia, whatever that meant, is now dead—fortunately.
Contradicting his speeches at the UN, Macron has criticized “the fetishization of human rights.”In French, he criticized “droit-de-l’hommisme,” literally, “rights-of-man-ism.” The pejorative neologism suggests an excessive fixation on human rights at the expense of common sense or the … Continue reading He was slow to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by Beijing against the Uighurs, even if he did ultimately do so, and firmly. He offered only weak support to Hong Kong’s democracy activists. The asylum he offered to refugees was timid compared with Germany’s.
He spoke firmly to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi about human rights during his January 2019 visit to Egypt. He put all his weight behind the campaign for Oleg Sentsov’s release, too. But since then, he appears to have lost ideological coherence. In December 2020, Sisi was awarded France’s highest distinction, the Grand-Croix of the Légion d’Honneur. This is a customary protocol on state visits, but human rights activists were outraged. Macron’s sincere support for the Belarusian opposition wasn’t accompanied by financial support to these figures or by support to Belarusian civil society organizations, free media, and universities. Nor did France provide asylum to Belarusian activists and students as publicly as Lithuania and Poland did.
He has at times returned to the path of moral coherency, as during his speech to the UN on September 22, 2020, but his speeches have not led to the actions one might expect. Even his rhetoric is sometimes subtly off. For example, he properly condemned Azeri aggression and Turkish support for it in Nagorno-Karabakh, but he missed the opportunity to condemn the use of prohibited weapons. France joined the rest of the world in acquiescing to Russia’s insertion of troops into both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It had no real choice: During the final months of the Trump Administration, Washington was missing in action, and without US involvement, it was impossible to prevent this outcome.
But rhetoric still matters. Echoing the Minsk Group, France condemned the arrival of Syrian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh. But these were mercenaries, properly speaking, not jihadis; by calling them “jihadis,” France mimicked the rhetoric of the Russian and Syrian regimes.
This rhetoric is a major source of concern in its own right, and especially rich coming from the Kremlin, given its surpassing responsibility for the Syrian chaos.
The President’s north star in foreign policy, his most significant impulse, has been his engagement with Europe. Engaging with Europe, however, demands restoring the coherency of his impulses. He must grasp that the plight of the Belarusian people, of Russian and Chinese dissidents, of demonstrators in Hong Kong, and in Lebanon (where Macron did clearly take the side of the demonstrators against the entrenched political elites) are all aspects of the same struggle, despite the great diversity of these situations.
Some argue that no foreign policy can be entirely coherent. Tactical alliances, they hold, despite the challenge they pose to black-and-white thinking, are necessary; the demand for consistency is a straitjacket, and foreign policy requires room to maneuver. But while this pragmatic attitude has solid support in history, is it still relevant? Set aside, arguendo, economic and commercial considerations. If we can’t bring ourselves to criticize friendly countries, or ones that are in some way useful to us (the Gulf States, who are our allies against Iran, the region’s worst threat, come to mind) in the same way we do our adversaries, we give the impression of inconsistency and hypocrisy.
Why does this matter? It is indispensable now to have consistent principles, and to be seen to have them, for three reasons. First, without them, we cannot draw the public’s attention to the behavior of rogue states. The public’s support is a prerequisite to any legitimate action in the world, an imperative that increases as the legitimacy of governments declines.
Second, in Europe, law and power are intrinsically linked. We cannot move toward a more powerful Europe without justifying this development in the law.
Finally, even though these dictatorships and criminal regimes compete with one another, they form a grouping of historically and territorially revisionist powers, a revisionist Internationale. Indeed, their revisionism is an instrument of war—hybrid war, in the term of art—against those who stand against them seeking freedom. We see it at work from Syria to Belarus, from Venezuela to Myanmar. Those seeking freedom compose another international grouping; we may call them an Internationale of liberty.
In the face of these major international threats, the French president must raise the public’s awareness. These debates cannot remain on the margins of politics. It is a welcome sign that elected officials are growingly engaged with significant international issues, from Belarus to Chinese internment camps to the defense of Hong Kong’s special status to human rights violations in Iran. This attention is all the more essential because states hostile to freedom are waging war against democratic norms on our own soil; they shape public opinion by supporting movements that create disorder, stir up trouble, and promote the most extreme parties.
REDISCOVERING THE REALITY PRINCIPLE
Crisis has prompted the French president to rediscover the Reality Principle, as he himself recognized when he spoke of “the tragedy of history.” Contrary to the idealistic notion that the threat of authoritarian regimes may be made to disappear, either by negotiation or through economic development (development has become a fetish, too, one often contradicted by the evidence), realism consists in recognizing the severity of threats and giving oneself ample means to fight them. For French policy, this means changing the software in four key respects.
First, in the conduct of diplomacy, we must grasp that the regime is always more important than the state, and its actions now more important than ancient history. If a head of state seeks to grasp reality, he or she must first understand the dynamics and the specific ideology of regimes—a point we have understood since Aron.Raymond Aron, the great French scholar of international relations, is best known to the Anglophone world for his 1955 book, The Opium of the Intellectuals. Marxism, in his view, was the opiate. Russia does not exist, in the abstract, on the international scene, without Putin’s regime. Nor does China exist without the regime of Xi Jinping, nor Turkey without Erdoğan’s regime. Invoking the great figures of Russian literature or music, the thousand-year-old civilization of China, or the splendors of Isfahan is of little use when dealing with the dangers posed today by Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. It serves merely to reproduce the rhetoric of these.
If a regime’s actions are hostile, we must strengthen the forces opposed to it, particularly the political opposition. We must do so not merely because our principles demand it, but because it is in our interest to do so. We must, especially, do much more to assist the political groups, NGOs, and media who are fighting for freedom.
This may include supporting countries, recognized or unrecognized, and particularly Taiwan, which deserves much more of our solidarity because, for now, it is the only democratic China. In today’s international landscape, politics must take precedence over geographic and historical considerations. We cannot accept the old notion of great power politics, wherein the most powerful nations are worth more than the “small nations” Milan Kundera described. In the same spirit, we must support Kyiv, attacked by Moscow; and Taipei, threatened by Beijing, without the rhetorical deflection to “both sides” typical of our diplomatic language. Here, as elsewhere, Europe must not seek a so-called balance.
Second, we must beware the trap of believing that our adversaries are as rational as we are. We tend to equate rationality with interests. But interests are not merely material, economic, or linked to a certain geopolitical disposition. They include values—another point Aron emphasized half a century ago. Our values include peace, law, justice, freedom, and democracy. Some regimes share none of these values; they exploit multilateral organizations and wage propaganda wars—if not outright wars—within democracies so better to besmirch these values and render them obsolete.
Our hierarchy of interests is not theirs; striving to hold discussions with them based on our shared sense of rationality is not only senseless, but diplomatically futile. We must grasp how they perceive their interests accurately if we wish our inducements and our sanctions to work.
THE ILLUSION OF STABILITY
Third, we must be vigilant against the temptation to focus on so-called stability and prioritize what has been termed an “eradicationist” policy.The term comes from the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. The éradicateurs—the eradicators—were a faction of the Algerian ruling class who rejected any compromise with Islamist politicians … Continue reading Short-term stability can endanger longer-term stability, especially when it leads us to support dictatorships that are doomed eventually to collapse under the weight of popular pressure. The pursuit of stability above all tends to establish a peace that enshrines domination and subjugation, or freezes a conflict in place. It is thus neither truly peaceful nor stable. For very different reasons, it would not be stabilizing to reach an agreement on the Donbass that rewards Russian aggression, nor one that acquiesces to Assad’s seizure of Idlib, nor one that accedes to the domination of Libya by Haftar’s forces. Ending a conflict is not a goal in and of itself.
In all these cases, a peace of this kind would legitimize the victory of a large, hostile state. This would be to the detriment, in Ukraine’s case, of a smaller country struggling for freedom and integrity. It would be to the detriment, in Syria, of international criminal law, for it would make it even more difficult to bring Assad, who has committed crimes against humanity, to trial. It would be to the detriment, in Libya and Syria alike, of real security in the longer term.
Essential though the fight against all forms of terrorism may be, an eradicationist policy cannot replace foreign policy or the reform of existing governments. Assad’s objective alliance with terrorist movements has been demonstrated; his utter destruction of Syria is a godsend for the terrorist groups of tomorrow; beyond that, the limits of eradicationist policy in Algeria, in the Tunisia of Ben Ali, and today, in Sisi’s Egypt, are clear. If we adopt the discourse of the dictators of these countries, in whose lights the choice is between tyranny and Islamist terrorism, and who have translated this discourse into the repression, above all, of democratic movements, we will have lost everything—our principles and our security alike. In the Sahel, and particularly in Mali, an eradicationist policy is a tool exploited by ineffective incumbent governments to stay in power. It doesn’t necessarily improve our long-term security, nor our understanding of the local landscape.
The fourth rule concerns the destiny of Europe. In the past, we failed to think of Europe as a power; we saw it, according to a rather French doctrine, as a balance of power. Now that the desire to endow Europe with the attributes of a power has become widespread, some continue to seek a balance of power—an antique notion whose relevance to the contemporary world remains to be demonstrated. Proponents of this idea believe Europe should not only ensure a balance of power between the United States and China, but act as a mediator in any conflict between the largest powers, be they in Europe itself, or the Middle East, or even in Asia. Sometimes, this geography-enchanted vision—which is strategically incoherent under current conditions—places Russia in Europe. It’s a vision in which the European Union practices a kind of subtle equidistance so better to ease conflicts and contribute to a more stable international order. Somehow, according to this vision, the EU should practice a mix of commitment and neutrality. But any Europe that means to be a power in its own right must respect two principles that contradict this idea of a balance of power.
DEFINING ITS OWN PATH
The first principle is respect for alliances, both within Europe and outside of it. Solidarity always trumps neutrality.
The second takes the form of an affirmation: Europe does not need to define itself “in relation to” anyone, and it doesn’t need an internal balance of power. It defines itself in relation to its principles and it acts accordingly. In particular, Europe does not have to define itself in relation to the United States. It need not seek distance from the United States on principle. It should seek convergence with Washington when it is in line with Europe’s security interests, especially in the face of the systemic dangers posed by Moscow and Beijing today. It should express difference only if it genuinely disagrees.
It is critical that France retain the ability to define its own path without compromising its principles, and it is in this context that we should assess Emmanuel Macron’s call for European strategic autonomy. He may envision this as a hedge against the risk of the withdrawal of the United States. In the best-case scenario, he may envision it as a path to strengthen the Atlantic Alliance.
Had Trump been re-elected, and had he demonstrated, as expected, increased subservience toward Putin—up to and including withdrawing the United States from NATO—Europe would have had to transform the alliance into a European organization. It is very far from being one. With Biden’s election, we must gratefully consider the Atlantic Alliance our only true bulwark against threats and strengthen it. It will be a long time before Europe is able to offer security guarantees as powerful as Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. France must invest more thought, and also determination, to mitigate the risk of the “brain death” of the Alliance.
If European strategic autonomy emerges, it may involve something beyond NATO, which remains a purely defensive alliance. The value of strategic autonomy could be imagined, for example, by recalling our situation in 2013, when Barack Obama refused to enforce his red lines in Syria following the chemical attacks on Ghouta. Had Europe some form of strategic autonomy, it could have intervened alone. This counterfactual serves to illustrate the positive potential of the term. But for its defense, Europe will continue to rely on NATO, whatever its future form.
Here we return to the question of timescales. We must have a long-term vision for strengthening, one way or another, our ability to defend ourselves. Structures are less important in this than capacity, and rhetoric less important than resolve. We can imagine a future in which Europe is reconciled with a more democratic Russia; indeed, this is devoutly to be hoped. But this prospect, by definition uncertain and even chimerical, must not distract us from the immediate tasks before us, nor from scenarios that are alas more likely and their implications for our defense. Still less should such pleasant chimeras lead us to join the rhetorical chorus of our adversaries and weaken our alliances.
Nicolas Tenzer is a senior French civil servant and the founding president of the Paris-based independent think tank, Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’Action politique (Center for Study and Research for Political Decision). An expert and author on foreign policy and security, he has written three official reports for the French government. He is a guest professor at Sciences-Po Paris.
This essay is based upon a French original published in The Conversation.
|↑1||In French, he criticized “droit-de-l’hommisme,” literally, “rights-of-man-ism.” The pejorative neologism suggests an excessive fixation on human rights at the expense of common sense or the national interest. The utterance of the phrase inevitably indicates the utterer is up to his neck in something foul. Jean-Marie Le Pen adopted the term enthusiastically in 1997, as did many figures on the right; but so did the former Socialist Party foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, who suggested in an interview with a Swiss news weekly that fixating upon human rights was racist: “These days, Western governments believe themselves charged with an almost evangelical mission. They see themselves invested with a special role, one that rather recalls the ‘white man’s burden’ Kipling so admired.”|
|↑2||Raymond Aron, the great French scholar of international relations, is best known to the Anglophone world for his 1955 book, The Opium of the Intellectuals. Marxism, in his view, was the opiate.|
|↑3||The term comes from the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. The éradicateurs—the eradicators—were a faction of the Algerian ruling class who rejected any compromise with Islamist politicians (including allowing them to take power when they won elections); they supported the eradication, by force, of militant groups, and refused to hold talks with their envoys. The opposing faction was known as the dialoguists, or dialoguers, who believed the only way out of the conflict was dialogue and national reconciliation.|