Macron takes on US, a big gamble even for a bold risk-taker

For President Emmanuel Macron of France, a debacle over a lost submarine deal with Australia suggests that the NATO alliance is debilitated through lack of trust.

French President Emmanuel Macron has gambled big. He has directed his foreign minister to use language not typically associated with diplomacy, let alone diplomacy between allies, in describing American actions: “lies,” “duplicity,” “brutality” and “contempt.” He has recalled the French ambassador to the United States, a first.

Such boldness is in character. That is how Macron became president at the age of 39. He has also recalled French ambassadors to Turkey and Italy during his presidency over perceived insults. The question in the Australian submarine deal that slipped from France’s grasp is: Does the president hold sufficient cards?

In responding to the secretive US-British move to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, a decision that the Australians used to nix the prior French deal, Macron could choose to escalate. One idea doing the rounds in France is for the country to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command structure, which it rejoined in 2009 after a 43-year absence.

But that would be a radical step — whatever Macron’s view, expressed in 2019, that NATO is “brain dead” — and foreign ministry officials discounted the possibility.

Still, that the idea should even circulate suggests the extent of what Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, has called “a grave crisis between us.” France feels humiliated. It will not readily forget what it sees as an American slap in the face, described by the minister as “intolerable.”

Le Drian is in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly, but as yet no meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planned. Macron is not going, in contrast to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will meet with US President Joe Biden.

For Macron, the submarine debacle demonstrates that the NATO alliance is debilitated to the point of dysfunction through lack of trust. The glue has gone. Without transparency — and in the submarine deal there was none — alliance, in the French view, becomes an empty word.

A new ad hoc US-British-Australian partnership — known as AUKUS — to confront a rising China trumped an old alliance whose enemy, the Soviet Union, is long gone. The submarine deal looks to the French like a requiem for alliances in an opportunistic new Asia-centric world of shifting partnerships.

In response, France wants “European strategic autonomy” and “European sovereignty,” pet phrases of Macron, to become a reality.

The case for a united Europe to chart its own course — after the submarine fiasco, after the Afghan mayhem, after President Donald Trump’s dismissiveness of Europe, after Brexit and in light of clear trans-Atlantic differences on China — could scarcely be stronger. For Le Drian, echoing Macron, it’s the only way for Europe to “remain part of history.”

The problem is that the European Union is disunited. The affront to France has on the whole been met with a resounding silence from its European allies, although Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, did tell CNN that “one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable.”

Le Drian has spoken with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, but Germany’s American bond involves no less than the country’s postwar rebirth, something unshakable.

As for central European nations such as Poland and Hungary, they place American protection through NATO far above French interests in the Indo-Pacific. For them, European “sovereignty” is anathema; they want their own, stolen not so long ago by the Soviet Union.

Because the EU’s foreign-policy decisions have to be taken unanimously, these differences matter greatly.

“The submarine deal has reinforced the validity of Mr. Macron’s plea,” said political scientist Dominique Moisi, referring to the president’s quest for a far stronger and more autonomous Europe. “It has also reinforced Mr. Macron’s loneliness. We are right, but we are alone.”

He continued: “Historians may see this as a key turning point. Perhaps the end of NATO is in sight, or at least the marginalisation of NATO in a more dangerous world.”

Macron has some cards he can play. Germany, with its enormous economic interests in China, is as wary as France — perhaps more so — of the confrontational American approach to China favoured by Biden. German bilateral trade with China exceeds America’s trade with Beijing.

A joint French-German approach to China combining engagement with firm criticism of China’s human rights record could be the foundation of a distinctly more conciliatory European stance on the world’s most pressing strategic issue: the rapid rise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surveillance state. In the European view, one Cold War was enough.

France can also argue that it is owed something. Despite reservations, it made an important concession to the United States in June — allowing the inclusion for the first time of a reference to China in the final communique of a NATO summit. The communique said China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”

The submarine deal was harsh payback for that concession, especially as France’s own US$66 billion deal, which has now collapsed, was seen in Paris as a cornerstone of its Asian engagement in favor of what it calls “the freedom and sovereignty of all.”

Biden and Macron will speak in the next several days, according to Gabriel Attal, Macron’s spokesperson. Conciliatory American gestures will help. The easing of US travel restrictions for visitors fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, including those from Europe, removed one major irritant for the French.

History suggests that major French-American crises — over the Iraq War in 2003, over the sudden decision by the Obama administration not to bomb Syria in 2013 — do blow over.

Still, Macron is furious and cannot afford to be seen as soft just over six months from a presidential election. Marine Le Pen, his rightist rival, would jump on that.

Moreover, there appears to be little love lost between Macron and Biden, who has a long memory and was very unhappy about French dissent on the Iraq War.

“The feeling of betrayal is extremely strong,” the recalled French ambassador, Philippe Etienne, told the French daily Le Monde.

The road back for France and the United States will be long. Macron doubts NATO and will almost certainly not be swayed from that skepticism. Whether he has a viable alternative is another matter.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Roger Cohen
Photographs by: Doug Mills

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