Several weeks ago, I was invited to brief officials in a major Central European country conducting a national strategic review in light of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. They asked incisive questions on three geopolitical topics—Russia, China, and the West—moving seamlessly from the big picture to tactics and logistics. The strategy that emerged from the discussion was a variation of a Cold War-era theme: Keep Russia down, the United States in, and authoritarian China out. Deep beneath public statements and contentious debates across the European Union, this view likely represents the core beliefs and strategic outlook on which the majority of policymakers have converged since the Russian attack began in February 2022. When EU foreign ministers meet on May 12 to update Europe’s approach toward China, many of them will likely push some variation of this three-pronged strategy.
Yet there is another, very different outlook that is keeping a common European strategy from coalescing. It was evident from last month’s simultaneous trip to China by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose views could not be more different. Von der Leyen has vocally defended the above formula, if not in those exact words. Macron, on the other hand, appears to have drawn inspiration from another Cold War strategic thread: French President Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy of restoring France’s primacy in Europe, keeping the United States (and its ally, Britain) out of continental affairs, and freely maneuvering with other great powers such as Russia and China. Macron’s pursuit of Gaullism redux—wrapped in phrases such as “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”—risks paralyzing Europe with a French veto against the emerging strategic consensus. Indeed, just as de Gaulle stalled European integration until Paris had its way, Macron has thwarted a genuine EU global strategy from emerging.
Underneath his attention-grabbing rhetoric, Macron’s strategy for Europe is ultimately grounded in a well-established French diplomatic tradition that long predates him: maximizing “France’s strength, influence and independence.” As Macron instructed the country’s ambassadors in September 2022, this is “the primary goal, and sometimes when there is only one goal to follow, that is it.” As much as he talks about European strategic autonomy, that idea is ultimately subordinated to France’s strategic autonomy.
Macron, like de Gaulle, seems to want to be the man in the arena—any arena, as many arenas as possible, and all the time. His energetic and persistent diplomatic outreach—to former U.S. President Donald Trump, former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping—is difficult to explain otherwise. Perhaps the only prominent leader not to have received his attention is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
But for de Gaulle, maximizing French power, including by preserving tactical freedom of maneuver with other great powers, had a clear goal: It was a means of restoring France’s prestige and honor after surrender and collaboration in World War II. Arguably, that mission has been accomplished. France nowadays has plenty of self-confidence, security, wealth, and global attractiveness. It is therefore anachronistic when Macron continues to stress that France has “never been aligned behind or the vassals of any global power” and warns against “becom[ing] vassals.”
It’s a bizarre obsession—no one questions France’s and Europe’s freedom to be the master of their destinies; the only debate is about what strategic choices maximize the interests of European citizens and countries. The current context—Russia’s war and the centrality of the United States and other Western partners to European security—leads quite directly to the two strategic objectives of keeping a neoimperialist Russia down and the United States committed to Europe’s defense and security.
What about China? In previous years, Macron noted China’s “diplomatic genius” for playing on Europe’s divisions and weakening it. He also emphasized the strategic competition between China and the United States as a structural feature of international relations; European countries, in Macron’s view, should stay out and preserve their distance. At the same time, he identified China’s interest in “build[ing] an international order that suits its own interests” instead of the liberal international order that the West—including France—and its partners have built since World War II. He failed to make any public mention of these conflicts during his latest trip to meet with Xi.
Instead, Macron succumbed to China’s divide-and-conquer strategy, as the diplomatic protocol honoring him completely overshadowed European Commission President von der Leyen—serving Xi well, since von der Leyen’s tougher views are known. Macron basked in the attention accorded to him personally and did not present a unified European approach toward China.
Distancing France from the emerging European strategic consensus on China, Macron has committed to developing a “close and solid global strategic partnership” with China, in terms similar to those typically accorded to France’s Western allies, such as the United States. Far from preserving independence or freedom of maneuver, trying to play both sides this way risks making France a pawn in a great power game.
Finally, Macron has now reframed China’s role in the world as equally committed as France to “working together to promote security and stability in the world.” That, of course, ignores China’s no-limits partnership with Russia, its backstop of Russian finances through gas and oil purchases, and its consideration of delivering weapons for Russia to use in Ukraine. China has not yet backed Russia to the extent that it could win in Ukraine, as Beijing may prefer a prolonged conflict that absorbs the West and keeps Moscow increasingly dependent. But Xi also does not want to see Putin lose and may come to his rescue—just as Putin did when he intervened to protect Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2015—if Russia starts to lose significantly on the battlefield. Indeed, 12 years of fighting in Syria suggests that the war in Ukraine may be much longer slog than anyone expects.
Perhaps the key flaw in the French approach is that it strengthens China’s ability to shape the world in its own authoritarian interest, as Macron acknowledged last year, rather than building up strength within the West to ensure that the global order tilts in favor of freedom, democracy, human rights, and inviolable borders. Indeed, von der Leyen’s recent speech on China laid out significant concerns about the rise of an authoritarian power capable of and intent on reshaping the global order on which European democracies rely. Macron’s version of Gaullism—based, like the Cold War-era original, on the idea of a Europe acting between, and perhaps equidistant to, the superpowers—ignores a fundamental truth of the Cold War: It mattered a great deal in terms of life opportunities and outcomes whether a European was born in West or East Berlin, in France or Poland, in Belgium or Bulgaria. Gaullism was only possible because France was in the West.
Just as “Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine,” as Macron conceded after his many failed attempts to impose his rationality on Putin, Europe will only be able to address core strategic challenges in close partnership with the United States and other Western democracies. Alongside its Western partners, Europe can command more than half of the world’s economic might and a predominant share of global military power. This cooperation has allowed Ukraine to sustain its fight against Russia and could similarly deter China from invading Taiwan.
Macron has tried to maneuver like a fox in an attempt to make Europe a lion, but he has alienated much of Europe in the process. The best strategy to achieve France’s objectives is one that can realistically command European support. The only strategic course available to Europe if it seeks to serve its interests in peace, prosperity, democracy, and a global order is to defeat Russia in Ukraine, strengthen the West, and minimize China’s authoritarian influence in Europe. Indeed, this is the emerging consensus in Europe outside France and a few other holdouts, such as Hungary.
It is time for Macron to pivot. Despite the deep roots of his convictions in Gaullism and other French traditions, a shift is possible. French foreign policy can change quickly given its internal centralization, as the recent withdrawal from the Sahel has demonstrated. As Macron reflects on the legacy he will bestow and the endgame he wants to pursue in Ukraine, reorienting his strategy along the lines supported by the rest of Europe can achieve French goals while serving the wider interests of Europe and the West.