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France & Strategic Autonomy: Redefining Europe’s Role in the 21st Century

France & Strategic Autonomy: Redefining Europe's Role in the 21st Century

France’s pursuit of European ‘strategic autonomy’ has ignited debates surrounding the nature of transatlantic relations against the backdrop of shifting global power dynamics. Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has emerged as the vanguard in the effort to redefine Europe’s international role. Macron’s message was unmistakable during his controversial state visit to China in April 2023: Europe must actively reduce its reliance on the U.S. and avoid becoming “America’s followers.” According to Macron, strategic autonomy will secure the EU’s future position as the third superpower in an increasingly multipolar world. However, the concept remains subject to interpretation, and European leaders diverge on the path forward. Furthermore, France’s complex relationship with self-reliance adds a historical dimension to the dialogue, and Macron’s Eurocentric ambitions are the latest manifestation. In light of these factors, examining European strategic autonomy becomes essential in a time when transatlantic unity is more imperative than ever.

In the European context, strategic autonomy comprises the EU’s ability to pursue its national interests, enhance self-reliance, and determine its foreign policy without external pressures. The concept was officially introduced in EU documentation in 2016, initially focusing on defense but gradually expanding to encompass economic, diplomatic, technological, and environmental dimensions. Following World War II, Europe deliberately relied on America’s nuclear umbrella for security, effectively outsourcing defense matters to the U.S. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed European vulnerabilities resulting from decades of underinvestment and neglect in military readiness. Moreover, as the U.S. reorients its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, European policymakers fear that Washington might put the continent’s security on the backburner. Hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration eroded trust within NATO and intensified European calls for increased decision-making capacity and the ability to defend their interests autonomously. Critics argue that pursuing autonomy undermines the transatlantic unity required to confront Russian aggression, especially as Ukraine prepares for its anticipated spring counteroffensive. While proponents of the concept cite numerous motivations, conflicting interests among EU member states make establishing a unified vision challenging. The fundamental difficulty is striking the right balance between safeguarding collective European interests and maintaining military ties with the U.S. under the NATO framework.

While Macron emphasizes strategic autonomy to protect the EU’s long-term interests, France’s vision of European sovereignty reflects its deeply rooted historical, political, and cultural heritage. As the sole nuclear power and the second-largest economy in the EU, France has long aspired for a more prominent role in the continent’s affairs. This aspiration stems from France’s cultural identity as a unique nation and historically predominant European power. However, the reality is more complex, and since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France has consistently strived to reestablish its influence in Europe. While France never regained the military, political, and economic stature it enjoyed during the Napoleonic era, Paris has continuously sought to shape its own destiny by reducing dependencies on external powers.

Napoleon III’s exploits and the disastrous outcome of Franco Prussian War, culminating in a German military parade through the streets of Paris, solidified the belief that France must possess the capability to defend itself independently. Moreover, The alliance entanglements that triggered World War I and France’s rapid surrender in World War II further reinforced the importance of self-reliance. However, President Charles de Gaulle’s policies during the Cold War best epitomized France’s unwavering pursuit of autonomy and increased global prominence. De Gaulle’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1966, driven by dissatisfaction over America’s dominant organizational role, aimed to secure autonomous control over France’s military. Additionally, de Gaulle questioned whether Washington would risk nuclear war with the Soviets for France and developed an independent nuclear deterrent. And today, Paris believes spearheading European strategic autonomy is the most viable avenue to regain its preeminent position on the continent.

While strategic autonomy lacks concrete policy prescriptions, it’s worth exploring potential pathways that policymakers could pursue to achieve an autonomous Europe. A principal concern is the risk posed by Europe’s dual dependency, relying on China for renewable energy resources and the U.S. for military hardware. The military aspect presents the most significant challenge in becoming strategically autonomous, as it necessitates a fully interoperable military force and an independent defense industry, essentially replicating NATO’s primary function. Moreover, Brussels must allocate member states’ contributions towards colossal investments in defense, establishing indigenous supply chains, and developing state-of-the-art capabilities. Addressing the economic implications is equally demanding, such as reducing energy dependence and ensuring self-sufficiency in critical industries of the future. However, the EU currently sources 98% of its rare earth minerals from China and imports 57% of its total energy consumption from foreign suppliers. Additionally, Europe must pursue an industrial policy that promotes advancement in manufacturing and strategic sectors. However, the current industrial output represents only 20% of the EU’s total GDP, underscoring the magnitude of the required transition. A unified diplomatic approach is also crucial if the EU aspires to become the world’s third superpower. However, this assumes the existence of a foreign policy agenda that satisfies all twenty-seven member states­–an endeavor that appears to border on impossibility.

While Macron boldly claims to have already “won the ideological battle on strategic autonomy” in Europe, the continental reactions to his Chinese excursion suggest otherwise. Eastern European countries, which consider American troop deployments critical for their sovereignty, express less optimism about Macron’s efforts. Specifically, Macron’s statement cautioning European nations against becoming involved in “crises that are not ours” concerning Taiwan drew condemnation from both politicians and commentators in former Soviet satellite states. One geopolitical strategist contested this on Twitter, asking, “What would have happened to Europe if the U.S. had said the same about Russia’s war against Ukraine?” While Western European leaders display more sympathy for the core principles of strategic autonomy, they disagree with Macron’s conciliatory approach toward China. Across the Atlantic, Washington supports the idea of European military self-sufficiency. Not only would this reduce the NATO burden for Washington, but the U.S. also desires strong and capable partners in the emerging multipolar order. However, America’s grand strategy primarily focuses on countering China, and Macron’s position on the Taiwanese issue raises concerns in Washington. Meanwhile, China enthusiastically endorses Macron’s rhetoric, as it perceives strategic autonomy as a means to undermine transatlantic unity and fracture the coalition Washington seeks to build to tackle its growing influence.

In conclusion, strategic autonomy aims to position the EU at the forefront of international politics amidst the end of American unipolarity. The concept includes bolstering defense capabilities, mitigating dependencies, strengthening economic resilience, and establishing a cohesive diplomatic approach. France’s advocacy for self-reliance highlights the various historical, political, and cultural motivations influencing each nation’s stance on the issue. But the lack of consensus on a strategically autonomous Europe suggests that comprehensive reforms and policy implementations are decades away. Even if the EU pursues strategic autonomy, it’s unlikely to unfold according to Macron’s vision. Nonetheless, a transatlanticist president like Biden recognizes the benefits of a stronger Europe with reduced vulnerabilities, provided the EU actively collaborates with Washington’s efforts to counter China. Ultimately, bridging ideological gaps and championing a shared vision is critical for realizing a strategically independent Europe that would hopefully strengthen the continent and preserve the integrity of the transatlantic alliance.