Opinion | Macron's rebuke illustrates the delusion of US strategists
By Tom Fowdy
President of France Emmanuel Macron, in concluding his trip to China over the weekend, delivered a series of remarks to the media that can only be interpreted as a stinging rebuke to the United States. Advocating European "strategic autonomy", Macron said that France needs to "lessen its dependence upon the US", avoid getting "caught up in crises that are not ours" and only being "America's followers". The remarks completely overshadowed and derailed Ursula Von der Leyen's attempt to try and "moderate" the trip, and also sent the pro-US analytical community into a meltdown.
The United States has demanded nothing but absolute conformity from "allies" in signing up to its agenda to contain China, not least countries in Europe. It has been the absolute priority of Washington to restructure the global strategic environment into an "us vs. them" ideological arrangement, similar to the previous Cold War, and to effectively create "blocs" with the goal of isolating and confronting Beijing. Over the past few years, the US has devoted much to this effort, in terms of both diplomacy and propaganda and has long sought to undermine Chinese engagement with Europe in the process.
To some extent, this has been successful. As mentioned in a previous article, the United States has been able to use a "divide and rule" strategy to prevent European policy from moving in a coherent or positive direction. For example, it has turned the states of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Czechia and the Baltics, against China. It has been able to weaponize the sentiment of human rights in Xinjiang to bloc the ratification of treaties such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) by creating controversies over sanctions, while as noted above the US also has supporters in Ursula Von der Leyen who wants to push a transatlantic agenda. The Ukraine war has only given momentum to the American cause.
However, it remains likewise true that the United States have readily miscalculated on their ability to systematically isolate and contain a major player the size of China, making assumptions that it can be dealt with the same way as the former Soviet Union, it cannot. In the original Cold War, the USSR was largely an isolated economy which did not operate according to market dynamics and conducted very little trade with the outside world. The Soviet Union was also obsessed with exporting its ideology, which also significantly weakened its diplomatic clout. Due to these factors, the Soviet Union was militarily powerful but it was not a serious economic competitor of the United States on a diplomatic and economic level, making it easy to isolate and outbid.
But China is not the Soviet Union. Over the past 40 years, China has built a mixed market economy built on integration into the global economy and markets, combined with diplomatic pragmatism and non-interventionism. Armed with its population size, this has allowed China to become the largest and most comprehensive trading nation in the world, being the largest importer and exporter, and thus becoming a nexus of the global economy. Unlike the isolated USSR, China is a major diplomatic player, boasting rhetoric of "win-win" which has built lasting partnerships throughout the global south, and has also deeply integrated itself with the economies of western countries, even as the US demands they confront Beijing. To attempt to rewrite this reality into a classic "Cold War" formula would cause unforetold damage.
It is because of these factors that the United States has miscalculated on its ability to diplomatically isolate China, and has overestimated its own capabilities in a changing world, obsessed with clawing back what it perceives to be the divine right of its own unilateral hegemony. As such, not only has Beijing repeatedly demonstrated that it is able to hold its own in the diplomatic arena against the United States, using its newly acquired economic might, but in addition the conformity the US believes it has attained amongst allies is also weaker than it anticipated. While the United States treats Europe as a "domain" and "backyard", France and Germany, leading players of the bloc, are not blind to the reality that American hegemony places them at a distinct disadvantage.
The US after all, destroyed NordStream 2 and has readily sought to undermine the market shares of European companies in advancing its own interests, including in energy, defence and many other sectors, such as stabbing France in the back to create AUKUS, has conducted espionage against European leaders and institutions, yet nonetheless expects absolute loyalty and obedience to their own foreign policy objectives on the premise of ideology. While America's clout over Europe, in terms of culture, history and political and military influence, is undoubtedly strong, this is a hard-sell, and the demand in turn that European nations readily sacrifice their largest market in favour of American goals, is also fundamentally irrational.
As such, Macron has hit back, but does he truly have the political will to realize these goals? Will others follow? The US of course are not about to give up, and it's all much easier said than done, but this is an important shot across the bow that might indicate some in Europe have reached the tipping point when it comes to US hegemony, and is a very painful reminder that the reality the US wants, is nothing compared to the reality of what China is and where it stands.