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Macron and Multipolarity: Why the French President Might Have a Point

Multipolarity is a popular idea. Instead of chastising Macron for impolitic and disloyal remarks, critics in the United States and Europe would do better to understand what might be driving the French President to reject their own Manichean view of world politics. They might learn something interesting in the process.

French President Macron from 2017. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Whose side is Emmanuel Macron on? For a long time, it appeared as though France was tightly aligned with the United States when it came to balancing against a rising China in the Indo-Pacific. Now, however, Macron has prompted commentators and critics to ask whether Paris can be counted upon to stand shoulder to shoulder with Washington, Taipei, and others in the face of Chinese assertiveness. Is Macron going soft on China?

The catalyst for this recent round of amateur Macronology was an interview given by the French President to Politico. On a plane back from China – a visit that included a lengthy one-on-one meeting with Xi Jinping – Macron rejected the idea that France ought to follow America’s lead in world politics, especially when it comes to handling China and the issue of Taiwanese security. Instead, he suggested, the international community would be better served by a France that could say “non” to its friends and competitors alike.

It is hardly unusual, however, for a French President to make the case for European strategic autonomy. This is a longstanding feature of French foreign policy. Macron himself is on record as supporting the creation of a “true European Army” and cautioning against relying on the United States to ensure transatlantic security. It has never been a secret that Macron would prefer Europe to provide for its own defense and develop capabilities to project military power beyond its borders.

Nor should anyone be surprised that Macron railed against the idea of Europe becoming a “vassal” of the United States. Macron was only repeating what generations of French (and other European) leaders have said before him: that Europe should be treated as a top-tier world power in its own right. This is a fairly tame ambition, and certainly not evidence that France is drifting closer to Beijing.

Finally, it is important not to overstate the significance of Macron’s apparent admission that Taiwanese security is not a core concern of France or the wider European Union. While European leaders might talk a good game on Taiwan, there is little chance that Europe’s armies, navies, and air forces would ever play a significant role in the defense of Taiwan against Chinese aggression. European militaries are too paltry, too distant, and too focused on security threats closer to home. As Elbridge Colby puts it, if there is a war across the Taiwan Strait then “Europe is not going to matter much.”

What is interesting, perhaps, is the extent to which Macron is willing to muse about the possibility and desirability of a multipolar world order in the present context. Again, the ambition for France (or a unified Europe) to cut an independent figure on the world stage is nothing new. But it is notable that Macron wants to make headlines by articulating such aspirations at a moment when Russia is waging a ghastly, unprovoked war in Ukraine that seems to enjoy at least some level of tacit approval in Beijing.

Here, Macron’s critics would seem to have a point. Why could the President not put his yearning for a multipolar world aside for the time being? Would it really be so hard for him to project the image of a West that stands as one against authoritarianism? These are reasonable frustrations. But it is precisely because Macron is willing to make these arguments now, when they are least likely to be popular in allied capitals, that people should take him seriously.

The reality is that Macron’s worldview is far from fringe. He is saying things that many world leaders agree with: that politicians in Washington are fallible, and should not be followed blindly; that a Cold War between the United States and China is a dangerous idea; that the ossification of the world into irreconcilable “sides” would be a bad thing; and that the international system would be a safer place if power and influence were shared among more stakeholders.

Such opinions can seem sacrilegious in the United States, where political leaders have become convinced that international politics is defined by an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. As in 2001, the line in Washington is that the world must choose between “us” (democrats) and “them” (despots). There is no middle ground; no space for those who dare to imagine possibilities for peaceful coexistence between the world’s great powers.

But these framings of the war in Ukraine and geopolitical competition with China are desperately unpopular abroad. This is certainly true in the former Third World, where governments have been reluctant to condemn Putin’s Russia and continue to exhibit real anxiety about an impending US-China Cold War. But Macron’s recent comments are evidence that even card-carrying members of “the West” are uncomfortable with a vision of international order that divides the world into blocs.

On this question, Macron might actually be much closer to the median world leader than his critics would like to believe. He supports Ukraine and opposes Russian aggression – but he refuses to draw a direct link between Putin’s crime of aggression in Europe and the security environment in East Asia. He values partnerships with Western countries – but he does not view these friendships and alliances as depending upon the permanent vilification of Russia and China. He wants a world safe for democracy – but he believes that Europe has something to contribute to this endeavor, too.

Is Macron wrong? Maybe. But he is not alone. Multipolarity is a popular idea. Instead of chastising Macron for impolitic and disloyal remarks, critics in the United States and Europe would do better to understand what might be driving the French President to reject their own Manichean view of world politics. They might learn something interesting in the process.

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

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Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.