France, Striving for Global Power, Still Struggles to Get It
For France, this week’s geopolitical drama — its nixed submarine sale to Australia, and its furious response to the United States’ jumping the deal — encapsulates a problem the once-mighty nation has struggled with for decades: how to assert itself as an independent power, which French leaders see as essential, while maintaining the alliances on which they know France relies.
Reconciling that dilemma between independence and reliance has animated and bedeviled French strategy ever since World War II left most of Europe subjugated to foreign superpowers.
Though Americans sometimes see French willfulness as animated by vanity or a desire to reclaim long-lost imperial pride, French leaders are keenly aware that they lead a medium-sized power in a world dominated by larger ones.
The planned submarine sale follows a long line of moves calibrated to project French power, maintaining the country’s ability to steer its own fate, while aligning with the allies whose help Paris knows it needs, paradoxically, to stand on its own.
But losing the contract highlighted the difficulty of achieving both. So did France’s response. Recalling its ambassador to Washington was meant to show that it was not afraid to stand up even to allies. At the same time, in seeking European support against the perceived American betrayal, Paris demonstrated that it feels compelled to seek outside support even in this.
“For the French, independence has always meant autonomy,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
“But that has never been 100 percent independent. What matters is that it’s 99 percent independent,” he said, but he added that this brings “fundamental tensions” that cannot be resolved so much as managed.
The history behind why French leaders feel they must try anyway, and the challenges they have faced ever since, both underscore why this week’s events so infuriated Paris.
An Independent Streak
The war and its aftermath, which left Europe divided between American and Soviet forces and saw Washington exerting new pressure on its now-junior allies, many of which it also militarily occupied, convinced the French that accepting a future as one of many in an American-led alliance, as the British and West Germans had, would mean subjugation.
The arrival of the nuclear era, with its threat of total annihilation, convinced the French that they would have to secure their own way in the world, even if it would sometimes upset the allies whose help they would need to do it.
Charles de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969, sought Washington’s help in unifying Western Europe against the Soviets. But he also undermined U.S. influence at every turn, the better to assert French leadership instead.
He oversaw France’s emergence as a nuclear power, ejected American troops from France,withdrew from NATO, and tried to persuade West Germany to loosen its ties to that same alliance.
“The fact that he did this while expecting continued protection of the NATO alliance only added to the Americans’ exasperation,” the historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote.
In 1967, de Gaulle commissioned a report exploring a nuclear strategy called “defense in all directions” capable of “intervening anywhere in the world.” It was a bold statement of global ambition, built on a wholly self-made deterrent.
But in practice, France’s nuclear posture was simultaneously “national” — designed to deter the Soviets with no outside help — and grudgingly “recognized, if tacitly, the relationship between the decried American deterrent and the French one,” the scholar Philip H. Gordon wrote.
Nuclear strikes were designed to support an expected American intervention and, if necessary, to compel it through escalation — a fitting summary of France’s ambition to simultaneously support, act apart from and coerce the Americans.
It is a formulation more complex than independence: It acknowledges and even exploits reliance on the United States. And it is a pattern that France has followed ever since, with no less a sense of existential stakes, up through this week’s events.
As the era of nuclear standoffs has faded, France has shifted to more contemporary tools. It leverages its United Nations Security Council seat to act as diplomatic peer to the major powers. It sends peacekeepers to global hot spots. And it sells sophisticated weapons abroad.
“That independent streak, the Gaullist streak that has led to nuclear weapons independence, is true in the commercial realm, also,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist.
“Their fingerprints were all over every country of concern during the Cold War,” he added, referring to new nuclear states like Israel and India.
Arms exports bring France a direct military relationship to strategically placed states and independently minded powers, particularly in Asia, including India and Vietnam.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has sought a more supportive approach than de Gaulle. Though he signed on to an E.U. trade deal with China, he has otherwise aligned with the U.S.-led push to contain it, exerting pressure within Europe and supply arms to like-minded countries abroad.
“We tried, from our point of view, with the submarine contract, to develop an autonomous but not disconnected contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Tertrais said. “It was meant as a positive contribution by two medium powers for a common agenda.”
“The French have been ruthless in their arms dealings in the past,” Mr. Narang said. While he understood Paris’s rage, he added, “When somebody else plays this same game, the French get upset.”
The withdrawal of France’s ambassador might seem like a diplomatic tantrum. But it follows that same longstanding strategy. As de Gaulle reasoned, few things demonstrate a willingness to assert interests independent from Washington’s like a diplomatic thumb in the Americans’ eye.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, has sought to muster a wider backlash, telling a French news station that European nations must unite to defend their collective interests, even from the Americans.
But Mr. Macron is so far struggling to land a major blow against the Americans.
It highlights the challenge in his 21st-century update on Gaullism: cultivating a unified Europe that can stand as peer to the U.S. or China. This was supposed to bring France, as informal leader, a vehicle for its ambitions and, for all Europe, escape from American dominance.
“France’s ask is a big one: It wants these countries to switch to seeing it and not the U.S. as their protector,” Ben Judah, a British-French analyst at the Atlantic Council, tweeted.
And this mission is complicated by the same independent streak and global ambitions that motivate it in the first place. French insistence on approaching Russia as a fellow major power and U.N. Security Council member, for instance, rankles European states and undercuts hopes of unity.
“That tension is very hard to resolve,” Mr. Tertrais acknowledged. “I’m not sure it can be resolved.”
Europe’s so-far muted response to French appeals for unity, like so many moments in the past week, is a reminder that the contradictions within France’s reliant-but-independent, European-but-global, first-among-peers strategy will inevitably come bursting out.
The struggle to manage those contradictions anyway is not a new one, for Paris or Washington.
In 1992, Mr. Gordon, the scholar of French politics, wrote that disputes amid the First Gulf War showed “the limits to its supposed independence.”
Both capitals had come away desiring greater alignment on global matters, if only for their shared values and agendas.
But doing so would not be possible unless “both sides go out of their way to reassure the other,” wrote Mr. Gordon, who is discovering exactly how difficult that can be in his current job, as deputy national security adviser at the White House.