Strategic Autonomy:

InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion on Thursday, 18 May 2023, entitled "Strategic Autonomy: How France Sees the Future of EU-US Relations." The panel featured Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and Associate Research Fellow at the French Institute of International Relations. The discussion focused on how the concept of "strategic autonomy" developed in France as well as the historical context and main components of this policy.

An Ambiguous Concept

The panel discussion began by stating that debates were underway about the policy of "strategic autonomy" in various contexts. It spoke about the historical origins of this policy, including the following points:

1. Lack of a clear definition for "strategic autonomy": There is not a clear definition for strategic autonomy. The term was ambiguous and that there was a lack of consensus on what it specifically means. There was a publication issued two years ago by two US and French authors that dealt with the concept. This pair of researchers defined "strategic autonomy" as the ability to independently plan for and execute military operations, as well as developing and strengthening defense capabilities with as little foreign involvement as possible.

2. "Strategic autonomy" not limited to military sphere: The above definition provided a clear enough framework and that Europe, and especially France, hopes to deal with global crises without US involvement. While the above perspective on the concept is a good starting good point, it also has some limitations, since it defines strategic concerns as limited to military affairs and the ability to launch military operations.

3. Concept began to circulate a decade ago: The panel discussion noted that "Strategic autonomy" was not a new concept. The term first emerged approximately ten years ago in the context of discussions about European defense capabilities. Debate at that time was focused on the fact that Europe wanted to strengthen its defense capabilities in order to achieve greater strategic autonomy.

4. Roots can be traced back to de Gaulle: Although the term first appeared a decade ago, it can be traced back to the era of former French President Charles de Gaulle. de Gaulle had wanted France to be independent from Europe. This was in the context of the bipolar international order during the Cold War. With the world split between the Soviet Union and the US, Europe had no choice but to side with Washington.

de Gaulle was afraid the French alliance with Washington after World War II had become a "zero-sum game." He was aware that all defense pacts and other agreements had been brushed aside when war broke out. That was why de Gaulle was concerned about relying fully on the US for French security, even if Paris still wanted to maintain close cooperation with Washington. This was a key aspect of de Gaulle’s strategy throughout his time in office, i.e., until the 1960s.

5. De Gaulle’s legacy influenced later heads of state: This earlier legacy resonates strongly with Macron’s policy today, particularly over the past two years. There are two main currents in French foreign policy today. On the one hand, there is "Gaullo-Mitterandism," which builds on de Gaulle and former President François Mitterrand’s conceptions of strategic autonomy. This means avoiding excessive reliance on Washington while at the same time preserving good relations across the board. The second approach is known as "Atlanticism," in which France’s policies mirror those of the US, and in which France seeks as close an alliance with the US as possible. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy fell into this latter camp.

Military Leadership

The panel discussion discussed French military objectives regarding the policy of strategic autonomy, including the following:

1. Maintaining independent mechanisms for French nuclear deterrence: France wants to preserve autonomous mechanisms for nuclear deterrence. This approach began before de Gaulle’s time but had ramped up after that era. The US has repeatedly tried to convince French governments not to invest in nuclear deterrents, arguing that this would bankrupt the French economy. They suggested that France split the cost of deterrents with the US, as Italy and others had done.

The French government turned down any involvement from Washington on this issue. Instead, it shouldered the heavy economic burdens of investing in deterrents on its own. The French nuclear deterrence in 2023 takes different forms than in the past, and that it currently includes two main components: four ballistic missile submarines which provide second strike capability, and Rafale fighter aircraft, which are also nuclear-capable.

2. Bolstering French defense and military industries: France wanted to invest in nuclear weapons, which had strained its economy. With regard to military and defense industries, France is considered a mid-range power which is able to manufacture many kinds of weapons on its own, such as the Rafale fighter aircraft. These industries play a crucial role in achieving strategic autonomy, since it means that France is not dependent on the US government in this regard. For example, France does not have to wait for Congressional approval in order to access these kinds of weapons technologies.

3. Potential to use military capabilities abroad: French military capabilities were not limited to affairs within its own borders. France possesses the capability to use this force elsewhere in the world, if that were to become necessary. The strongest components of French military capabilities were its naval forces, including the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French navy. These defense capabilities are linked to the strategic autonomy of the French army. It is worth noting that all military operations France has launched over the last decade occurred as part of an alliance, either NATO or the EU.

An Economic Boost

The panel discussion indicated that there were economic motivations driving Macron’s policy of strategic autonomy, including the following:

1. Macron aims to boost domestic industry: Macron is particularly concerned with economic affairs since he was previously minister of economics and had also worked as a banker. Most European countries as well as other nations have prioritized domestic manufacturing as a key tool for achieving strategic autonomy. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has continuously promoted the "Make in India" initiative.

2. Reduce economic dependence on China: France aims to strengthen domestic manufacturing to create new jobs, but that this went beyond addressing unemployment. It also aims to develop manufacturing without Chinese involvement, or at least to reduce dependence on China. This makes logical sense, since several European countries have become entirely dependent on sensitive resources from China.

This does not mean that France will pursue a complete or sudden break with China, since that would cause more economic damage. Instead, the objective is to establish parameters on imports from China, such as regulating semi-conductor imports through the European Chips Act. Macron is passionate about this issue and has constantly mentioned this act whenever he has discussed strategic autonomy.

3. Mitigate fallout from allies’ economic activities: Strategic autonomy has direct ramifications for EU-US relations. The Inflation Reduction Act, which the Biden administration passed last year, is currently a major topic of debate. This law aims to support the US economy and its partnerships in order to curb inflation and to promote technologies that mitigate climate change, particularly regarding investment in electric cars.

This act had huge repercussions for European manufacturers, especially car manufacturers. The act has been seen as unfriendly towards against Europeans and will have major economic consequences for Europe, which could potentially be removed from this market. During a recent visit by Macron to the US, most discussions focused on this issue and how it would affect EU-US relations, particularly in the economic sphere.

Flexible Diplomacy

France had a series of diplomatic objectives it hopes to achieve through strategic autonomy, including the following:

1. Maintaining France’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council: There were several key issues in the diplomatic sphere, including France’s interest in maintaining its permanent seat in the UN Security Council. If this status were evaluated based on the relative size of France’s population, land area, or economy, other countries could take France’s place. For example, India has a much larger population that France, and several other countries have larger economies.

2. Avoiding being caught in great power rivalries: Macron has also tried to cast France as a "puissance d’équilibre"—a balancing power that will not antagonize other countries. Instead of getting caught up in the great power rivalry between the US and China, France seeks to balance between these powers. There was some French resistance to keeping NATO as a key security actor in Europe. In 2019, Macron described NATO as "brain dead."

3. Adopting divergent political stances from those of allies: This issue applies to French policy in the Indo-Pacific region. France, Germany, and the Netherlands were the only countries that have sent naval forces to this region. Meanwhile, France and the UK are the only countries (other than the US) to have sent naval forces to the Taiwan Strait, which sends a clear message to China. Macron stated after his most recent visit to China that the crisis in Taiwan was not France’s crisis, and that France should not adopt the stances of other countries. By this, he was specifically referring to the US and China, and implying that Europeans needed to develop their own position on the Taiwan crisis.

Major Obstacles

President Macron faced various challenges to pursuing this policy of strategic autonomy, including:

1. Gap between France’s ambitions and capabilities: The US would not embrace strategic autonomy, but that the concept had found significant traction elsewhere since there are many countries that do not want to choose between the US and China. This is partially due to economic interdependence with China. There were also limitations to strategic autonomy as a policy given the gap between France’s objectives and current capabilities, as well as challenges with credibility.

2. Some countries reject France’s policy of non-alignment: The establishment of the AUKUS security pact had also shaped the French policy of strategic autonomy regarding its defense industries. Australia had seemed to reject partnerships with France after canceling a submarine deal. These developments indicated that some countries opposed the French policy of non-alignment in the Pacific Ocean, and that Australia preferred to follow US stances on the issue.

3. Limited French influence abroad: Africa was a good example of the limitations of French foreign policy, and that Paris had ended its operations in the African Sahel region. What had happened in the Sahel over the last ten years indicated that French influence was receding, but that this did not mean that France could not play certain diplomatic or military roles in various areas of the world.

4. Resistance to Paris’s plans towards the EU: The only way for France to increase its standing in the international order is through the EU. In particular, the EU would need to give France a boost in order for it remain a powerful actor in diplomatic and economic spheres. This would also result in implicit support from other EU member states for the French policy. However, many eastern European countries do not want to strengthen the EU in this way because they feel that this is just French maneuvering to exploit the EU to bolster its own leadership role.

5. Divergent French and EU perspectives on autonomy: France is the European country that is most attached to the policy of strategic autonomy. Paris’s approach to strategic autonomy reflects differences between French and EU perspectives on this policy. Macron spoke about strategic autonomy in the context of Taiwan on behalf of other European powers, even though many European governments distanced themselves from his remarks, which they consider to only reflect the French point of view.

In conclusion, the panel discussion stated that France was facing various domestic challenges to foreign investment, particularly regarding tax incentives. The opposition had challenged many of these initiatives and called for plans to be halted until they could be certain that Macron has not given special favors to global corporations. Despite all these obstacles, France had been on the right financial path in recent years, and that it led the EU in direct foreign investment.