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Opinion World

Le Vide: Can France Fill the Void Left by the U.S.?

Europe is flirting with fascism; tensions with Iran have reached a boiling point; violence against civilians in Afghanistan continues unabated; disarmament treaties with Russia are expiring; and climate change threatens humanity’s earthly existence.

Though the United States cannot be held responsible for every one of these catastrophes, the birthplace of the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely retreated from its global leadership position under the administration of President Donald Trump. China, with its Belt and Road Initiative, its swelling economy, and its growing diplomatic apparatus, looks likely to fill that role. However, another, if improbable, candidate may take the U.S.’s place in global leadership: France. French President Emmanuel Macron has forged a mediating role for himself in international relations, called for greater European unity (read: influence), and sought to reinvigorate multilateralism amid decay of the international order.

The U.S.’s diminishing role in international affairs can be traced over the course of Trump’s presidency, beginning with the announcement on June 1, 2017 that the United States would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which sought to keep “a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” Trump asserted that the agreement would have “disadvantage[d] the United States” and “undermine[d the] economy,” never mind that each signatory determined its own efforts to combat rising emissions. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, meanwhile, predicts that “without major reductions in admissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach [5°C] or more by the end of this century.”

Trump later pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, on May 9, 2018. The president called the deal “defective at its core,” and reimposed heavy sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement. Relations with Iran have since deteriorated, demonstrated by recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that have cut the state’s production capabilities by about 60%, for which the U.S. blames Iran.

Other signals of a decreasing role for the U.S. in the international order include the withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia on August 2, the collapse this month of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban vis-à-vis a peace deal in Afghanistan, and ongoing disputes with China related to trade and security. Foreign aid appropriation fell from $14.6 billion in 2016 to $9.5 billion in 2018, and Trump imposed a 16-month hiring freeze on the State Department in January 2017 that eroded morale according to a report from the Office of Inspector General for the State Department.

Where the U.S. has stepped back, China has in some ways stepped forward. China remains a member of the Paris Agreement—though its efforts have been judged as “highly insufficient.” China is also party to the Iran nuclear deal and is the largest troop contributor and second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeper efforts.

Most significant, however, is China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, more commonly known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI, described as “a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings,” has become synonymous with China’s massive and growing role in international affairs. 

More recently though, the initiative has expanded beyond infrastructure projects into the realms of media and academia. Zach Montague of the World Politics Review points to “state-funded organizations such as the Confucius Institute” and “the Belt and Road Media Cooperation Union and the Belt and Road News Alliance” as hallmarks of this shift. 

“[T]he Belt and Road is an infrastructural project, largely economic and investment-driven,” commented Professor Denise Ho, a historian of Modern China and an expert on the socialist era under Mao. She explained to The Politic, “there is also a huge cultural component to it, a kind of cultural diplomacy. For example, it provides channels for Belt-and-Road countries to send their students to China for higher education. The idea is that this will lead to a much stronger cultural affinity than has existed in the past.”

Even the expanded BRI, however, does not capture the full extent of China’s growing role in the international order. Professor Stephen Roach, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a seasoned China observer, told The Politic, “Belt and Road is one aspect. It’s by no means the most prominent feature of China’s geostrategy.”

Roach calls attention to economic foreign policy less flashy than the BRI but with deep implications for the future of the international community all the same. 

“China’s playing an active role in the governance of new multilateral financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” he elaborated. “China is the largest trading power in terms of export shares of global exports.” 

Roach also remarked that China hopes to shape Shanghai into “one of the world’s leading financial centers” à la Wall Street and the City of London in the coming decades.

Yet China is not a total shoo-in for the next dominant global power. Implementation of the BRI has been difficult: loans for some infrastructure projects have been defaulted on, and other projects have been abandoned altogether. And the unruly growth of the BRI has resulted in contradictory aims. Montague contrasts the BRI International Green Development Coalition, which “preach[es] sustainable energy development,” and Chinese banks associated with the BRI, which “have reportedly funded as many as 140 coal plants worldwide.” 

Opposition from the U.S. might also undermine China’s ascendancy. According to Roach, “U.S. pushback is something that draws support from other powerful industrial nations, and a coalition of incumbent powers could certainly provide some strong resistance.” The U.S.-China trade conflict serves an example par excellence.

With China’s future global leadership therefore likely but not inevitable, France may in fact be positioning itself to fill “le vide,” the void, the U.S.’s retreat has left.

France’s Macron, having suffered a coup de grâce following turbulence caused by the gilets jaunes protests, has recovered somewhat and marked his return to the world stage with a mostly successful G7 summit.

At the summit in Biarritz, France, Macron managed to avoid a full-on trade war with the U.S. over a French tax imposed largely on American technology firms and organized an aid package of $22 million to help combat forest fires ravaging the Amazon. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro ultimately rejected Macron’s offer, but he did accept a smaller aid package from the UK.

Macron also brought Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the summit, to the surprise of American officials, in an attempt to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. Macron has been loath to see the multilateral treaty buckle under the weight of the U.S.’s withdrawal and has pushed Trump to announce his openness to a meeting with his Iranian counterpart. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly refused to meet with U.S. negotiators without sanctions relief.

European sovereignty is another foreign policy dimension that has attracted Macron’s attention. The French president has flirted with the concept of a “true European army”, and with defense spending on the rise across NATO countries, he may find support for the force, especially among Eastern European countries. In 2018, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Romania increased their defense spending by 25% or more; all four of these countries border Ukraine or Belarus, suggesting growing concerns about Russia.

Beyond the G7 and the EU, France, along with Germany, has organized a new “Alliance for Multilateralism,” which was unveiled at the UN General Assembly in New York. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have argued that the international system is under serious strain, belabored by “power politics…growing nationalism…[and] an increasingly fragmented world order.” The ministers propose that nations which have benefited from multilateral arrangements and an open, liberal international order should do more to ensure their continuance.

Though the Alliance lacks many details, the underlying principle is that states will “form coalitions to attain concrete political results” on discrete issues, rather than relying on slower, consensus-drive institutions like the UN. This “à la carte multilateralism” holds promise, according to some international affairs scholars. 

Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a foreign policy think-tank, points out, “The foreign ministers’ endorsement of a kind of à la carte multilateralism echoes a growing scholarly literature that suggests that ad hoc framework restricted to the interested, capable and likeminded are often more effective than cooperation within formal, treaty-based international organizations.”

At a side-event at the UN General Assembly, France and Germany—along with partners Canada, Chile, Ghana, Mexico, and Singapore—defined the Alliance’s three streams of action: “To protect, preserve, and advance international law…through political initiatives, budget contributions, and the provisions of capabilities and expertise. To drive strong initiatives…where governance is absent or insufficient. To reform and to modernize existing international institutions.”

Application of these actions to various multilateral partnerships focused on specific policy goals could perhaps achieve policy results more expeditiously than the unwieldy UN General Assembly, though their scope would by nature be more limited.

A challenge facing the Alliance is its implicit rebuke of the United States. The Alliance’s proponents have been careful not to criticize the U.S., but Maas said in a speech in Japan last year that the Alliance could “fill the vacuum that has continued to emerge following the withdrawal of others from many parts of the world stage.” His next point emphasized climate protection, a goal the U.S. has lagged behind on. 

“Many U.S. allies are leery of antagonizing a superpower that, at least in principle, still has their back,” Patrick warned, “Australia is a case in point. Officials in Canberra are wary of alienating America, which remains central to Australian defense policy.”

Patrick’s comments suggest that with the efficacy of the alliance uncertain and the U.S.’s abstention probable, the Alliance for Multilateralism’s success is far from guaranteed.

Despite Macron’s diplomatic pushes on climate change and Iran’s nuclear capabilities and France’s efforts to reshape the multilateral system, there is little confidence in the country’s ability to fill the global leadership vacuum left by the United States. Professor John Merriman, a specialist in modern France and Europe, expressed doubts as to France’s leadership potential in an interview with The Politic.

“You have to have a country where people actually believe in the president or in the leader and support him, which is obviously not the case of France,” Merriman said. “I don’t think this is possible.”

Merriman also points to economic impotence in France as limiting the country’s ability to direct international affairs. He laments, “[France has] an unemployment rate of 8.5%. Young people don’t have jobs. None of our friends’ kids have permanent jobs.” 

Roach’s assessment is similarly skeptical. 

“The likelihood that France, which is a relatively small slice of the world economy, takes on a role of global leadership I think is very far-fetched,” Roach said.

To Roach’s point, France’s gross domestic product (GDP) is only 3.2% of global GDP, compared with the U.S.’s and China’s 24.5% and 16.3%, respectively. 

Still, the European Union (EU) has an economy of similar size to those of the U.S. and China. When asked whether France could leverage the EU to fill the leadership vacuum, though, Merriman pointed to conflict within the bloc: “It’s too fractured. There’s not consensus behind the European Union at all.”

Merriman instead suggested that Germany and the United Kingdom (UK) should be leading the Union. He acknowledged, however, that their respective political bandwidths are taxed by Brexit and a slowdown in the economy. 

As for Merriman’s final assessment of France’s capabilities for leadership, he answered with candor.

“I don’t see it. It would be nice, if [they] had a good president. But [they] don’t, so I’m pessimistic. I’m demoralized like everybody else I know in France. Demoralized.”

As France looks to the future of international relations with its Alliance for Multilateralism and Macron’s endeavors in mediation among world leaders, the country of Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle faces obstacles that challenge whether it can actually reach parity with the U.S. or China. France accounts for only 3.3% of global trade compared with the U.S.’s and China’s massive 11.6% and 12.1% respectively. Unemployment is high, and its growth rate is among the worst in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And politically, Macron’s plans for pension reform might pull the president back into domestic turmoil. The EU looks unlikely to help: the nomination process for the European Commission has faced hurdles, and far-right parties in Germany, Austria, and beyond lurk dangerously close to power.

Macron’s hopes of global leadership are not yet dashed. But for now, they look all but unattainable. Quel dommage.