“Frustrated”. “Outcry”. “turmoil”. French President Emmanuel Macron recently made remarks on how Europe should deal with China and avoid becoming a “vassal” of the United States, which has attracted a lot of condemnation in the West.
In an interview on the plane returning from a high-profile visit to China, Macron said the “big risk” for Europe was that it was “into a crisis that is not ours and prevents it from building strategic autonomy”.
Critics in particular blasted his comments about Taiwan, which appeared to suggest that Europe had no stake in the conflict and that the United States was largely responsible for accelerating the “tempo” of the crisis, raising the risk of an “overreaction” by China.
That sounds a far cry from the EU’s more neutral stance, or indeed from France’s official stance – a position that Macron’s foreign minister reiterated at a meeting of senior G7 diplomats on Tuesday.
Macron has also been accused of undermining European unity by appearing more conciliatory toward China than European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied him on the trip. Isn’t he undermining relations with Washington at a time when “without American leadership, intelligence, and weapons, the Russians would be drinking tea in Lviv,” as one prominent American commentator put it?
To be sure, Macron’s announcement looked like a diplomatic failure asking for trouble. At a time when the world is increasingly shaped by US-China rivalry, his attempts to advocate for greater European autonomy have resulted in just the opposite — a dizzying display of disunity in the face of the world’s two hegemons.
He is not alone, however, to blame for the lack of consistency seen in Europe. Who was speaking for the African continent last week? Should we take our cue from von der Leyen’s tough stance on China, or the assurances from top European Council diplomat Josep Borrell that “we are not afraid of China’s rise”?
Which views are more representative of European sentiment? Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that Europe “instead of establishing strategic autonomy from the United States” should seek a “strategic partnership” with Washington, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán insisted that “‘We must start from self-interest, rather than taking into account the interests of others”?
European disunity favors two of the world’s heavyweights. Given the size of its economy, Beijing benefits from bilateral deals with individual countries rather than Europe as a bloc. Washington has also been exacerbating divisions on the continent when it feels the EU is stalling its demands – such as imposing economic sanctions on Iran or China.
Of course, Washington would like to see Europe more united against China. “French Diplomacy Undercuts U.S. Efforts to Contain China” is an excerpt from The New York Times. “Macron has weakened the deterrence against Chinese aggression,” the Wall Street Journal condemned.
This is exaggerated.
Despite Macron’s bumbling – thinking out loud is not a recommended practice for heads of state, especially in front of the media – many around the world, especially in the global south, share the French president’s feeling of being dragged relentlessly into US-China relations Fight for supremacy. This is a struggle that has nothing to do with the vital interests of most countries, but one that they are forced to grapple with.
“China and the United States are geopolitical facts that no country can ignore, precisely because they are in a competitive relationship, and dealing with both is necessary to effectively deal with either,” Bilahari Kausikan, a former senior Singaporean diplomat, wrote in an article wrote in Foreign Affairs last week. “Faced with these realities, most countries try to maximize their autonomy within the constraints of their own specific circumstances. They don’t want to align all interests in all domains in one direction or another.”
Macron’s approach is no exception. In his view, Europe needs to establish itself as the “third pole”. To do so, it needs greater security autonomy from the United States — which, after all, may at some point revert to a Donald Trump-style anti-European defensive stance. At the same time, it needs to reduce its economic dependence on China amid a widening trade deficit.
Indeed, Europe has already begun to take concrete steps in these directions.
However, we’re left with one problem. If a hedging policy between two great powers is really best, as Koskan suggests and Macron seems to be illustrating, then what happens to problems that can only be solved through international cooperation and global governance?
Countries in the global South are already paying the heaviest price in terms of climate change, rising levels of poverty, access to vaccines and medicines, population mobility and many other pressing issues. Resigning yourself to a perpetual tug-of-war between the US and China is not a viable response.
Instead, the international community should consistently demonstrate that it expects both of these great powers to be held accountable to international law. China should not be given a free pass from the international community for its inexcusable human rights record, whether it is the mass detention of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang, or the incarceration of activists.
Likewise, the United States and Europe are responsible for the horrific treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and the neglect of health and development rights in poorer countries, among many other issues. The harsh truth is that it is always harder to hold accountable members of the UN Security Council with veto power. What is profoundly damaging, however, is how they openly break the rules they uphold and shirk responsibility for war crimes, violations of the territorial sovereignty of other nations, and the illegal actions of allies. The US invasion of Iraq and Russia’s war in Ukraine are examples.
However, all actors in the international system, large and small, should refrain from adopting the meaningless notion that the transgressions of one state somehow offset the transgressions of another — an argument that unfortunately is The global South has heard — work to respect and apply international law. After all, these are laws they themselves wrote, negotiated and signed.
Unless it demonstrates genuine respect for international law, the argument so often heard in Washington that the United States is the true guarantor of “global order” will continue to ring hollow in much of the world.
Likewise, China’s assertion that it is a true champion of multilateralism and the UN Charter does little to quell doubts about its commitments, other than outright self-interest, as long as it militarizes the South China Sea and denies Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.
“Frustration”, “turmoil”, and “turbulence” are indeed appropriate terms for examining the international political situation. But a more just world will not emerge without a greater commitment to justice — and in the case of nations, this begins with international law.
As for Macron’s comments, any outrage should be directed at what’s really wrong: the widespread lack of accountability of governments around the world, for which humanity is paying a growing price.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.