Janan Ganesh: Biden’s French snub a warning to Europe

US willing to bruise France, and upset much of Europe over Afghan exit, as its priority is China

US president Joe Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron. In the round, Paris gets the US more right than some easily mesmerised European capitals. File photograph: New York Times

US president Joe Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron. In the round, Paris gets the US more right than some easily mesmerised European capitals. File photograph: New York Times

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The French approach to foreign affairs can be cold, one-eyed, chauvinist – and right. De Gaulle’s blackballing of Britain from the European project turned out to be prescient. Opposition to the Iraq war has aged even better in far less time. Before the fall of Kabul, few nations were as quick as France to read the sad runes, and to warn its people there accordingly.

In the shape of the US defence deal with Australia and Britain, France is enduring as cruel a snub as one democracy has dealt another for some time. If nothing else, though, its unsentimental view of the US – as Europe’s friend, not its eternal benefactor – stands enhanced. It has been a good summer for the cause of “strategic autonomy” from America.

The US was willing to bruise France to sign Aukus for the same reason it was willing to upset much of Europe to leave Afghanistan. The priority is China. It is impossible for the EU to match and perhaps even to understand the all-consuming nature of this fixation. It is not defending a position as the world’s number one power. It does not – with respect to French Polynesia – have a Pacific coast. It has neither a reflex aversion to “communism”, nor mental scars from “losing” China to that creed in 1949.

Wall Street, it is true, has softened of late: there is too much Chinese wealth that needs deft management for a fee. But Washington itself is an even more bellicose place than when the superpowers exchanged tariffs in 2018. How quaint a mere trade war seems now.

Morally, the notion of decorum in the arms market is too eccentric to need spelling out.

And this, remember, is under a Democratic president. If Joe Biden is willing to spurn an ally in Europe for a smaller one in the right “theatre”, a Republican successor is hardly going to refrain. Nor is it obvious why they should. Morally, the notion of decorum in the arms market is too eccentric to need spelling out. Strategically, the US is more than welcome in much of Asia, if only for fear of the alternative.

There is a strange notion doing the rounds that Biden’s foreign policy lacks coherence and – can you ever forgive him? – a “doctrine”. It is something said of almost every president at this stage of their tenure. It is less true of this one than any in recent times.

One theme connects his exit from Afghanistan, his grudging tolerance of a gas pipeline from Russia to Europe and his refusal to pick a fight with Saudi Arabia over sundry misdeeds. It is the minimisation of non-Chinese claims on US resources and attention. When Biden is proactive – enhancing the Quad, which meets this week, or forming Aukus – it is almost always in China’s region. There is nothing obscure or ambiguous about this strategic monomania. He is, if anything, coherent to a fault.

The mystery is all Europe’s. Will it accept the obvious about America? If so, to what extent will it make its own arrangements? The continent tends to blame brusque treatment from the US on the personal vagaries of its leader: cowboy George W Bush, aloof Barack Obama, feral Donald Trump. Even as relations sour under a fourth consecutive president, it feels improper to suggest that the problem is structural.

Even if the stress on bloodlines were not weirdly un-republican, it overrates how many Americans claim English ancestry

For US purposes, Europe is badly located. While the Nazi and then Soviet threat made it the strategic crux of the world, the continent could count on geography alone to command a hearing in Washington. It now has to earn it through military brawn and a less fragmented foreign policy. Yes, the first is expensive. The second is a political near-impossibility. For a sense of the alternative, though, the EU has the past month or so to chew on.

Starting with talk of “Anglo-Saxons”, there are glitches in the French understanding of the modern US. Even if the stress on bloodlines were not weirdly un-republican, it overrates how many Americans claim English ancestry. (The man who scuppered French dreams in the Suez Canal had that nice Wasp name, Eisenhower).

Nor is the quest to hold back US hegemony always kept in proportion. François Mitterrand referred to his nation’s “war without death” with America. Other French leaders have been less restrained.

Still, in the round, Paris gets the US more right than some easily mesmerised European capitals. It is a state with interests, as any other. It is not isolationist, just ever more Asian in its priorities. Having such military clout, it tends to prize the same in other countries: an ally that brings little matériel to bear won’t be consulted out of good manners, as the Afghan farce showed.

The lesson here for the EU is plain, and it comes via a founding member’s bitter experience. How disorientating to be humiliated and vindicated all at once. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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