Not exactly a presidential language or a sincere 'friend of mine’ allusion as perhaps, Grumpy-Trumpy still hasn’t gotten over the giggling posh boys huddle of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, British enfant terrible Boris Johnson, and of course, French President Emanuel Macron cracking up on Trump’s crassness and talkativeness at a reception in Paris in 2019.
Immediately after this reception, Donald Trump was on his way to a NATO Summit, and before proceeding, he had dutifully and publicly denounced his NATO ally, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as 'two-faced’.
Trump was either oblivious or unconcerned with history, as Canadian Secretary of State (later, Prime Minister) Lester Pearson was amongst the foremost players in the creation and formation of the Transatlantic defense alliance, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). But for an insecure, vain, and ignorant Trump—his personal sleight was more important than the weight of history or perceptions of 'allies’. He demanded respect and couldn’t be bothered about earning it.
Trump-Macron Spat & Waning Bloc Politics
Just a year earlier, Trump was in Paris to mark the symbolic ceremony to celebrate the end of WW1 and decided to tweet some unwarranted and ungracious messages. He decided to remind the French about their near-defeat by Germans, made caustic remarks about the French Wine industry, and took a swipe at Macron’s falling approval ratings.
When prodded to reply to Trump’s provocation, Macron replied, “The United States is our historic ally and will continue to be. It’s the ally with which we take all the risks, with which we carry out the most complicated operations. But being an ally doesn’t mean being a vassal state." While Trump (and American diplomacy) was being their usual boorish and indifferent self, Macron had warned of treating the Fifth Republic of France (a proud legatee of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” anchorage) as a 'vassal’ state as back as 2018.
Cut to 2023, Emanuel Macron is still the French President after winning the second term in 2022, whereas Donald Trump lost his bid for a second term in 2020 and is now spewing his expletive-laden rants to claw back to power.
The world has become decidedly more volatile and uncertain, and the traditional linearity of ‘blocs’ eg, NATO, no longer seems as tenable or efficacious. China is the Wrecker-in-chief of the existing order and the good old obsequiousness of ‘bloc’ politics no longer holds.
Fresh from his China visit, Emanuel Macron relayed a terse and telling message for a clearly upset ‘ally’ ie, the United States of America, the exact seeds of which were sowed in the warning shot of 2018. Macron downplayed American concerns about the China visit and again reiterated, “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal... doesn't mean that we don't have the right to think for ourselves."
As if on cue, with yet another NATO ally on his side, the Dutch Premier Mark Rutte concurred with Macron’s defiance by agreeing that Europe, “must be a player and not a playing field”. Undoubtedly, optics don’t suggest a very unified NATO posture of all 'allies’ singing in unison, as across the ‘pond’, the Europeans are cagey about blindly following the US diktats anymore, be it on Ukraine, Russian energy or even on the matters relating to America’s bête noire China.
‘Strategic Autonomy’ & France’s Bid To Build on China Ties
Beijing’s unofficial mouthpiece Global Times gleefully noted, “European officials will continue to visit China, elevating Beijing's relationship with Europe via dialogue, especially when others have echoed Macron's latest call for European "strategic autonomy" which can facilitate Europe to form an objective view of China.”
However, this does not mean either the end of NATO or Sino-wariness, but a more practical approach of choosing one’s battles (driven by a combination of necessities and morality) and remaining transactional ie, realpolitik.
The US cannot suddenly cry wolf because just a couple of years back, a shadowy trilateral deal by the US, UK, and Australia combine (AUKUS formation) led to the sudden scrapping of France’s USD 40 billion deal to make conventional submarines for Australia, in favour of nuclear-powered submarines with US and UK technology. A livid France called it a ‘stab in the back’ and in an unprecedented move, France had recalled its envoys from US and Australia.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had warned of consequences that it tantamount to, “directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnership and importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe."
The US had remained unmoved and went ahead with its imperatives. Very recently, France paid back in the same cold coin and shunned notions of a ‘vassal’ state. Macron invoked the much-bandied and elusive ‘strategic autonomy’ to contextualise its actions.
India Initiates Its Journey of ‘Strategic Autonomy’
Delhi too has flexed its aspirations of ‘strategic autonomy’, especially on the hot potato of Ukraine that has seen multiple and contrasting pressures from Washington DC and Moscow. Delhi was willing to stand out as an oddity, even in the fledgling QUAD that has yet to acquire the bind and ‘bite’, within.
While a pro-Kremlin China lauded India’s ambiguity on Ukraine, Delhi’s calibrated eye was on reassuring Moscow rather than attempting to co-opt China in any forum.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plainly acknowledged, “I believe that Indian foreign policies are characterised by independence and the concentration on real national legitimate interests.” Therefore, the concurrent buying of cheaper oil from Russia or securing deliveries for the S-400 batteries was par for course even as Delhi engaged empathetically with Ukraine on the humanitarian front.
Importantly, in the bloody summer of 2020, when the Indo-Chinese border standoff had escalated, Washington DC (and especially, Donald Trump) had pusillanimously offered to 'mediate’, only. The procurement of weaponry and militaristic wherewithal from the United States had certainly been accelerated but it was an old hat, and frankly, it was about accretive business for the United States (with the clear understanding that such weaponry and technology would not pose any danger to US interests), nothing more.
On the contrary, Washington DC had come down heavily on Delhi to resist trade and commerce with Tehran, as Trump had his own beef with Iran, after unilaterally reneging on the Iran Nuclear Deal. Delhi had grudgingly complied with the pressure. However, in the 2020 Indo-Sino showdown, the US had displayed limited ‘commitment’ towards Delhi, which too was driven by its interests. Delhi did not forget US's support of convenience and transactional nature in 2020.
Much water has flown under the proverbial bridge since then, and the USA is a pale shadow of itself after the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan and the economic stress inflicted by the pandemic. Today, for it to expect a ‘vassalised’ conformity from Delhi or Paris will not be forthcoming—each country recognises the limits of the USA and the utility of deference to it, hence, the invocation of ‘Strategic Autonomy.’
It was, after all, the great proponent of realpolitik ie, Henry Kissinger, who had famously said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. It is fine wisdom coming from a cold war warrior that is equally applicable in the post-cold War era, with the caveat of applicability to all regimes, and not just the USA.
The supposed French-Chinese bonhomie notwithstanding, irony dies a thousand deaths, as France has now become the second biggest supplier of weapons to India (after Russia) and the defiant, low flying of French-made Rafale fighter jet over the wounded areas of Indo-Chinese border standoff, is a memorable moment from those tense times. No, France was not attacking China indirectly by supplying arms to India, but it was simply just driven by its own ‘strategic autonomy’.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)