Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-04)
The EU's Strategic Autonomy: The Atlantic Alliance from France's Perspective

Yoichi Suzuki (Adjunct Fellow, JIIA; Former Ambassador of Japan to the French Republic)
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JIIA Strategic Comments (2022-04)

Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

European Security

The "Ukraine War" has broken out. We sincerely hope that the situation will be resolved as soon as possible in a manner that preserves the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine so that the hardship and sacrifices of its citizens will not be further exacerbated. Ironically for Vladimir Putin, this action has drastically deepened the solidarity of the "West". It also gave Germany the mental impetus to break out of its cautious shell and take a major step forward in terms of defense and security policy. The "West" has no choice now but to unite and impose severe economic sanctions on Russia in order to make it pay a high price. At some point, when the situation has calmed down, the conception of the European security system will be discussed to determine why the situation has come to this and where the problems in the European security system1.

In this connection, President Macron gave a speech to the European Parliament at the beginning of France's six-month EU Presidency in early 2022. In his speech, he stressed the need for the EU to have "strategic autonomy" in order to retain the ability to make its own decisions and take its own actions. He has also held his own strategic dialogues with President Putin over the past two years. These moves have been controversial, in part because they failed to prevent the current situation. At this juncture, I will examine the underlying concept of the "strategic autonomy" that France seeks. This essay is based on my experience as ambassador to France and, though it may be subject to criticism, it is presented as food for thought in considering Japan's own security.

The Unrealized Airstrikes on Syria

One perspective on France's security relationship with the US and the UK was provided by a French government official who told the author of his "bitter" feelings about the cancellation of limited airstrikes on Syria on August 31, 2013. This was in reference to punitive airstrikes against the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, an action that President Obama said crossed a red line.

According to reports in French magazines, the situation at the time was as follows. Both France and the US had respectively prepared to deploy fighter-bombers and to fire cruise missiles from ships off the Syrian coast and, despite Prime Minister Cameron's decision two days earlier to withdraw from the operation, the US and France had jointly identified targets for airstrikes on August 30, the day before. However, at the last minute, President Obama decided to postpone the airstrikes on the grounds that they could not be carried out without Congressional approval in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution and in light of the UK's decision to withdraw in the face of opposition from the House of Commons. As a result of subsequent developments, the operation was never carried out.

The Price to Pay: A Series of Multiple Terrorist Attacks

Although both the UK and the US had unavoidable internal political reasons, France missed a valuable opportunity to conduct air strikes and was "taken off the ladder," so to speak. The French government had hoped that the airstrikes would have dealt a major blow to the Assad regime and could have served as a catalyst for a change in the situation. At the time, there was great social concern in France that a significant number of young people from France, many of them from Middle Eastern immigrant families, were travelling to Syria to fight alongside anti-Assad forces. The situation was made more serious by the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria. These young people were becoming steeped in the radical ideology of the Islamic State and were beginning to accumulate experience in terrorist acts. It was only a matter of time before they would return to France and turn their anger against the contradictions at home. There was an urgent need to put an end to the situation in Syria as soon as possible before this fear could turn into a reality. It is not difficult to imagine the depth of disappointment felt by the French government and other concerned parties after the bombing campaign was called off. To what extent the US and the UK shared this sense of crisis in France is not known. The situation might not have changed even if the air strikes had been carried out, but the deep sense of frustration at not being able to prevent a series of terrorist attacks was not unrelated to the bombing campaign that did not materialize.

The Normandy Landings and the Normandy Format on Ukraine

There is a historical relationship that haunts the French when they are driven by the thought that they have failed to maintain a sense of unity with the United States and Britain. Without the support of Britain and the United States, there would have been no postwar France, and de Gaulle's "Free France" would not have achieved its goals. For this, France still feels a deep sense of gratitude. At the same time, it also coincides with France's bitter experiences of not being consulted by the US and Britain at times when French lives had to be protected. In June 2014, shortly after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, President Obama and other heads of state gathered to attend a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. The event was intended to recall the beginning of the end of World War II that brought peace to Europe, but it was also a reminder of France's abiding gratitude to the US and Britain. It further served as an opportunity to start "Normandy Format talks", a form of four-party talks among France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, to discuss the Ukraine issue. The establishment of a forum to discuss European security without the US was regarded as an achievement of French diplomacy, but it also revealed another thought of France: that its own and Europe's security cannot be maintained by simply relying on the US.

De Gaulle's Sense of Humiliation and Overcoming It

Why is there such a duality in French sentiment toward the US and Britain? Behind his gratitude to the two countries, de Gaulle also experienced humiliation, having been treated at the whim of the US and Britain. He overcame this humiliation and laid the foundation of today's France. The major cause of this humiliation was the fact that France under the Third Republic was unable to prevent the German invasion and collapsed, allowing itself to be occupied and thereby betraying the trust of the United States. De Gaulle's postwar strategy of possessing his own nuclear forces was part of a survival strategy that he had learned the hard way from the experience of the war. In July 1958, the US Congress offered to provide Britain alone, and not France, with the information and materials needed to develop nuclear weapons.2 Since the US did not trust France as much as the UK, the only way to possess nuclear weapons was to develop them independently.

Historian Jean Baptiste Duroselle noted that the key difference between the victorious British and French in World War II was that France had experienced "four elements that led to self-denial, so to speak: war, defeat, occupation, and a small share of victory," while the British had known the disillusionment of not having to avoid war but saw the war come to an end "with a sense sentiment of legitimate pride" (that the war had been won) without experiencing "the national humiliation brought about by the other three elements3".

Eisenhower, visiting France as a state guest, asked de Gaulle why France insisted on maintaining its own nuclear capability and whether he had doubts about the US' intention to defend Europe. De Gaulle responded that he had no doubts, but that France had experienced two world wars, the first of which had seen France desperately fighting for three years and was almost dead before the US entered the war, and the second of which had seen France already crushed by the enemy before the US joined in4.

No France without Europe

France became aware early in the postwar period that it no longer had the national strength to maintain its security on its own competing with the great powers. Needless to say, France under de Gaulle turned to Germany and Europe as partners in order to regain its international status. In particular, the road to the construction of a Europe centered on France and Germany began to emerge when Germany's notion of inescapable superiority over France and France's suspicions of Germany, which had been linked to a sense of economic inferiority to Germany, were dispelled in the 1950s. Although France and Germany did not feel affection for each other, there was a profound awareness of mutual advantage in close collaboration5.

What about Britain, another European country? De Gaulle said that "the colonial enmity is in the past, and there is no longer a wind of distrust in the alliance with Great Britain, which saved 'Free France'" but, without even evoking his statement about the UK being a Trojan horse, his path never converged on that of the UK, which always tried to bring Atlanticist logic into European integration6. France's attitude today in calling for tough negotiations with the UK over Brexit also reveals a feeling of estrangement toward the UK, which would not share the same destiny as the European continent.

Rationale for the EU's Strategic Autonomy

Europe should have its own strong voice on European security. In his speech to the European Parliament on January 19, 2022 mentioned at the beginning of this article, President Macron stressed the importance of the EU's strategic autonomy, quoting President de Gaulle. While the idea of recognizing that the US-EU relationship could deteriorate again at any moment and always considering a 'Plan B' for those times is seen by some as being strongly embedded in the EU7, such an idea is frequently criticized as dividing the EU and weakening the unity of the Atlantic alliance has also been pointed out that, over the medium to long term, this may be contrary to Europe's interests, as it would give the US an excuse to weaken its commitment in European security in order to prioritize its response to China, which it sees as the greatest threat to maintaining the current international order built by the West8.

Some see such a move by France as an act of overly ambitious rash by President Macron in anticipation of the presidential election in April 2022, but the idea that Europe maintaining a certain degree of autonomy is essential for its own security seems to be a rational judgment that France has consistently cultivated since de Gaulle in the postwar era. I believe that President Macron's idea is an extension of this idea. The basic posture of both the US and the UK in their security policies is that of offshore balancers9, and they still seem to hold the classic geopolitical view of confronting threats to one's own country at a distance, even in today's globalized world. Because of their different geopolitical positions, there is always a possibility that France and the US/UK will have subtle differences of interest. France has experienced this, sometimes painfully, and has come to the conclusion that it is necessary to maintain its autonomy10. The challenge for France now is to clarify what it will protect and to what extent under its strategic autonomy in the process of building a consensus within the EU.

As French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated in an interview with the Financial Times in early 2022, "We need to talk to Russia, even if it is difficult, very demanding, exhausting... because it is a neighbor, a big one, and it doesn't intend to move out. France feels it can share these sentiments with Germany but does not believe that the US and Britain can fully agree. The feelings that France has about Russia may also be applicable to the relationship between Japan and China.


Even among countries belonging to the "West" that share basic values, Five Eyes countries such as the UK and Australia differ from others such as France in the kind of relationship they maintain with the US. The former, at the risk of oversimplification, would work with the US to the utmost in order to increase the possibility of reflecting their own will in US decision-making, thereby ensuring their own security. The sacrifices that must be made in order to achieve this are the price that must be paid. France, on the other hand, while basically acting in concert with the US, is willing to maintain a certain degree of independence in case there are discrepancies in their responses. It is not a simple matter to define the boundary between the extent of joint action with the US and the extent to which France should autonomously ensure its own interests and security. This is a dilemma that will haunt states as long as they have egos desiring the independence to decide their own destinies. Although our situations, regions, and histories may differ, it may be helpful for Japan to consider the French dilemma.

1 Thierry de Montbrial, Vivre le temps des troubles. (Albin Michel, 2017)
2 Watanabe Hirotaka, Beiou Doumei no Kyouchou to Tairitsu (The Cooperation and the Confrontation of the US-Europe Alliance). (Yuhikaku, 2008); Watanabe Hirotaka, Charles de Gaulle: Minshushugi no Leadership eno Kutou (The Struggle for the Leadership of Democracy). (Keio Gijuku Daigaku Shuppankai, 2013).
3 Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, "Changes in French Foreign Policy Since 1945," in Stanley Hoffmann et al, In Search of France (Harvard University Press, 1963).
4 Charles De Gaulle, Mémoires d'espoir. (Edité par Plon, 1970).
5 Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, op. cit.
6 Thierry de Montbrial, op. cit.
7 Tanaka Ryosuke, Beio Kankei no Kozoteki Mondai: EU ga mezasu "Senryakuteki Jiritsu" no Yukue (The Structural Problem of the US-Europe Relationship: The Direction of the EU's "Strategic Autonomy"). (Wedge, December 2021)
8 Francis J. Gavin and Alina Polyakova, "Macron's Flawed Vision for Europe,"
Foreign Affairs Magazine, (January 19, 2022); Cecilia Belin, "Monsieur Fixit: The perils of Macron's shuttle diplomacy," Foreign Affairs Magazine (February 10, 2022).
9 Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy.
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2006); Emmanuel Macron, Révolution. (XO, 2016)
10 Emmanuel Macron, op. cit.