AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beijing was a public relations triumph for Chinese leader Xi Jinping and a major embarrassment for President Joe Biden. In comments that set off alarm bells in capitals throughout the West, Macron said that the “worst thing” France could do would be to “take our cue from the U.S. agenda.”
The Biden administration has staked much of its global political capital on the narrative that the United States leads a united global community that stands together against rogues and rule-breakers such as Iran. Since taking office, Biden has sought to unite the West in pressuring China to either join this community or isolate itself.
This strategy has taken some serious battering, most recently from Saudi Arabia, which irked Washington by hosting trilateral meetings with Xi Jinping and Iranian leaders. But for the Biden administration, there is a big difference between Saudi or even Brazilian leaders posing with Xi and the leader of France doing so.
Behind the optics, there is a geopolitical message being sent, but those who see it solely in terms of France or Europe are missing the context. Emmanuel Macron was not speaking fully for either, but he was speaking for influential interest groups that wield enormous power not just in Europe but in the United States as well–groups, especially in the capital markets, which see any Sino-American conflict as a disaster, and are willing to do almost anything, including inadvertently helping the CCP, to avoid it.
This wider context was obscured by the optics of the trip, where the damage was enhanced by the false pedestal on which Western Europeans have been placed by the Democrat Party and much of the established American media.
For decades, Democrats have blamed any difficulties in relations between the United States, France, and Germany not on the self-interested policies of the latter, but on the policies of Republican administrations in the United States. In this telling, Franco-German opposition to George W. Bush’s Iraq war was by definition correct and justified because the invasion was unjustified. The possibility that two wrongs could make, well, two wrongs, was dismissed.
The idea that the French and Germans were taking advantage of an American mistake to grandstand at the expense not just of the United States but of the values they purported to uphold was also dismissed. The same was true of Angela Merkel, whose clear personal disdain for Donald Trump, shared by most Washington insiders, prevented them from recognizing that she disdained Donald Trump for correctly criticizing her policies on energy, Russia, and migration.
No better example exists of this effort to elevate Europeans as some sort of moral arbiters than the effort by not just Democrats, but Joe Biden himself at a NATO summit to use them as props in denouncing the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Dobbs. The implication was that Macron or even Boris Johnson had greater moral standing to pass judgement on U.S. Constitutional law than American jurists or politicians.
Having elevated European leaders to the level of moral arbiters, the Biden administration has struggled from the start to apply pressure on them to carry their own weight in the moral crusade against Russia they are purportedly partaking in. American officials have found themselves complaining of German indifference and duplicity off the record to the press while maintaining an increasingly precarious public face of unity.
There was nothing off the record about Macron’s visit to China. Not only did Macron undertake the trip in full view of the world, just days before Joe Biden’s own scheduled trip to Europe, but he made clear his trip was aimed squarely at the United States. He invited the American publication Politico into the Elysée Palace for an exclusive interview where he pontificated on American policy in Asia and seemed to relish advertising his disdain.
“The question Europeans need to answer… is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron told Politico.
Macron’s language, setting up an equivalency between a “U.S. agenda” and a “Chinese overreaction,” then expressing disdain for both, appears deliberately provocative, especially when combined with his suggestions that Europe should build “strategic autonomy” and avoid being reduced to the level of American “vassals.”
Predictably, Macron’s remarks have provoked outrage around the world, as they were clearly intended to do. Macron would not have chosen his words in this manner, or to share them with American outlets given the infamously nationalistic approach to media access of the French government, if he did not want this reaction. The more interesting question is why?
The simplest explanations being floated rely on stereotypes about France: that Macron is jealous of America; that the French resent America’s role as a superpower; that this is an emotional reaction.
While there are without a doubt Frenchmen who feel that way, Emmanuel Macron is in many ways the least French and most American leader the nation has had. As an investment banker, he helped Nestle acquire a Pfizer subsidiary and was earning more than a million dollars a year by the age of 30. His administration is dominated by veterans of consulting giant McKinsey, and France paid the firm billions to in effect run France’s COVID-19 response.
Macron’s background also provides a reason to avoid taking his geopolitical analysis at face value. He can run the math. He knows “strategic autonomy” is a pipe dream, and unlike Merkel, worked to maintain cordial relations with the Trump administration, a clear indication he never put stock in the German horse against the American SUV.
A more interesting possibility is that as with his pension reforms domestically, Emmanuel Macron is not speaking either for “Europe” or even for France, but rather for the international financial and economic elite which he served before returning to politics and which dominates his Administration. In particular, the comments about “is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan?” do not reflect public opinion in France, which is still fiercely anti-Russian and not at all Pro-China, but do reflect the interests of the global economic elite for whom any conflict or crisis over Taiwan is a lose-lose.
For them, there are no good outcomes. A crushing Western defeat of China, even without losses to Taiwan itself, a scenario so optimistic as to be near fanciful, would knock the legs out from under the global venture capital system.
Over the last two decades, the profits from Saudi oil and Chinese trade manipulation have been reinvested not at home, but in Western capital markets, resulting in a situation where almost every major company is owned partially by a Chinese-linked entity, either directly or through an institutional investor which itself is underpinned by Chinese funding. Knocking China out of the global financial system the way Russia was by sanctions would be devastating to many major Western corporations. It would ruin institutional investors who depend on billions from unsophisticated but CCP-aligned Chinese clients. Those institutional players now include the major consulting firms like McKinsey and many leading legal entities.
As for less “optimistic” scenarios, a successful defense of Taiwan, on the model of Ukraine, would bring the above costs, but likely the disruption of trade routes in the Pacific. If Taiwan was devastated, it would also mean the loss of semi-conductor infrastructure which makes Taiwan so important. That infrastructure would likely not survive a U.S. defeat either.
Post-war it is hard to imagine a world in which companies or investors could operate in both a U.S.-aligned “West” and China, with the result that like Norman landlords in England after 1214, firms would have to choose to divest of their holdings in one part of the world in order to continue to operate in the other.
In short, for the global financial class, a Sino-American crisis is a disaster, and winning it is not the priority – avoiding it altogether is. That viewpoint comes across clearly in Macron’s words, and only slightly less strongly in those of the head of the regulatory-captured European Union, Ursula Van Der Leyen.
It would be incorrect to say that Macron speaks “for Europe,” not because he does not, but because it is the wrong question. Macron was not speaking for Europe, but for a large class of stakeholders whose interests are threatened by rising tensions in the Pacific, and who wield enormous political influence across the world.
That influence is greater in the European Union, where elected institutions are weak, and in political systems such as France and Germany which are dominated by narrow elites who are socially linked to those in the private sector with these interests, but it is also wielded in American businesses and universities.
These interests do not support a takeover of Taiwan by China. That would threaten their interests for many of the reasons cited by hawks. Very few enjoyed what happened in Hong Kong, and many are scaling down operations. Most, however, did not leave Hong Kong, and reconciled themselves to a far from ideal situation.
When it comes to Taiwan, their preference hierarchy is different. Their ideal would be for the status quo if it can be maintained without war, but failing that, they would prefer to offer whatever could be offered to maintain it while avoiding war. If that meant buying peace for 15-20 years in exchange for eventual reunification, time in which semi-conductor factories could be built outside of Taiwan, they would prefer that to war.
That is where they differ from the United States and Taiwan. Washington does not want a war, and it is absurd for Macron to suggest it does. However, American leaders have concluded that if Taiwanese safety cannot be secured without it, that they prefer the ability to fight a war to concessions and appeasement, even if building up those capabilities makes a conflict marginally more likely.
This is where Macron’s comments about “accelerating a crisis” come from. Macron does not want the crisis to arrive, because of the two interests he serves, those of France, the West, and the free world on the one hand, are in conflict with those of international capital markets on the other. In the event of a crisis, the former expect him to fight, and the latter to negotiate a surrender on the best terms available. In Beijing, Macron lashed out at Washington for creating that situation, in the process stating not that France would not fight, but that there were many who did not believe it was in their interests to do so.
Macron’s remarks should be seen as a warning. Not so much about France or Europe in isolation, but rather about much more diffuse interest groups globally which, while not pro-CCP, will begin to take on a more adversarial role to American efforts to step up the U.S. role in the Pacific, which they will see as bringing forward the day when there will be a crisis.
These groups will not support America’s efforts to win such a crisis, because in their view, the crisis occurring at all is already a loss.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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