Macron’s recent unilateral actions, far from ending any supposed isolation of Russia, are clearly designed to end what has sometimes appeared to be France’s isolation in Europe.
In his annual address to French ambassadors from around the world in Paris on August 27, President Emmanuel Macron repeated the message he had delivered in front of Vladimir Putin at his summer residence the previous week: Europe would be committing a major strategic error if it continued to exclude Russia from its councils. It was time, he said, to “reshuffle the cards” in this difficult relationship and he repeated his call for a – as yet undefined – “common architecture” linking Russia and Europe.

Yet Macron’s new Russian initiative, which he reaffirmed in the form of an order given in public to his diplomats and ministers, is clearly designed to send a new message. France under Francois Hollande adopted a stern anti-Russian tone after the Ukraine conflict of 2014 and, although Macron does not propose to lift any sanctions, he clearly wants that policy to change. 

Paris knows that, however hawkish Angela Merkel may have sounded over Ukraine, Germany continues to trade massively with Russia. Paris also knows how much damage Brexit will do to the balance of power in Europe – which explains the extraordinary vitriol which can be heard from French officials these days against the British. 

Macron’s decision to play the Russian card in this situation is nothing but classic geopolitics. As the former adviser to President Georges Pompidou, Marie-France Garaud, has often said, the only two choices in French foreign policy are whether to ally with Britain or with Russia against Germany. However much the British may protest that they are not “leaving Europe,” which in any case is a geographical impossibility, the fact is that Brexit gives Britain a magnificent opportunity to deepen its contacts across the enormous English-speaking world. 

Indeed, when Macron said, on August 27, that “the European continent will never be stable, will never be in security, if we don’t pacify and clarify our relations with Russia,” he was re-stating a geopolitical truth which European chancelleries have repeatedly forgotten to their cost. 

In 1878, the Congress of Berlin sought to dilute any increased Russian influence in the Balkans following Russia’s victory in the war against Turkey of 1877-1878. The result was a dramatic increase in the power of Austria in the Balkans to counteract Russia: Bosnia-Herzegovina was placed under Austrian rule. This in turn led not only to an increase in tensions with Russia, especially after Austria annexed the province in 1908, but also to nationalist unrest there. 

Europe repeated the mistake at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, from which the Soviet Union was, like Germany, excluded. According to the inexorable laws of diplomacy, which resembles Newton’s third law, the exclusion of a state inevitably leads it to conclude alliances with other excluded states. Within a few years of Versailles, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Rapallo (1922) which is widely regarded as a major failure of Western policy because the two humiliated states joined forces to repel Western triumphalism.

Without wishing to push historical analogies too far, we witnessed a second Rapallo this year. It was deeply symbolic that, while the Western powers were congratulating themselves on the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, a celebration which implied that the Second World War had been won by Americans, Canadians, British and French alone, and not by the USSR or China, President Putin was hosting President Xi in Moscow where he called him “my best friend.” 

It goes without saying that the same error was repeated again after the Second World War, when the breakdown in relations between East and West led to the Cold War. This conflict not only structured the entire international system for many decades, dividing Europe in the process, it also led to myriad proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is difficult to think of a clearer illustration of Macron’s dictum about the necessity of peace with Russia than the period 1948-1989.

Emmanuel Macron seems, therefore, to have confirmed his belief in the classical theory of international relations, according to which they should be conducted according to the discernible realities of power and geography, and not according to the misleading temptations of ideology. 

He has, in short, enunciated a state-based vision instead of a values-based one. 

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