Several weeks ago, I was invited to brief officials in a major Central European country conducting a national strategic review in light of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. They asked incisive questions on three geopolitical topics—Russia, China, and the West—moving seamlessly from the big picture to tactics and logistics. The strategy that emerged from the discussion was a variation of a Cold War-era theme: Keep Russia down, the United States in, and authoritarian China out. Deep beneath public statements and contentious debates across the European Union, this view likely represents the core beliefs and strategic outlook on which the majority of policymakers have converged since the Russian attack began in February 2022. When EU foreign ministers meet on May 12 to update Europe’s approach toward China, many of them will likely push some variation of this three-pronged strategy.
Yet there is another, very different outlook that is keeping a common European strategy from coalescing. It was evident from last month’s simultaneous trip to China by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose views could not be more different. Von der Leyen has vocally defended the above formula, if not in those exact words. Macron, on the other hand, appears to have drawn inspiration from another Cold War strategic thread: French President Charles de Gaulle’s foreign policy of restoring France’s primacy in Europe, keeping the United States (and its ally, Britain) out of continental affairs, and freely maneuvering with other great powers such as Russia and China. Macron’s pursuit of Gaullism redux—wrapped in phrases such as “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”—risks paralyzing Europe with a French veto against the emerging strategic consensus. Indeed, just as de Gaulle stalled European integration until Paris had its way, Macron has thwarted a genuine EU global strategy from emerging.