Force de frappe

Watching Emmanuel Macron fulminate in the wake of Boris Johnson’s Great Power realignment brought Charles de Gaulle to mind. Macron appears to use Napoleon Bonaparte as his all-purpose cultural touchstone, but de Gaulle was the more pertinent precedent for Johnson as he considered how to carve out a Great Power space for an apparently diminished UK.

What makes de Gaulle relevant was his determination, like Johnson’s, to maintain his country’s standing in the face of palpable evidence of its decline. Thus, de Gaulle tried to ignore NATO, pushing instead for France as an independent, nuclear bomb-equipped military power. Part of his scenario was the idea of the tactical use of nuclear weapons, a concept upended by science. “Non, non, cher Charles, the fallout will kill everyone!” A realist despite his pretensions, he was also dissuaded by a dodgy military whose top leadership was economically attached to Algeria. A friend who was in the French Army at the time, stationed in Paris, quoted his sergeant: “If Switzerland invades, we lose in five hours.” A sentry, he was issued one live bullet per night.

Despite this, de Gaulle grasped that a nation’s power is largely how it sees itself and how it plays the cards that any epoch hands it. World War II revealed him as a shrewd player, and that he managed to keep the game going into the 1960s was no small feat given the loss of Indochina and the likely loss of Algeria. Unlike Johnson in 2021, de Gaulle had no obvious allies that could magnify France’s power. Unlike Macron, tied to the EU, Johnson understood that the U.S., with its own issues about declining power relative to China, was an opportunity that the UK was better positioned than France to take.

France has always acted with autonomy in reference to its former colonies in Africa. But it’s part of the EU, a federation with an in-progress foreign policy and an ambiguous defense posture overshadowed by NATO. One implication of the Australia-UK-US tie-up is that the US doesn’t trust the French, as a mainstay of the EU, to keep its mouth shut. Whatever you can say about this deal, there was an element of surprise — as much in Paris as in Beijing. France could in theory have made its nuclear subs available to Australia, but its best offer was diesel. The UK, untethered from the EU, could up that offer without Brussels’ scrutiny — with US cooperation.

Australia is suddenly a meaningful backbone for ASEAN, a bulwark that Guam for example isn’t. To put a separate fleet of nuclear subs there is to “have Southeast Asia’s back.” More spine is what ASEAN needs to show a bit of courage in reference to China’s moves in the South China Sea and its active threats to Taiwan. ASEAN could do this without endangering trade, because it’s too big a market for China to shut out, the way it has sought to do with Australia. All it has to say is, “No decisions about the South China Sea can be taken by China unilaterally” and “Taiwan’s duly elected governments and the rights of its citizens must be respected.” China may rail, but the point will have been made: “Mitts off. Your bullying of the region stops now.”

In making the most of a not-great situation, Johnson had two advantages: a trust relationship with a major power; and historic ties between three countries that have long been allies and are much less economically beholden to China than the EU is. It isn’t all “roses, roses” for the UK — its possible breakup is still on the table. Look for Chinese propaganda in Gaelic! (Voters in any future referendum should follow the money.)


Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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