Fillon Conjures a New European Pragmatism

The French presidential candidate is the establishment voice for a post-Obama, multipolar world order.

For a new, pragmatic foreign policy.

French center-right presidential candidate Francois Fillon has long been in favor of closer ties with Russia. Until very recently, that made him an outlier among serious European politicians. But now that the U.S. is no longer exerting anti-Russian pressure on Europe, Fillon is far more confident in pushing his creed to fellow conservatives, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They aren't convinced yet, but that may be a matter of time.

On Monday, Fillon made a major speech at a Berlin forum organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is close to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party. Its main theme was defending Europe's place "between Donald Trump's United States, Vladimir Putin's Russia and Xi Jinping's China":

Do we want the U.S., China and Russia to be the only players to determine the future of the world? Do we want to continue paying without deciding anything, as we risk doing in the case of Syria? Do we want always to be invited to donor conferences, but excluded from venues where real decisions are made?

Trump has said the U.S. has been too assertive internationally, pursuing ideological visions and regime change to the detriment of its own interests. In Fillon's view, Europe has the opposite problem. At a time when the U.S. will be less inclined to project its power internationally, Europe needs more military spending and more assertive policies to protect its interests. Those interests, Fillon said, included a new relationship with Russia -- "frank, respectful, firm if necessary."

Russia, Fillon argued, could be an ally in the fight against terrorism and an important economic partner, especially when it comes to energy and agriculture. It could also be part of a new European security architecture, Fillon said in an apparent reference to the fading importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "We need to exit the confrontation into which we're locked for the moment and which doesn't benefit anyone," Fillon said.

He paid lip service to the need to follow the Minsk ceasefire deal between Russia and Ukraine before European sanctions against Russia can be lifted. That agreement, however, is easy to reinterpret in more Moscow-friendly terms: Ukraine has dragged its feet on its part of the deal, making no move to call elections in territories currently held by Russian proxies. Fillon is anything but pro-Ukrainian: In his Berlin speech, he said Europe should have the courage to admit it had given Ukraine false hopes of European Union and NATO membership.

At times, Fillon sounded a lot like Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has also called for a more respectful and deal-oriented relationship with Russia, while condemning Putin's authoritarianism and aggression. Fillon was recently eclipsed in the polls by former minister Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent candidate. But for many he remains the front-runner. If he wins the French election, it's easy to imagine a new Western consensus forming on pragmatic, non-ideological lines: Make deals where possible, stand up for national (and, in Europe's case, also supranational) interests where necessary, speak confidently and back up words with enhanced military power.

Fillon and Tillerson are not calling for Putin appeasement, but rather for taking a firm stand on red lines that truly matter to their countries. These apparently do not run through Syria or Ukraine. 

This is not just Putin's dream world. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, also pushed for a "multipolar world" -- rhetoric that made U.S. politicians smile: Yeltsin's Russia was too weak and dependent to aspire to be a pole. Putin has legitimized this ambition at a relatively minor cost to economically shaky Russia, with limited military displays and skillful diplomacy. His Syrian adventure has shown both Trump and the likes of Fillon in Europe that he has the wherewithal to end the war there. And both the U.S. and Europe want the Syrian war to end -- the former to suppress the terrorist threat that comes from it, the latter also to stem the flow of refugees. Russia's potential usefulness is obvious. Its threat to the U.S. and Western Europe is largely hypothetical.

Fillon's vision of a multipolar alternative to the receding Pax Americana is important: It lends legitimacy to similar views expressed by nationalist populists throughout Europe. Most recently, Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy's popular Five Star Movement, joined the chorus, saying that "Putin is the one who is the most sensible on foreign policy" and adding that the world needed "strong statesmen" like Trump and Putin. But Grillo, French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders and the leaders of the Alternative for Germany party are anti-establishment politicians. Fillon, with his long and largely successful career in public life and his support among the affluent French right, is establishment incarnate. He can speak to Merkel as an equal.

Merkel is not particularly receptive now. On Monday, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said that while Germany was interested in a good relationship with Russia, it couldn't overlook the Ukraine problem. Merkel herself has argued that the West had the economic strength to do to the Putin regime what it once had done to East Germany. Fillon disagrees with that. "No one should believe that it's possible to bring a country like Russia to its knees with sanctions," he told reporters in Berlin.

Merkel could eventually come around to Fillon's point of view, especially if the U.S. becomes uninterested in pushing for global trade restrictions against Russia -- a likely development under Trump and Tillerson, who are not strong believers in sanctions. Despite stressing liberal values, she is already cooperating closely with an authoritarian ruler -- Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- in resolving the refugee crisis. Erdogan, of course, is also involved in the Putin-led Syrian peace process.

Even if a new multipolar, pragmatic global arrangement proves to be more than a tantalizing tease for Putin, it need not spell defeat for values-based policies. It will be a chance to turn them inward, presenting a stronger example for nations run by the likes of Putin and Erdogan. In foreign policy, it would be an even longer game than the current one of rhetoric and economic pressure -- but, one hopes, a more effective one.

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