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After declaring NATO "brain-dead" has President Macron brought Europe any closer to strategic autonomy ?

After declaring NATO
 Philippe Maze-Sencier
Global Chair, Public Affairs, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

On December 3rd and 4th, NATO leaders gathered in London for the 70th anniversary of the Alliance. While the world was expecting a rather tense meeting following the controversial "brain dead" interview of President Macron with The Economist, it ended with the issuing of a common final communiqué reiterating the collective defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the Charter. Philippe Maze-Sencier, Managing Director at McLarty Europe, shares his views on what the French President has achieved so far – and what he hasn’t.

Against all odds, NATO’s 70th birthday meeting in London has come and gone and NATO is still around, unscathed. Not only did NATO leaders avoid the organization running off-road, but even Emmanuel Macron, who unleashed a storm in a stunning interview to The Economist magazine last month by calling NATO "brain-dead", could claim a victory and point to the meeting’s decision to conduct a strategic review of the Alliance’s purpose. It is hard to disagree with President Macron’s assertion that the world has dramatically changed, potentially undermining the credibility, legitimacy and raison d’être of NATO. It is equally indisputable that Europe needs to do more to defend itself and, in the words of the French President, reclaim "sovereignty" over its security by investing more in defense and stop freeloading off the United States. However, whether his questioning the solidity of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee or his apparent eagerness to strike a new bargain with Russia over the heads of our Central, Eastern and Northern European neighbors will help him achieve this is highly debatable. A rather poor choice of words, a lack of preparatory discussions with his European partners and a perceived Gallic contempt for those who may disagree have clouded Emmanuel Macron’s all too necessary wake-up call for a more militarily responsible and capable Europe. Can the French President succeed in forging a European consensus on defense or has he on the contrary ensured lasting distrust for any Paris-led initiative, durably affecting efforts to see a more strategically autonomous and capable Europe emerge?

As often with President Macron, there needs to be a differentiation between style and substance. What the French leader sees today is a world increasingly hostile to Europe’s interests and objectives, a continent threatened on its immediate vicinity as well as facing terrorism on its home soil. While Macron may be faulted as to the style, it is hard to push back on the overall direction of travel, especially considering America’s own strategic preoccupations with China. It was then candidate Donald Trump who said, "here’s the problem with NATO: it’s obsolete", or German chancellor Angela Merkel who remarked that "the times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. […] We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands. […] We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans." According to a New York Times article, senior administration officials would have confirmed that "several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from NATO." The icing on the cake for Macron came in October 2019 with Donald Trump’s unilateral pull-out announcement of U.S. troops from Syria, greenlighting by the same token a Turkish offensive that fundamentally put the security of other NATO allies at stake.

As often with President Macron, there needs to be a differentiation between style and substance.

As The Economist bluntly put it, Macron is "asking fellow leaders to imagine how Europe will thrive in a dangerous world without a cast-iron American alliance". One may dislike the French President’s choice of words or disagree with either or both the analysis and the resulting inference, but Macron’s vision deserves a thoughtful answer that goes beyond the knee-jerk reaction seen thus far.

The French leader’s comments were not meant to be taken as an "either or" choice. France is quite clear-eyed about the long-term effort required to address European capabilities shortfalls and about the value of U.S. support, as expressed last March in Washington by French defense minister Florence Parly. To take a rather French aphorism, it needn’t be "fromage OU dessert, mais fromage ET dessert". Macron’s actual words in the interview were that he thought "attitudes [were] changing and that today European defense is complementary to NATO", adding that "these days, if you don’t have military credibility, in a world where authoritarian powers are on the rise again, you don’t get to sit at the table".

As Patrick Chevallereau highlighted, "France is and will stay committed to NATO as one of its major players. Its armed forces are deployed from the Barents Sea to the Baltic States and the Black Sea, and directly contribute to the credibility of the Alliance at a level matched by only a few of its partners. These are verifiable facts, not rhetoric." Unlike most of its NATO partners, France maintains a full set of military capabilities, including independent nuclear forces, and deploys thousands of troops and assets in areas of conflict in Europe’s southern and south-eastern flanks to address another key part of French – and wider European – security interests. The price paid by France was again highlighted on 2nd December when the country paid homage to 13 soldiers killed while fighting Islamic State-affiliated extremists in Mali.

If the French President’s case as to the strategic challenges facing Europe is hard to fault, do his criticisms of NATO and the way he went about it help midwife a more militarily capable and sovereign Europe? This is much more debatable.

The immediate reactions coming out of European capitals ranged from dismay to shock to anger. Macron’s interview comments came out of the blue, taking his European partners by surprise. No prior consultation, no warning, no preparatory explanation. As a result, responses have been overwhelmingly negative. In an unusually strong rebuke, chancellor Merkel said that NATO was the "cornerstone of security" for Germany, while Germany’s defense minister stated that "NATO remains the anchor of security in Europe. We want complementarity, not competition."

This lack of consultation has led to renewed fears of a Paris-steered Europe at the service of French dreams of grandeur. That the European Union should seek a modus vivendi with Moscow makes sense, but certainly not at the expense of the legitimate security interests of Russia’s EU neighbors. Many other European states do not share Macron’s optimism about Russia and fear the French confuse engagement with appeasement of Russian revisionism.

"Macron advocates a European army Germany doesn’t want, but that Germany, more than others, would have to fund."

The apparent disregard for the security concerns of countries living in the shadow of Russian military power is what creates a real barrier with Macron’s European partners; "the brake on France’s ambitions isn’t the U.S.; it’s other Europeans. Macron advocates a Russia policy of European reengagement with the Kremlin to negotiate a new security order in Europe, which neither the Baltic states nor the Poles support; he advocates a European army Germany doesn’t want, but that Germany, more than others, would have to fund."

Macron’s apparent questioning of Article 5 guarantees was rightly seen by his fellow leaders as a fault. As one of the Alliance’s strongest and most capable military, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, France cannot undermine the very essence of the Alliance. If a healthy debate is good, France should not create any doubt as to its commitment to come to the defense of its allies. Those perceived reservations as well as Macron’s apparent "naiveté" regarding Russia have undermined France’s efforts to bolster the European Union’s defense and see it be more autonomous in its own security.Here we get to the heart of Macron’s challenge: to date, his ideas find remarkably little echo or support with France’s European partners, often seen as profoundly divisive, exacerbating differences within Europe rather than unifying the bloc.

For Macron’s European partners, taking America out of the equation implies a return to behaviors they do not want to revert to.

Jan Techau of the German Marshall Fund put it very clearly: "In Europe's low-trust political environment, the instincts of nations under duress have traditionally not been 'let's join forces' but 'everyone for himself.'" For Macron’s European partners, taking America out of the equation implies a return to behaviors they do not want to revert to. As Techau emphasized, integration is not a European instinct; it is an acquired taste and many Europeans fear only one thing more than a Europe dominated by Germany; a Europe dominated by France.

Finally, Macron has yet to offer a clear, credible pathway as to how Europe would become more sovereign, as well as a time horizon for this to happen. Arguably, progress has been made under pressure from France to strengthen the EU’s military capabilities, from the launch of the European Intervention Initiative (though still largely at a declaratory stage so far) to the European Defense Fund or the Permanent Structured Cooperation. However, if these steps do go in the direction of a more capable and autonomous Europe, they both remain baby-steps and highlight the huge capability gaps that Europe would face should there be an American retrenchment from NATO. Macron has so far failed to offer a viable roadmap to a more militarily sovereign Europe that addresses concerns and unites rather than divides. For most Europeans, there is to date just no credible short to medium term alternatives to the Alliance’s role in the defense of Europe.

NATO’s London summit ended with unexpected unity following the display of public acrimony that had preceded it. If Macron’s diagnosis is hard to disagree with, his proposed prescription is much less palatable to France’s European partners. While his assessment deserves proper consideration, he will need to show more consideration for and acknowledgement of the legitimate concerns and interests of his European partners if his proposals are to get any traction. Macron’s comments and subsequent attitude is instilling an inherent suspicion of any initiatives coming from Paris aimed at strengthening Europe’s strategic autonomy. These will likely be presumed to try to undermine NATO, give undue recognition to Russia or serve French rather than European interests and objectives. As Philip Stephens rightly put it, "if Europe prizes its values it will have to defend them". However, the fall-out of Macron’s interview may actually be the exact opposite of its stated goal: the kiss of death for a more autonomous and sovereign Europe – at least in the short run.


Copyright: Bertrand GUAY / AFP

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