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In November of last year, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a stunning interview to The Economist in which he said the world is experiencing ‘the brain death of NATO’. To him, this is thanks to US President Donald Trump who continues to cajole NATO allies to contribute more to collective security and to stop pursuing policies that empower our shared enemies. Not surprisingly, the French president’s remarks were met with condemnation and opposition across Europe. He would do well to contemplate his own actions that are threatening the future of NATO.
Take, for example, President Macron’s actions that threaten to undermine the Alliance on nuclear arms control. Just over a year ago, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as a necessary response to the Kremlin’s engineered demise of the greatest Cold War-era disarmament treaty – the only one that succeeded in eliminating an entire class of nuclear arms.
For six years, the US, and NATO, attempted to work together diplomatically to save the INF Treaty, notwithstanding Russia’s illegal flight tests and production of ground-launched cruise missiles expressly in violation of that agreement.
Ultimately, the Alliance made clear its ‘full support’ for the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the INF Treaty as the only step left to respond to Russia’s violations. No member state, including France, objected to this Alliance position. It is important to remember that Russia’s violations created a perverse reality in which the US was effectively the only country in the world that could not test or possess weapons of this class. And, of course, the INF Treaty was not a treaty in which NATO was a party or other NATO members were a party; it was, effectively, a bilateral treaty between Russia and the US.
By the time the Trump administration took this step, according to then Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Senator Dan Coats, ‘Russia … as of late 2018, has fielded multiple battalions of 9M729 missiles, which pose a direct conventional and nuclear threat against most of Europe and parts of Asia’. The US has only recently begun flight testing missiles that reach INF range, which means, unless something has changed since the DNI’s public comments, only one country in Europe possesses intermediate-range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles: Russia.
That is among the reasons that a Russian proposal to ‘freeze’ the deployment of INF-range missiles in Europe was so widely rejected as unserious. In September of last year, the Russian News Agency, TASS, reported that President Vladimir Putin had ‘sent a proposal to the leaders of several countries, including NATO member states, to introduce a moratorium on deploying intermediate and shorter-range missiles in Europe and other regions’.
Russia’s proposal is consistent with its pattern of mendacious deceit. It is the arms control equivalent of an arsonist proposing a ban on matches; this should perhaps not be surprising when one considers how many of its arms control obligations Russia, under Putin, has set ablaze. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungesu said ‘[u]nless and until Russia verifiably destroys the SSC-8 system, this moratorium on deployments is not a real offer’. NATO should be commended for rejecting such Russian proposals as not credible. And it should be noted that no member state dissented in this NATO position.
Alarmingly, however, one member of NATO appears to be charting its own course, independent of the Alliance. In response to the Russian proposals, the French Foreign Ministry said ‘[w]e are studying Russia’s proposals regarding this issue of high importance’. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that ‘Macron … expressed his interest in this kind of dialogue’. Lavrov added, ‘we will, of course, discuss these topics with the French’.
Is this a reprise of Charles de Gaulle famously asking for the removal of non-French NATO forces from its soil in 1967? Is the French president attempting to recapture some sense of European leadership, regardless of NATO’s solidarity and the security of the other 29 member states?
We suggest a more sensible way for President Macron to demonstrate true leadership and commitment to European security: France should participate in the Nuclear Planning Group, as every other NATO member does. As one of the nuclear weapons states permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this would be a powerful statement in support of the security of the other 29 European states that are pledged to each other’s mutual defence. While the current French permanent representative to NATO has ruled out such an action, independent of the current Russian proposal, it is important to remember that such a step would in no way undermine French sovereignty with respect to its control over its nuclear forces.
But, if historical inertia makes this unrealistic at this time, the choice is not entirely binary. France does not have to participate in the Nuclear Planning Group or chart its own course on arms control. France could take other steps to strengthen NATO cohesion specifically as it relates to nuclear deterrence. One example is it could join the Alliance’s SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics) exercises, which, for example, Poland did earlier this year. In any event, there are several options for the French president to show his solidarity and commitment to NATO’s strength and security vis-à-vis Russia, inside the Alliance, not behind its back.
The members of NATO were aligned to ‘fully support’ the necessary US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. While Putin’s gambit to use his violation of that treaty to divide the Alliance failed, it is clear he has not given up. Putin may or may not believe he can get a moratorium on European deployments of intermediate-range systems; but he clearly will not miss an opportunity to attempt to undermine NATO’s solidarity.
Macron, whose election was targeted by Russian interference and political contributions to a rival, should need no further proof of who Vladimir Putin is and what his goals are for NATO and the West. He should work with the US to strengthen the Alliance and adapt its actions to meet contemporary challenges.
Tim Morrison is a former Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, former Policy Director on the House Armed Services Committee, and is now a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.