France and NATO: President Macron Gets Clinical

The French president’s criticism of NATO is not only unsubstantiated, but also detrimental to France itself.

French President Emmanuel Macron has developed a disconcerting tendency to speak first, and only think later. A few months ago, he publicly berated the Germans for their supposed reluctance to embrace economic reforms by bluntly warning that their ‘growth model has perhaps run its course’, an observation which ignored the slightly inconvenient fact that nobody beats France in the game of postponing necessary economic reforms.

More recent still, the French president publicly insulted Bulgaria, an EU member state whose citizens are perfectly entitled to live and work in any EU country, by telling journalists that he would ‘rather have people who come from Guinea or Côte d’Ivoire legally’ than accommodate in France those he claimed were coming through Bulgarian ‘clandestine networks’.

Now, however, even Macron’s impressive record of miscues and faux pas appears to have been broken by the French president’s remarks to senior correspondents of The Economist in which he claimed that Europe is experiencing ‘the brain death of NATO’.

As is often the case when the French leader offloads a pile of steaming words which offend someone, an army of commentators have jumped to his defence. He was quoted out of context; do read the entire Economist interview before you open up, urged some Macron apologists; his harsh words will encourage us to debate Europe’s problems more openly, claimed others. But the sad truth is that even if one reads the entire interview, Macron’s remarks remain indefensible. And far from providing a cue to a broader European defence debate, they only render such a debate even more stilted.

First, it is worth pointing out that, in clinical parlance, brain death is irreversible; it is not comparable to a vegetative state or a coma, clinical terms which are also often used by politicians to illustrate supposedly hopeless situations. There is no escape from brain death, but death itself. So, those who now jump to Macron’s defence by pointing out that he did not imply the total demise of the Alliance should admit that, even if their contention is true, the words the French president chose remain simply unfortunate.

But what are the arguments which led Macron to diagnose ‘brain death’? Examples the French leader gives include Turkish and US behaviour in the current conflict in Syria. ‘You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None’, he told the Economist journalists. ‘You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake. There has been no NATO planning, nor any coordination. There hasn’t even been any NATO deconfliction’. 

Well, if that is the only argument for a death diagnosis, then NATO is very much alive. To start with, although relations between Turkey and its NATO Allies are clearly not good, the Alliance faced similar and much more prolonged crises in the past, including many when Turkey looked set not only to engage in a military operation which its Allies did not favour, but actually seemed poised to go to war against another NATO member state, namely Greece. Yet the Alliance not merely survived those crises during the 1970s and 1980s, but actually went on to thrive.

Lack of coordination is a problem? Absolutely. But lack of coordination is not necessarily a problem only for NATO, and is most emphatically not a mortal one. Just consider the following episode as an example. The EU promised for years that, if North Macedonia was to settle its problems with Greece, it and neighbouring Albania would be invited to start EU accession negotiations. These Western Balkan countries did precisely that. But none other than France recently vetoed the start of the EU accession negotiations, reneging on a solemn European promise. There was no coordination or consultation; it was a French non and that was it. Are we to conclude that the EU is ‘brain dead’ as a result? Certainement pas. French leaders have long been masters of the art of preaching to others what they do not practice themselves.

More gravely still, in his Economist interview, Macron points to creeping doubts about the validity of the US’s mutual-security guarantee to its fellow NATO members as a reason for the Alliance’s alleged demise; ‘I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States’ he said. Ambassador Gerard Araud, who represented France in the US and at the UN and is therefore one of his country’s most experienced diplomats, quickly amplified on his president’s remarks, by tweeting his own version of NATO’s interminable question: ‘You think the Americans would die for Danzig? They didn’t do it in 1939’, he wrote.

Let us set aside the history of 1939 from which, incidentally, France (and Britain) emerged with less credit than the US, and concentrate instead on  NATO’s mutual security guarantee. Unquestionably, US President Donald Trump’s comments which appeared to disparage the application of NATO’s Article 5 remain troubling. But it is essential to recall that, when Trump’s comments were first published last year, the president was showered with criticism from every corner of the US political and military establishment. Just about the only issue on which there is agreement in Washington today is that NATO remains the bedrock of the US’s security relationship with Europe. It is also a fact – and one which Macron does not acknowledge – that, far from going down, US military deployments in Europe are up, as is US spending on its military commitment in Europe.

Furthermore, NATO has seldom before experienced such a busy period of transformation and adaptation. Most of the pledges the Alliance made in 2014 at its Wales Summit have now been fulfilled, including forward deployments in the Baltics and in Poland and Romania, as well as a vast programme of transformation of logistics and operational plans. Of course, much more could and should be done, but only someone who was pinned for too long in his Elysee Palace gilded rooms – largely in order to escape the wrath of Yellow Vest demonstrators – could argue that the Alliance has done ‘nothing’.

But ultimately, even if Macron believes every word he said, his outburst is still deeply counter-productive. European leaders have wondered for more than 70 years whether the US would be there to protect them in times of need; that, after all, is why they insisted on US troops being deployed in Europe. But it is one thing to wonder about such things in private, and quite another to express such doubts in public. As Francois Heisbourg, one of France’s best defence analysts, accurately points out, Macron ‘is speaking like a policy-detached think-tanker’, rather than a head of an Alliance state. And that matters, for with every doubt that he expresses in public, NATO’s mutual security guarantee is diminished, precisely the opposite of what Macron himself claims to want.

Furthermore, the Economist interview also hurts France’s own objectives. The French leader’s vision if that of a Europe which looks after its own defences, and one which, naturellement, France leads. But the more he presents this vision as a substitute rather than as being complementary to NATO, the less he is likely to persuade countries such as Poland or Romania – to name but a few – to go along with his plans. So, his latest media outburst was not merely an indiscretion, but a huge betise.

When he was elected two years ago, Macron seemed to embody Europe’s best hopes: young; energetic; determined to defeat the forces of populism; eager to shake off the political cobwebs of his country and of Europe. Today, however, he increasingly recalls the Duracell Bunny, the pink rabbit used in the battery manufacturer’s adverts; it makes plenty of noise, travels in all directions, but all for no particular purpose.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other organisation.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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