NATO and the ‘Disruptive’ French President

The contemptuous reactions from seasoned analysts to Emmanuel Macron’s NATO comments actually reinforce the French president’s argument.

We need to face the question of how to keep NATO relevant in today’s complex security environment. The vehemence of some reactions to Emmanuel Macron’s interview in The Economist is striking. Yes, the French president obviously wanted to shake the tree, but the anger and contempt that this has provoked are symptoms of something deeply disturbing. It says a lot about how emotion can prevent a much-needed debate from happening.

Indeed, without reusing Macron’s provocative expression of ‘brain death’, it is worrisome that strategic thinking seems frozen in the minds of some experts. They seem reluctant to fully consider the fundamental changes the world is experiencing, and the consequences these will have on Europe and the transatlantic bond.

Like it or not, the harshness of President Macron’s words reflects the magnitude of France’s frustration vis-à-vis an organisation whose vision and priorities have become incomprehensible for many, especially in the last three years. For the ‘Atlanticists’, this should ring alarms bells instead of deserving anathema and insults.

As the third-highest contributor to NATO’s common-funded budgets and with hundreds of officers posted in the integrated military structures, France would like to be sure that such investments are still underpinned by solidarity between all members. Unlike most of its NATO partners, France maintains a full and expensive set of military capabilities, including independent nuclear forces. The country also deploys thousands of troops and assets in areas of conflict in Europe’s southern and south-eastern flanks in order to address another key part of French – and wider European – security interests.

What we are talking about is, in fact, quite simple: how states, individually and collectively, assess and address the multifaceted security of their citizens. From this perspective, is it really outrageous, in the world of Trump and Erdogan, to consider that the Alliance is running the risk of losing both its values and its strategic compass? Can we say that NATO is truly healthy when the US president questions the very principle of collective defence, which is at the core of NATO’s raison d’être?

Likewise, is it acceptable that during the most recent developments in the Syrian crisis, two members of the club – including the US, the most powerful of all – took actions that seriously put the fundamental security of others at stake? And what about Hungary’s recent veto of a NATO declaration supporting Ukraine, when Putin was visiting Budapest that same day?

There might be some legitimacy in highlighting the inconsistencies of an international defence organisation which buries its head in the sand when the core security interests of its members are directly impacted by the behaviour and decisions taken by other members. Why should we pretend that all of these strategic ‘misbehaviours’ do not constitute a lethal threat to the Alliance, now 70 years old? Of course, some can live in the fantasy that these are not the signs of widening strategic divergences, but this is very much wishful thinking.

Make no mistake: France is and will stay committed to NATO as one of its major players. For example, 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 only matched by a few of its partners. These are verifiable facts, not rhetoric.

The words used by President Macron harm nothing but the certainties and the comfort of strategic thinking that is disconnected from the realities of the modern world.

Above all, his words are a wake-up call.

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


Vice Admiral Patrick Chevallereau

Distinguished Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content