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Emmanuel Macron speaks at the NATO summit in 2018.

Macron is Mistaken – NATO Remains the Continent’s Best Defence

Jonathan Eyal
RUSI Newsbrief, 28 November 2019
NATO, Europe
Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of the transatlantic Alliance is both counterproductive and flawed in its analysis – and his proposals for European security independence are equally misguided.

French President Emmanuel Macron came to power by demolishing his country’s political establishment, sweeping into the Elysee Palace two and a half years ago. Young, energetic and charismatic, he still faces almost no organised opposition at home; his rivals may be noisy, but in organisational and political terms, they remain in the doldrums. He does not need to face the electorate either, for he is merely half-way through his term in office.

With Britain now effectively out of the European Union, Macron also believes himself to be free to join hands with Germany in refashioning Europe. And the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is approaching the end of her term in office means that the reform of Europe could end up having a distinctly French flavour – precisely what all French presidents have dreamt of for generations. And, Macron now seems to think that public criticisms of European institutions and states are a viable method of diplomacy.

Macron is guilty of trying to reform Europe by pulling levers which no longer work

A few months ago, Macron publicly berated the Germans for their supposed reluctance to embrace economic reforms by bluntly warning that Germany’s ‘growth model has perhaps run its course’, an observation which ignored the fact that France is hardly famous for its own economic reforms. More recently, the French President publicly insulted Bulgaria, a European Union member-state whose citizens are entitled to live and work throughout the EU territory, by telling journalists that he’d much rather have organised immigration from Africa than accommodate unorganised Bulgarian migrants in France. And, having initially pledged – together with all other EU governments – that the countries of the Western Balkans could start accession negotiations for eventual Union membership should they resolve their internal and regional disputes in an amicable manner, Emmanuel Macron stunned his EU partners by single-handedly blocking the opening of the EU accession negotiations, not because the Western Balkans nations did not fulfil their side of the bargain, but because the French president modified his European strategy and decided that going back on his own promises was somehow expedient.

Enter the Brain Surgeon

Yet, in November, Mr Macron broke even his own enviable record of ‘plain speaking’ and backtracking by publicly dismissing NATO as suffering from ‘brain death’. No other Western leader has spoken publicly in such terms about this crucial security link between Europe and the US. So, unsurprisingly, Macron’s statement duly attracted a wave of indignant responses on the continent.

And, as is customary on all such occasions, the debate quickly divided along predictable lines: French officials and some of Emmanuel Macron’s closer aides were swift to argue that their boss has been quoted out of context. Meanwhile, a number of academics jumped to the president’s defence by suggesting that, while Macron may have been less than diplomatic, he was essentially correct in his analysis and that, far from destroying NATO, Macron’s criticism was precisely the sort of ‘cold shower’ the Alliance needed in order to face up squarely and fairly to its problems and supposed current predicament. In reality, however, much of Macron’s criticism was unfair and misplaced. None of it was constructive or conducive to the enhancement of European security. In fact, the entire intervention was counter-productive.

Brain Surgery, Deconstructed

The argument which is easiest to dispose of is the one about the president being quoted out of context. French officials have tended to argue that the ‘brain death’ description was just a manner of speech, one more akin to indicating paralysis or a temporary lull in mental functions, rather than an irretrievable death. Yet that is negated by what the president went on to say during the same interview. For, when asked whether he believed in the effectiveness of NATO’s Article Five mutual defence clause, he replied with ‘I don’t know’ and then added: ‘what will Article Five mean tomorrow?’ NATO, Mr Macron elaborated in the same interview, ‘only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States’. For America, in his view, shows signs of ‘turning its back on us’, as it demonstrated starkly with its unexpected troop withdrawal from north-eastern Syria in October, forsaking its Kurdish allies and ignoring its European ones. In President Donald Trump, the French president concluded, Europe is now dealing for the first time with an American president who ‘doesn’t share our idea of the European project’. There is no mistaking his message, nor is there much of a danger of being quoted out of context: Mr Macron intended to say that NATO is yesterday’s story, and certainly at least implied that the sooner we prepare ourselves for the funeral of the Alliance, the better.

What about the argument that, even if what Macron said may have been impolite or undiplomatic, ‘things needed to be said’? The president himself advanced a similar argument. In his opening speech before the Paris Peace Forum, Emmanuel Macron launched an attack on the ‘idleness’ of those who close their eyes to the inefficiency of today’s global institutions such as NATO. ‘The risk is… from idleness, to say that we have organisations, we love them, let’s not question them’, Macron said. ‘We need truth. Priggishness or hypocrisy don’t work in this day and age, because our fellow citizens see it’. In other words, those shocked by the French leader’s pointed criticism of NATO are themselves part of the problem, rather than a source of strength for the Alliance.

With Britain now effectively out of the European Union, Macron also believes himself to be free to join hands with Germany in refashioning Europe

Perhaps, but all this depends on whether one thinks that Macron’s diagnosis of the state of the Alliance is actually correct. And it isn’t. First, it needs to be pointed out that, even if it’s true that President Trump’s arbitrary decisions about Syria did not amount to the behaviour of a steady ally and, even if one also accepts that Turkey’s behaviour in both the Middle East and inside NATO is hardly one of a loyal and cooperative ally, the reality is that Syria and the broader Middle East are not within the purview of NATO. Europe and the US have a long history of egregious disputes over policy in the Middle East under every US president since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. The argument over Syria is not really about Europe-US  burden-sharing. Instead, it is a classic case of Europeans wishing to do little, while expecting the US to do what Europe wants, with American blood and treasure. The dispute between both sides of the Atlantic over Syria is neither new, nor unusual. To put this forward as an example of NATO’s demise is no more persuasive than to point a finger at the EU’s inability to coherently deal with the refugee crisis as evidence of the ‘clinical death’ of the continent.

Furthermore, it is simply untrue that the Alliance has done nothing to deal with its internal problems. Almost every single promise or undertaking made at NATO’s Wales summit in 2014 has either been implemented or is well on its way to being implemented. Few other international organisations have been as nimble as NATO has been over the past few years. True, one could claim that this is not enough, or that faster progress could have been made. But it is nonsense to imply, as the French leader has done, that Alliance leaders are burying their heads in the sand, or refusing to face reality. Alliance troops are now in forward deployments in the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. The US is negotiating further base agreements in Poland, and may well expand its presence in Romania. And although the whole question of increasing overall defence expenditure and ensuring a better burden-sharing between allies may be overshadowed by a rather pointless fetish with the two percent of GDP threshold argument, the reality is that defence budgets are going up throughout Europe, and overall may have gone up by over four percent in real terms last year alone. Yet again, not signs of a dying alliance, let alone a clinically-dead one.

Macron now seems to think that public criticisms of European institutions and states are a viable method of diplomacy

Of course, the US President’s very public doubts about the validity of the mutual security guarantee are a blow to NATO’s cohesion and effectiveness, not only because Donald Trump’s historically-illiterate references to the ‘aggressive’ Montenegrins who may allegedly drag the Alliance into ‘World War III’ are so outlandish, but also because Mr Trump seems to suggest that the way NATO ‘was set up’ was disadvantageous to the United States, since it supposedly gave every Alliance member-state the possibility of drawing the US into war. These are grave allegations, made graver still by the fact that they were being uttered by the commander-in-chief of NATO’s most powerful member.

Nonetheless, it’s worth recalling that European doubts about American security guarantees are not exactly new; that, after all, is why Europeans insisted in the late 1940s and ever since that US troops should be physically located on a permanent basis in Europe, and why NATO as a whole is now mounting semi-permanent deployments in the Baltics. More importantly, the US president’s view is not shared by any of his immediate advisers, nor is it shared by the broader circle of decision-makers in Washington. Just about the first thing the newly-elected House of Representatives in the US did after it convened last year was to reassert its confidence in NATO. And, paradoxically, the fact that President Trump is widely seen as being interested in leaving the Alliance has only buttressed NATO’s credibility; the most fervent NATO supporters in Washington nowadays seem to be politicians on the centre-left of the spectrum.

But even if all these arguments are no compensation for the presence of a man in the Oval Office with no respect for history, strategic logic or alliance-think, what practical purpose is served by questioning the validity of the mutual security guarantee in public, as Mr Macron has done? No government is able to promise that, when the chips are down, a security guarantee will hold as intended. If Emmanuel Macron wants that kind of a reassurance, then could he in turn provide a reassurance that he is happy to embroil France in, say, a nuclear confrontation with Russia in order to defend Poland as he may be obliged to do under Article 42.7 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty? And if he can’t, would he accept that the budding European security structures are also ‘brain dead’ before they have even been launched?

Yet probably the biggest criticism of Macron’s outburst is that it proved to be deeply counterproductive to France’s own interests. Macron’s statement earned a rare but swift rebuke from Chancellor Merkel, who rejected Macron’s ‘sweeping blow’. ‘The French President has chosen drastic words’, Merkel said, before adding that ‘this is not my view of cooperation within NATO’. Whatever the French may think, Angela Merkel pointed out, ‘from a German perspective, NATO is in our interest; it is our security alliance’. And, because the French President explicitly put forward a European defence alternative structure as a replacement rather than as an addition to NATO, his pronouncements were received with the predictable horror in Warsaw and other capitals of central Europe. So, far from galvanising Europe to action, Emmanuel Macron succeeded in further dividing the continent on this topic.

Macron’s Vision

And all of this is a huge pity, since Emmanuel Macron’s political achievements remain undeniable. In a Europe in which politicians currently tremble at the rise of far-right and far-left populist movements, he confronted and defeated both in his 2017 electoral campaign. He started his professional life as a banker but joined the Socialists in government, then left the Socialists and is now governing from the centre-right. For Macron, politics are about the art of the possible, not a bad approach to today’s Europe.

Nor is there any doubt that his vision of the world is a profound and timely one. He starts from the assumption that the United States is in the process of abandoning Europe to its fate, and that the Europeans must prepare for this eventuality by creating their own robust single economy and military structures. Again, not perhaps the view of others in Europe and all very Gaullist, but not necessarily an invalid assumption. He also sees the future of the world as a bi-polar arrangement between the US and China, and regards it as essential that the Europeans should gain their own voice, in order to avoid being trampled by either of these two mega-powers. Yet again, not necessarily untrue. So, given all these developments, why is Emmanuel Macron not more successful in pushing his military agenda?

One reason is the sheer complexity of what the French President is proposing. In the military and security field, he has made no less than three substantial but different proposals, one involving the creation of an European army with military capabilities for expeditionary operations outside the European continent, another for the creation of a UN-style Security Council for Europe to provide for quick decisions in times of crises and, if this was not enough, Macron is now talking even more grandly about building Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’, a nebulous concept which apparently implies that Europe would have the capability to do whatever it chooses.

An equal number of gigantic reform proposals were offered in the economic field as well, starting with the creation of a single European budget, a single European finance minister, a unified pan-European taxation system and the encouragement of the creation of European political parties which will put up electoral candidates throughout the continent.

In reality, there is no way even a tenth of the Macron proposals can be realised. For they will entail not only constitutional changes in many European countries, but also the fostering of a different mentality to the one which exists today. The French president certainly knew the obstacles he faced, but still assumed that he needed to be ambitious in the hope of achieving something. It was a logical assumption but, sadly, a wrong one. For, by demanding that everything must be changed, Mr Macron ended with little being changed.

Do You Trust France More than the US?

Macron also made a big mistake in assuming, as all previous French presidents have done, that Europe can be reshaped by merely getting the Germans to agree to France’s proposals, and then ramming these proposals down the throats of the other European states on the principle that, as President Jacques Chirac famously put it almost two decades ago, the central and eastern Europeans would miss an ‘opportunity to keep quiet’. But that Macron assumption is wrong on two levels.

Europe and the US have a long history of egregious disputes over policy in the Middle East

First, the Germans are in no position to decide anything substantial; Angela Merkel’s government is enfeebled from within, and she is no position to take any risks. Furthermore, in an Union which now includes 28 states, getting the Germans to support a French proposal is no longer a guarantee of success; even after Britain leaves, the nations of central Europe – to name but a few sceptics of Macron’s proposals – are no longer prepared to be told what to do, and have the numbers to prevent France doing what it wishes. In short, Macron is guilty of trying to reform Europe by pulling levers which no longer work.

But probably the most egregious mistake which Emmanuel Macron commits is to assume that because Europeans may reach the conclusion that they can no longer automatically trust the United States, they will trust France or a French-led security structure instead.

Most Europeans are appalled by Donald Trump’s behaviour. Yet they note that, while the US President may go in one direction, US deeds go in the opposite direction. Despite what Mr Trump says, US military expenditure in Europe is up, as is the number of US troops on the continent. So, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, Trump’s separatist rhetoric is not followed by action. Of course, Europeans are aware that, in the long term, officials in Washington see Asia and not Europe as the fulcrum of their security concerns. So there is widespread acceptance of the need for the Europeans to do more for their defences.

But as most European governments see it, this is still different from placing one’s future defences in a military structure proposed by the same French president who is now also suggesting that Europe should improve its relations with Russia in order to keep the Russians away from forging an alliance with the Chinese.

Simply put, most Europeans trust the US with their security more than they trust either France or Germany – individually or combined. And the more Emmanuel Macron claims that Europe’s relationship with the US is no longer central, the more suspicious many Europeans grow. By disparaging the NATO alliance in public and by doubting the validity of the US security guarantee, Mr Macron did nothing to either enhance his credibility with many of this fellow Europeans, or advance his own plans.

Perhaps the best put-down of Emmanuel Macron’s current efforts came recently from Roumen Radev, the President of Bulgaria. The French president ‘has clearly stated his ambitions to become Europe’s leader, but his ideas will be difficult to achieve if he expresses himself in such a clumsy way’.

Jonathan Eyal
Jonathan is Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director at RUSI.

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

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of NurPhoto / PA Images

This article is the final part of a special series of pieces published in recognition of the NATO Engages Conference, co-hosted by the Atlantic Council, GLOBSEC, King’s College London, the Munich Security Conference and RUSI. NATO Engages will take place in London on 3 December 2019, the day before the Annual NATO Summit.


Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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