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What Macron Got Right About NATO, Europe, and the Transatlantic Relationship

Sara Bjerg Moller
Sunday, November 24, 2019, 10:00 AM

Finding the grains of truth in the French president's controversial assessment of NATO.

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Editor’s Note: Leaders on both sides of the ocean have long raised questions about the value of NATO and other components of the transatlantic alliance, but French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent critique of NATO and the bitterness behind it seem unprecedented to many observers. Seton Hall’s Sara Bjerg Moller unpacks Macron’s critique, detailing both the long-standing concerns they reflect and new issues that are arising.

Daniel Byman


Within moments of its publication on Nov. 8, French President Emmanuel Macron’s interview with The Economist ignited a firestorm of criticism. Much of the initial reporting (as well as the commentary it has given rise to) focused on the French leader’s controversial comments regarding the “brain death” of NATO, a turn of phrase that the Elysee Palace will no doubt soon come to regret, if it doesn’t already.

One European editorial went so far as to liken the interview to a “grenade” being thrown at NATO. Of course, the transatlantic alliance is no stranger to controversy and has weathered such storms before. Outside of death and taxes, few things in life are as certain as “crises” in transatlantic relations. But more often than not the crisis stems from Europe’s ambivalence about its own security. The problem, in other words, isn’t just the transatlantic relationship; it’s that Europe today continues to be bitterly divided over its purpose in the world and NATO’s function.

It is still unclear whether alliance officials on both sides of the Atlantic can use this moment to initiate productive conversations about the future of NATO (as Macron appears to have intended) or it becomes just another “crisis” in a long list of transatlantic squabbles. Having that conversation will require more difficult truths to be spoken, though ideally behind closed doors rather than publicly where they risk doing grave harm. Despite Macron’s blunt delivery, parts of his assessment of NATO, Europe and the transatlantic relationship were accurate, while being wide of the mark on others. Parsing what he got right and what he got wrong is necessary for a productive debate about NATO’s future.

“Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner.”

True. In the aftermath of the Second World War, American policymakers—men like Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and Dean Acheson—wanted Europe to stand up to (and eventually balance) the Soviet Union, but they quickly came to realize that the economically devastated European nations weren’t strong enough to do so yet on their own. The solution was for the United States to take on a more direct role in Europe, including a permanent commitment of American forces to the continent, until Europe was strong enough to provide for its own security and defense again.

The problem, according to multiple U.S. administrations since, is that Europe never stepped up to the plate and fulfilled its part of the bargain. Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has complained bitterly about Europe’s unwillingness to adequately provide for its own security and its tendency to pass the buck to the American taxpayer.

The “internal European crisis … began ten years ago.”

False. Europe and NATO’s strategic crisis dates from the early 1990s, not the global financial crisis of 2008 or the migration crisis that followed a few years later, as Macron argues. The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a decade of ambitious expansion projects by Western European institutions. Indeed, much of what ails Europe today can be seen as a backlash to choices made by leaders in the 1990s to rapidly expand the membership of institutions like NATO and the EU, and their corresponding failure to adequately prepare their populations for the consequences of those choices.

In the case of NATO, alliance political leaders tasked the military alliance with doing more while simultaneously asking less of their members. Given the improved security environment, the allies could (and did) draw down their armed forces. NATO followed suit by streamlining its command and force structures, and shuttering dozens of facilities. At the same time, the alliance chose to expand its commitments and undertake new missions like peacekeeping, “going out of area” to avoid “going out of business.” Absent a real debate about whether the alliance in the post-Cold War world should continue to be a collective defense organization aimed at protecting members from aggression or transition to a collective security system focused on managing the security of others, NATO tried to be both. Consequently, when the security environment began to change at the turn of the century, many NATO members found themselves unprepared.

Elsewhere in the interview, Macron indicates that he is aware that the roots of the present crisis go deeper, saying, “In 1990 we didn’t reassess this geopolitical project in the slightest when our initial enemy vanished.” It is precisely the lack of a serious debate about the strategic wisdom of expanding NATO that has led to the strategic impasse facing the alliance today. By failing to consider the long-term defense implications and other costs associated with enlargement and asking comparatively little of both existing and new members at the time, the alliance effectively kicked the can down the road.

“NATO thrives operationally but lacks a strategy.”

True. As I’ve argued in both published and unpublished work, NATO has a strategy deficit. NATO’s last Strategic Concept was published in 2010 and officials on both sides of the Atlantic don’t expect a new one any time soon. So far, NATO has managed to creatively adapt elements of its force posture to better align with the post-2014 security environment on its eastern flank. But the alliance still lacks a theater-wide strategy for Europe.

The crux of the alliance’s strategy problem today is Europe’s lack of a common strategic vision. And while NATO has shown itself to be adroit at adapting itself in recent years, adaptation is not a strategy. At some point, the European allies will have to decide just what kind of alliance they want to belong to. Otherwise, the danger is that NATO will continue its post-Cold War trend of going from adaptation to adaptation with no clear idea of where it is headed.

NATO “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.”

False. NATO is a collective defense organization. As such, each member has pledged that in the event of an armed attack against any member, they would take “such action as it deems necessary” to come to their assistance.

Over the past three years, the United States has demonstrated its commitment to European security by, among other things, substantially increasing the budget for the European Defense Initiative (EDI). Originally known as the European Reassurance Initiative and created in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Defense Department program has helped fund the increased U.S. combat presence in Eastern Europe, improved prepositioned equipment and infrastructure there, and supported additional exercises with our European allies—all tangible evidence of America’s continued commitment to NATO. Earlier this year, Washington agreed to increase its “heel-to-toe” rotational presence in Poland by another 1,000 soldiers, bringing the total number of U.S. soldiers stationed in that country alone to more than 5,000.

True, President Trump is unlikely to become NATO’s number one fan anytime soon. Even so, Congress and the Pentagon remain firmly committed to the transatlantic relationship and Europe’s security. The president’s rhetorical outbursts aside, U.S. policy regarding NATO and European security remains largely unchanged, so far. This is further evidenced by the fact that, rather than find fault with U.S. commitments to Europe today, Macron was forced to point instead to U.S. actions in Syria. But while Macron is not the first to attempt to draw a straight line between U.S. commitments in the Middle East and U.S. security guarantees elsewhere, academic research has shown that when the stakes are high, leaders move beyond heuristics and infer credibility of actors on the basis of current actions. More recently, scholars have argued that the ability to follow through is an important and underappreciated factor that influences how other actors view statements of resolve.

And while it is true that the U.S. nuclear arsenal has always served as the guarantor of last resort for the defense of Europe, it’s worth remembering that the French have a nuclear deterrent of their own (as do the British). The problem, of course, is that every French president since Charles de Gaulle has refused to extend the French nuclear deterrent to other NATO members. The official position of Macron’s government is that while French nuclear deterrence has a European dimension, Paris has neither the means nor the doctrine to practice extended deterrence in NATO. So much for a French guarantee of last resort.

As Kori Schake and others have noted, Macron’s sentiments are but the latest in a long tradition of French efforts to unite Europe by excluding the United States. Historically, the rest of Europe has been wary of “la puissance française.” Judging by Berlin and others’ reaction so far, there is little to suggest this time around will be any different. So, while Macron has decided to go public with his doubts about the credibility of the American security guarantee by asking if the U.S. president will “be prepared to activate solidarity … if something happens at our borders,” many Europeans have historically asked, and will continue to ask after Macron’s interview, “Will France?”

Where Does NATO Go From Here?

It is possible to agree with many of Macron’s statements and still conclude that the French leader made a huge strategic blunder. Even if one were to give Macron the benefit of the doubt and believe that his intention of awakening Europe from its strategic slumber was good, it is a decidedly poor idea to go about it this way. To paraphrase an old Danish saying, it’s a sick bird that purges itself in its own nest. At the very least, Macron’s comments suggest that he might not be the right person to resuscitate Europe’s strategic deficit.

Sara Bjerg Moller is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a former Eisenhower Defence Fellow at the NATO Defence College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of any current or past affiliation.

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