French President Emmanuel Macron gave an extraordinary interview to The Economist in which he declared, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” The cause of this malaise, he said, is the United States abandoning Europe.
He doubts the viability of NATO’s mutual-defense clause, saying 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.” What he wants is for Europe to take back its “military sovereignty” from the United States. That’s ambitious, to say the least: The low-end sticker price for Europe replicating military assistance rendered by the U.S. through NATO is $347 billion, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates it would take 20 years to achieve. But not only are Macron’s plans ambitious—they’re implausible.
Macron, first, proves himself a poor historian by arguing that Donald Trump is the first American president who “doesn’t share our idea of the European project.” In fact, most American presidents haven’t shared France’s idea of the European project—because France’s views have always tended toward uniting Europe by excluding the United States. And the refrain that the U.S. is abandoning Europe is likewise a staple of the transatlantic relationship.
The current French president is, in short, a throwback to his predecessor Charles de Gaulle, who resuscitated France’s self-esteem after the grief of occupation in World War II. Like de Gaulle, Macron would unify Europe under France’s conception, with Germany footing the bill. Like de Gaulle, Macron envisions the United States, the United Kingdom, and France (representing Europe) bringing their military power into a Directorate of Three to determine security policies for the West.
But the strategy runs aground, both for de Gaulle and for Macron, on two shoals. First, France hasn’t yet convinced its European partners that it is more reliable than the United States. American citizens are more willing than their French counterparts to use military force to defend an ally, and—despite Trump—Europeans know that America has provided 70 years of military leadership in NATO.
The second difficulty is that Macron expects other Europeans to increase their military contributions while not taking their concerns into account. The Economist in 2002 quipped that France aspired to be “the ever-agile rider astride post-war Europe’s powerful but ploddingly obedient German horse.” The brake on France’s ambitions isn’t the U.S.; it’s other Europeans. Macron advocates a Russia policy of European reengagement with the Kremlin to negotiate a new security order in Europe, which neither the Baltic states nor the Poles support; he advocates a European army Germany doesn’t want, but that Germany, more than others, would have to fund.
The U.S. has traditionally outplayed France on transatlantic issues because American policies have been more congenial to European sensibilities, and because the U.S. has taken pains to build consensus. In 1966, de Gaulle notified the U.S. that all U.S. troops and the NATO military headquarters had to be removed from France; President Lyndon Johnson’s restrained and substantive response is still one of the best examples of American leadership. After a long discussion, it concludes: “The other 14 member nations of NATO do not take the same view of their interests as that taken at this moment by the Government of France. The United States is determined to join with them in preserving the deterrent system of NATO—indeed in strengthening it in support of the vital common purposes of the West.”
That emphasis on “common purpose” held NATO together through its 1960s crisis and serves as a reminder that the U.S. gains an enormous practical advantage from its ideals, which form the basis for European loyalty. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said that the transatlantic relationship is personal for her because her father, as a soldier in World War II, was wounded by Americans, and counted himself incredibly fortunate to have been captured by Americans.
Macron’s comments reinforce that the Trump administration’s acidulous style is getting expensive for the United States. France is not the only country slighting American contributions to Europe. In commemorating 30 years of German unification, Germany’s Heiko Maas recently thanked France, Britain, and the Soviet Union (all countries that opposed unification) and said nothing of the U.S. (the only country besides West Germany that supported it and worked to achieve it). This is the cost of sending someone like Richard Grenell as ambassador to Berlin, deaf to German concerns and destructive to its interests; it’s the cost of the president berating friendly governments at NATO summits, and treating the solemn commitment of mutual defense as a protection racket.
American policy ought not to be as alienating to Europeans as Macron’s. Which means that the right policy response from the United States to Macron’s denigration is to get back to doing what American foreign policy does at its best: Live American ideals and stand quietly resolute with America’s allies.