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Some in London accept that Macron has a point. One senior British official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the dynamics at play, told me NATO did need to address the strategic challenges set out by the French president and said the alliance would benefit from more leaders prepared to think as deeply as Macron. Still, the official said, Macron had no real answers to the questions he had posed, dismissing as a “joke” his call for Europe to take over the role played by the U.S. as the guarantor of the West’s security.
There is no realistic scenario in the foreseeable future in which a combined European force can match the U.S.’s military strength, political will, and operability. The region’s emerging military capacity remains painfully weak and is likely to remain so, British officials who spoke with me said. Macron was kidding himself if he thought otherwise, even if his analysis of the problem was accurate.
Old heads argue NATO goes through cycles of self-doubt and introspection. One official said there were “massive rows” every 10 years or so—and the protagonists, as today, are usually France and the U.S., while the Brits and Germans watch on, urging calm. “That’s still true,” the official said.
Yet the very fact that the world moves on also means NATO cannot stand still. Throughout the Cold War, while the alliance had a clear enemy, there were fierce arguments about the merits of first-strike policies and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The end of the Cold War saw fresh challenges regarding expansion of the alliance, and ethnic cleansing on its doorstep.
Read: Why we stand with NATO
Former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind told me NATO’s current problems needed to be put into perspective. “The French have a history of saying things that will shock NATO,” he said. “France always likes to be different. Some of what Macron has said is justified, and it is overwhelmingly because of Trump.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has suggested that the effect of Trump’s presidency—not his intention, but his effect—could be to shock Europe into standing on its own feet. “It would be ironic if that emerged out of the Trump era,” Kissinger said, in an interview with the Financial Times. “But it is not impossible.”
American frustration with Europe did not start with Donald Trump and will not go away should he fail to win reelection next year. The challenges posed by both the U.S. and French presidents are here to stay.
In Robert Gates’s farewell speech to Europe as Barack Obama’s defense secretary in 2011, he warned of a “growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.” He noted with what appeared to be almost despair that Britain and France could not have carried out the 2011 intervention in Libya without the support of the United States.