The quarrel of a bluffer and a buffoon over a nonsensical idea. One could caricature in these terms the controversy that took place, by means of interviews and tweets, between the French and American presidents after the former floated the murky concept of a so-called European army. It is hard to say exactly what motivated the French president at that moment, knowing that if there is a country for which the pooling of European forces would mean a net loss, not to say a fatal disaster, it is France. No doubt Emmanuel Macron is fully aware of this, in which case he must have found that the greatest merit of the concept is that it has no chance to become a reality. It also had all the potential to irritate President Trump, incidentally.
At first glance, both are in their respective roles. What could be more business as usual than a French president who declares that he wants a militarily powerful and independent Europe, and an American president who opposes it? This has indeed been the permanent pattern of Europe/NATO/USA relations for decades. Except that, until now, those French leaders tirelessly advocating European defense had always avoided the very idea of a European army. On the other side, in their systematic refusal of French attempts at independence, US leaders had so far refrained from making fun of the German occupation, or mixing in contemptuous remarks about unemployment, popularity ratings and wine trade.
(Crédit photo: Saul Loeb/AFP)
Driven by his passion for lyricism, Emmanuel Macron thus spoke of a European army as being one of the major future projects for the EU. A term that none of his predecessors had ever used, except to reassure that, precisely, such an army was definitely not the goal of European defense initiatives. And for good reason. A truly supranational military structure would actually subordinate France, the only European country with the full range of defense capabilities, to a pacifist-atlanticist majority who would be only too happy to finally outvote and subdue France’s quest for European independence. No wonder that Macron has since been trying to clarify his choice of words. He explains that the call for a European army is mostly aimed to mobilize in favor of strategic autonomy. Except that the two are incompatible.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, becomes furious when he hears his French counterpart talking about autonomy. He expresses it in his own, rather inelegant, way, but his warning about the primacy of NATO is exactly the same that Washington had always issued whenever Europeans seemed to try to emancipate themselves in the military domain. Twenty years ago, when the EU's defense policy started off, the Clinton administration cautioned their allies that if the purpose of this initiative was to gain more autonomy, then NATO could “become a relic of the past”. And that worked like a charm. Most European countries did not want put into jeopardy the collective defense guarantee offered by Article 5. The irony, with Trump, is that he ended up discrediting the very same guarantee, for having repeatedly called it into question.
However, the biggest paradox remains still on the Europeans’ side. Never since the end of the cold war has the alignment of the planets been so favorable for them to finally take their destiny in their own hand. President Trump’s foreign policy performance, whether on climate, trade, Russia or Iran, is like a 24/7 demonstration of the disadvantages of their dependent position. All in a context where the original reason for this asymmetrical situation, namely the US/NATO defense guarantee, had been weakened by the US President himself, and where already dissatisfied European public opinion risks being even more irritated in view of the collective ineffectiveness of their governments, this time on the international scene.
And yet, most European leaders remain oblivious to these realities. As every time when the geopolitical logic in favor of emancipation becomes almost irresistible, as with the American “pivot” towards Asia in the past, they opt for an Atlanticist backlash. The more the prospect of autonomy seems inevitable, the more they panic and rush to create obstacles. Except in France, where Emmanuel Macron, like all his predecessors, tries to “wake up” his European counterparts. Hence this sentence that sounds like an alarm: “to be an ally does not mean to be a vassal”. And “if we don’t want to be a vassal, we must not be dependent” on the U.S. Including, he insists, in the armaments domain. Except that his European partners do not jostle to join. Like Chancellor Merkel, all prefer to hide behind the expression “as a complement to NATO”, which, on the crucial point of independence, is tantamount to a veto.
Other articles from the author on the same topic:
European defense: the new CSDP-NATO conundrum
The persisting blocking points of European defence
Slippery slope: the re-atlanticization of European defence (EN)
Towards the demystification of the transatlantic relationship (EN)