Whether reckless, a dubious gamble or a calculated attempt to shift European security policy writ large, French President Emmanuel Macron’s choice words describing NATO’s “brain death” has made a lasting impression. Beneath the surface, a larger risk to the trans-Atlantic relationship looms in the Trump-like rhetoric. Macron’s increasing skepticism toward U.S. foreign policy is forcing him to spell out a different vision for European security. This vision sees less American engagement and seeks to reengage malign actors like Russia, all the while recasting them as less problematic to European security than the past several years would suggest.
The rhetoric doesn’t seem to be a bug — it’s built in. But the real problem is that if we remain on the current path, Macron’s take on NATO’s flatlining could change from a colorful metaphor about troubled times for the alliance to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If Macron’s rhetoric is not an accident and is meant to shape NATO and European security, we need to, as Macron himself suggests, understand “the world as it is.” The U.S. and Europe face no shortage of common challenges today. Instability in the Middle East poses serious security questions for Europe and the U.S. alike. Russia looms to the east. And the challenge from China to the multilateral system looms even larger. Internally, inequities in defense spending are a cause for consternation, as are capability gaps and diverging threat perception.
While the challenges facing the alliance are clear, there remains significant debate on how best to tackle them. On external challenges, NATO is better positioned to address some more than others, but it can play a part in each of them.
The troubling part isn’t the fact that Macron continues to highlight the difficulties facing the alliance, but rather the way Paris has chosen to frame them. From Washington, it seems the president of a leading European NATO nation is trying to shape consensus in Europe on the long-term character of U.S. foreign policy, one that sees a lack of commitment to trans-Atlantic security as a permanent fixture (U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria being the most recent example for Paris). And unfortunately it’s not difficult to find a sympathetic audience at the moment. But such rhetoric — coupled with the damage done by the U.S. president — has the potential to significantly reshape the trans-Atlantic relationship for the foreseeable future.
This isn’t the first time Europe’s festering crisis of confidence in Washington during the Trump administration has exposed itself. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, it is a real challenge for the alliance. In 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her now infamous beer-tent speech where she remarked “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent.”
Yet, despite being the lightning rod of much of Trump’s ire, Berlin has attempted to be pragmatic with its approach. Most recently, Germany’s new defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, outlined her vision for Germany’s foreign and security policy, a vision “deeply embedded in the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
Macron’s approach is different, and it’s getting more attention. In his effort to rally momentum for European security policy and the European project, he seems ready to sacrifice the traditional U.S. position in European security. Rather than embed strategic thinking in the partnership, he leans on Europe to take on a more multi-vector, independent power-broker role in the new geopolitical era. This was clear in his comments at the Paris Peace Forum, where he argued that as it relates to China, Europe should find new balances and be an independent third party. While discussions around China are charged and difficult in the current context, disregarding the potential for a common trans-Atlantic approach to what will be the most significant geopolitical challenge for the foreseeable future is startling.
The strategy bears real risks. Just as the U.S. would be weaker without its traditional alliance relationships, so too is Europe and France. Even if Europe had the capabilities to act more independently, would it be wise? With a clear-eyed view of the world, who are the most dependable partners outside of Europe with a significant overlap of interests and values, not to mention interoperable capabilities?
This rhetoric leaves NATO and the broader partnership at a drawn-out and painful inflection point. Yet, the alliance itself is only “brain dead” if its members lose collective confidence and political will to confront the very real challenges facing both sides of the Atlantic, including the internal ones. An optimistic outlook is that Macron’s comments have sounded the alarm bells and are forcing the alliance to administer some much-needed medicine (e.g., the forward-looking reflection process agreed to at London), but there is a real fear that he is only further poisoning the ailing patient.
For the U.S., a more fundamental question lingers: What does Washington do in a world where its allies are starting to accept and echo the current U.S. administration’s rhetoric? Regardless, it is difficult to see how Washington could be ready for such a radical shift in the trans-Atlantic partnership. A look at the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy clearly spells out the invaluable role of allies and partners. France, as one of the most formidable European military powers, plays a significant role here. Such an abrupt change would require a serious rethink of U.S. policy globally.
As competitors seek to tear down or remake the international system in their own image, Washington and European capitals must seriously consider the consequences of making long-term bets on short-term realities. Unfortunately, rhetoric like Macron’s provides yet another pathway for spoilers and challengers to sow division in Europe and across the Atlantic. A more responsive, capable Europe should be welcomed by the U.S. and other European capitals, but implementing the approach advanced by Macron could be at the expense of NATO, the broader trans-Atlantic partnership, and ultimately the interest of both the U.S. and Europe.
Steven Keil is a fellow in the German Marshall Fund’s Washington office. His work focuses on trans-Atlantic security issues, with an emphasis on the United States, Germany, Russia and the post-Soviet space. He previously worked for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.