Much has been said and written about French President Emmanuel Macron’s description of NATO, in an interview with The Economist, as “brain dead”, and some Western leaders in particular, such as US President Donald Trump, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, had quite harsh words about Macron’s attitude towards the Atlantic Alliance. But what exactly did Macron have in mind when he talked about NATO’s brain death and the resulting need for Europe to have its own defence system and closer relations with Russia? Should the countries of NATO’s eastern flank, the Bucharest Nine (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria), be concerned about France’s commitment to NATO? Probably not, as France’s current position is nothing new, and common European policies in the field of defence do not have to stand in opposition to NATO.
But first, what did France’s President really say in his interview with The Economist published on November 9? When he said that “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO”, Macron was referring to the situation in Syria, where the United States withdrew its troops from the Kurdish north of the country in October, de facto allowing Turkey to launch an offensive against the Kurds, who had been the West’s allies against the Islamic State. Hence, in Macron’s words: “You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies”, and “You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake.” Thus, on Article Five, which promises mutual assistance in case of an attack on a NATO member, the French President asked: “If the Bashar al-Assad regime decides to retaliate against Turkey, will we commit ourselves under it?”. Macron’s conclusion was that “what’s happened is a huge problem for NATO. It makes two things all the more essential on the military and strategic level. Firstly, European defence—Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability. And secondly, we need to reopen a strategic dialogue, without being naive and which will take time, with Russia. Because what all this shows is that we need to reappropriate our neighbourhood policy, we cannot let it be managed by third parties who do not share the same interests.” More specifically about Russia, the French President also believes that “the United States is really tough with Russia, it’s their administrative, political and historic superego. But there’s a sea between the two of them. It’s our neighbourhood, we have the right to autonomy, not just to follow American sanctions, to rethink the strategic relationship with Russia, without being the slightest bit naive and remaining just as tough on the Minsk process and on what’s going on in Ukraine.”
For Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, responding in the Financial Times, the French President’s words about the Atlantic Alliance were both “irresponsible” and “dangerous”, and “President Macron’s doubts about [NATO’s mutual defence clause] can make other allies wonder if perhaps it is France that has concerns about sticking to it.” For Morawiecki, NATO’s problems arise not from Donald Trump’s foreign policy, but from the lack of commitment from some European members which, unlike Poland, still spend less on defence than the agreed threshold of 2% of GDP. Morawiecki also reproached France for its involvement in the Nord Stream 2 project, which will double the capacity of the Nord Stream pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Germany, and he reiterated a criticism which has been heard in the past from Donald Trump against Germany, namely that “Nord Stream 2 is paying with our European money for Russian weapons and Russian armour.”
However, in the present case, Emmanuel Macron found himself very isolated at the subsequent NATO summit in London on December 3–4, since even his German partner criticised what he had said to The Economist. Although Germany’s leaders have stated in the past that they too want the EU to have a common defence system and possibly a common army in the future, they usually also stress that it should be part of NATO. One example of this was in November 2018, after Emmanuel Macron had infuriated his American counterpart by calling for “a real European army” to “protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States”. Chancellor Angela Merkel then supported the idea of a European army in the future, but insisted that this should not be “an army against NATO, it can be a good complement to NATO”. This time, after Macron’s words about the brain death of NATO, Merkel said: “Emmanuel Macron chose drastic words, that is not my view of cooperation in NATO. The transatlantic partnership is indispensable for us.”
As a matter of fact, at the December summit near London on the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic Alliance, it was not France but Turkey which threatened to block NATO’s eastern defence plans unless the Atlantic Alliance agreed to regard the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist group. The YPG had become the target of the Turkish offensive in October after Donald Trump’s order to withdraw US troops. When Trump announced his intention to pull out troops as early as December 2018, Turkey urged France to withdraw its own military support to Kurdish forces in Syria. There were an estimated 200 French troops in north-eastern Syria providing support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component. The French President then criticised Trump’s decision, saying that “an ally should be dependable” and recalling that “The SDF is fighting against the terrorism that fomented attacks against Paris and elsewhere.” Trump’s decision was also criticised by the UK, which like France lent military support to the Kurds. However, the US presence, with 2,000 troops in north-eastern Syria until December 2018 and nearly 1,000 remaining there until the abrupt October pull-out, formed the core of Western support to Kurdish fighters, and neither France nor Britain had the clout or the means to deter a Turkish offensive against those who had been the West’s best allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Macron’s words about NATO being “brain dead” and the need for the European Union to have a common defence policy and a common army are to be understood in that context. They do not mean that France is questioning its commitment to mutual defence in line with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, or that the countries of the eastern flank that make up the Bucharest Nine initiative have any reason to worry.
It should also be remembered that in the past France had a special status within NATO. French President Charles de Gaulle decided to leave the integrated military structure in 1966 in order “to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty”, and it was only in 2009, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, that France rejoined that structure, although it had always been committed to mutual defence. Even now, France is not part of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), which is responsible for the development and the implementation of NATO’s nuclear policy. Macron’s viewpoint, as expressed in his interview with The Economist, is very Gaullist in essence: “Europe in any case has to think of itself as a balancing power. But I think that it’s France’s role, as a permanent member of the Security Council, a nuclear power, founding member of the European Union, a country which is present through its overseas territories on every continent and which remains very present because of the French-speaking world. We have unparalleled reach. Basically, only the UK, via the Commonwealth, can claim a similar reach, although it’s decided to follow a different path. But our traditions and our diplomatic history are different: we’re less aligned with American diplomacy, which in this world gives us more room for manoeuvre. When I say balancing power, that also raises the question of our allies. But to put it very simply, we have the right not to be outright enemies with our friends’ enemies.” However, a major difference between Macron and De Gaulle is that the former sees the possibility of having independent policies only through a more integrated European Union. Times have changed, and France no longer possesses the means to act as a world power on its own. Hence the tendency on the part of French leaders to push for a core of more integrated EU countries with which Paris believes it would still be able to act as a world power.
In this respect, the interests of France and of the Bucharest Nine are divergent, but Paris is somewhat isolated, as its European partners, including Germany, would not be willing to relinquish US security warranties, including the United States’ nuclear umbrella, in exchange for French equivalents! Macron’s words were also probably meant as a political message at home. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, French leaders have been calling for a common European defence policy and even for a European army – a totally unrealistic goal without full-fledged political union, i.e. a fully federal European Union – as an excuse for not spending enough on the French army. One point is that the French nuclear strike capability is designed solely as a deterrent, which means that any country using weapons of mass destruction against France could expect to suffer the same amount of destruction on its own territory as might potentially be inflicted on France, considering the size, infrastructures and population of the latter. France’s estimated 300 nuclear warheads are no match for Russia’s 6490, and with Britain leaving the EU its own nuclear arsenal cannot be expected to be part of a possible future autonomous European deterrent force. Another issue is that while the United States spends 3.42% of GDP on defence, France’s defence expenditure stands at only 1.84% of its much more modest GDP. There are in fact only six European countries meeting the NATO guideline of 2% GDP: Greece (2.24%), the United Kingdom (2.13%), Estonia (2.13%), Romania (2.04%), Poland (2.01%), and Latvia (2.01%). In dollar terms, according to current estimates, the United States alone accounts for $685 billion out of NATO’s $984 billion expenditure in 2019. France’s defence spending amounts to a little over $50 billion, compared with $60 billion for the UK, $54 billion for Germany and $12 billion for Poland (all figures given are 2019 estimates).
When the UK leaves the EU, France will be the only EU country with the capacity to deploy forces overseas, albeit on a much smaller scale than the United States. With some 30,000 French troops already deployed in several different operations, including some 10,000 abroad, French forces are already overstretched, and they suffer from insufficient funding for the maintenance of their equipment. The Barkhane operation in the Sahel region in particular, with 4,500 troops engaged in an effort to keep Islamist fighters at bay on a territory the size of Europe covering five different countries, hangs heavy on the French army, and no-one knows when it will be possible to pull those troops out. Paris is now asking its European partners for help training the armies of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and Niger so that they can eventually take care of their own security.
On NATO’s eastern flank, France has contributed to the presence of NATO forces in the Baltic states and Poland, with 300 troops deployed in Estonia since 2017, where they are incorporated into a British battalion.
All major political parties in France support remaining in the Atlantic Alliance, although some, in particular within Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN), sometimes question its relevance after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, when running for president in 2017, Le Pen promised voters only that she would pull France out of the integrated military structure, not out of NATO itself, which would amount to a return to the situation before 2009. Neither the centre-right Republicans, Macron’s centrist-liberal LREM or outgoing President Hollande’s Socialist Party mentioned withdrawal from the integrated military structure in their manifestos. In 2009, an Ifop opinion poll showed that 58% of French voters were in favour of their country rejoining NATO’s integrated military structure after 40 years outside it, while only 37% were opposed.
Another Ifop poll conducted in 2017 – the year Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the presidential election – for the French ministry of defence showed that 68% of French voters believed that European defence integration should take place within the framework of NATO, and 54% considered that common European defence policies should focus primarily on external operations – the kind of operations where the French army acting alone is suffering from a lack of available personnel, equipment and funds. An Odoxa poll published in March 2019 showed that 62% of French voters want a European army and 75% want common European policies on defence and security, but 60% think that a European army is not a realistic goal at least for the near future. At the same time, Putin’s Russia is seen as the number one threat by 35% of those questioned, more than any other country (29% indicated Syria, 28% North Korea and 12% Iran). By comparison, 45% of Poles answered yes when asked by SW research this autumn whether they saw Russia as a threat to their country.
Another study conducted in 2017 by the Pew Research Institute showed that the perception of Russia in France was in line with the NATO average, with 45% of French people seeing Russia’s power and influence as a major threat to their country, compared with 65% of Poles, 47% of Americans, 43% of Britons, 33% of Germans, 31% of Italians, and 28% of Hungarians.
It is also worth noting that even President Macron realises that after Brexit the UK will remain an essential partner for common European defence policies and foreign operations. He reiterated that fact very clearly in his November interview with The Economist, telling British journalists: “I’ve always said we must have the Germans alongside us, and that the British must be a partner on European defence. We’re keeping the bilateral treaties we upheld at Sandhurst. I believe that the UK has an essential role to play.” While having a key role to play in a common European defence system, the British hold views on NATO and Russia which are very close to those held by Poland. Admittedly, after Brexit Britain will no longer take part in Common Security and Defence Policy decision-making and will no longer be able to veto decisions which could lead to a separation of common European defence from NATO, but other countries, including Poland, will only accept reinforced cooperation if it happens within the framework of NATO or in cooperation with NATO. The long-lasting discussions between EU members over whether companies from third countries such as the US and post-Brexit Britain should be allowed to participate in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework is an illustration of the fact that many EU countries will not allow common European defence policies and projects to threaten their close links with those two major NATO allies.
For these reasons, Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of NATO and calls for a European army should be seen in the same context as his calls for a Eurozone financial minister and a Eurozone budget, as they are part of his general drive towards a more federal European Union – a drive which has been rather unsuccessful up to now. As far as NATO is concerned, in the post-Brexit European Union it is in any case up to Poland and the Bucharest Nine to fulfil the role formerly successfully played by the UK in blocking any attempt to weaken the alliance with the United States.