WASHINGTON – For three years, U.S. President Donald Trump has taken great glee in disrupting the NATO alliance. Now, French President Emmanuel Macron, who once virtually arm-wrestled Trump in public, is taking the same tack. He aims to assert French leadership in Europe at a moment when the larger democratic world often seem rudderless. And he is drawing attention to a real problem: NATO’s strategic geography creates clashing views of what represents its principal threat. Inadvertently, however, Macron is underscoring how unattractive a French-led Europe would be for much of the continent, and showing that America’s allies won’t be able to fill the strategic vacuum created by a disengaged or disruptive U.S.
It was not so long ago that Macron was being hailed as the vital new defender of the democratic world. His electoral triumph in 2017 averted the danger of an illiberal, right-wing government in France. Macron seemed committed to opposing malevolent Russian behavior, especially meddling with elections in the U.S. and Europe, and pushing for a sharper line against China.
His enthusiasm for enhanced European integration and defense cooperation struck some as unrealistic, but impressed others as an effort to shore up a liberal international order that was facing serious internal and external threats. Finally, Macron positioned himself as a foil to Trump’s boorish behavior at Western summits, while quietly trying to influence him behind the scenes.
Alas, reality hasn’t lived up to expectations. Macron’s so-called Revolution from the Center provoked a domestic backlash. His Trump-whisperer act didn’t work, either. The U.S. president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal despite Macron’s advice; and he announced a U.S. withdrawal from Syria without so much as a heads-up to France and other allies who had joined the counter-Islamic State campaign.
The push for deeper European integration ran into skepticism from the more cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And so Macron, frustrated at home and abroad, has sought new momentum by emulating another French president who made diplomatic disruption an art form: Charles de Gaulle.
Just as de Gaulle questioned whether the U.S. would ever really fight a nuclear war to save Europe, Macron is publicly asking whether Article 5 has real meaning given Trump’s repeated deprecation of that clause and the near collision between Turkey and fellow NATO members in northern Syria. De Gaulle pursued detente with Moscow in hopes of creating a Europe liberated from U.S. leadership; Macron argues that the Kremlin would rather be a part of Europe that an outcast on its periphery.
De Gaulle was deeply frustrated with NATO’s diffidence toward what he initially saw as the greater threat to French interests: his colonial war in Algeria. Likewise, Macron worries that the focus on Russia and, increasingly, China will distract attention from terrorism, which he sees as the most pressing danger to French lives and security. And just as de Gaulle struck up a diplomatic relationship with China that cut across Cold War geopolitical divisions, Macron is now proposing a Chinese-Western partnership to suppress transnational threats.
This would be quite a shift: Under Macron, France has actually taken the lead among European powers in contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. But like de Gaulle, Macron envisions reordering the geopolitical chessboard. He is pushing for stronger French leadership in Europe and greater European independence from the U.S., and he sees shaking up a troubled trans-Atlantic alliance as a means to those ends.
If Macron’s remarks testify to the crisis of confidence that Trump has created within NATO, they also remind us that the perception of shared threat within the alliance has faded as its geography has expanded since the Cold War.
Russia is a political threat to nearly all members of the alliance, but its military power is far more menacing to the countries of Eastern Europe than to more geographically insulated nations such as France. China is an economic and strategic competitor — both NATO and the EU are increasingly recognizing it as such — but the military threat it poses is more remote still.
Macron is right that today French citizens are more likely to be killed by stateless terrorists than major-state rivals. So it is not entirely surprising, even if it is remarkably shortsighted, that Macron would downgrade competition against these countries in favor of some notional counterterrorism cooperation with them.
Yet even leaving aside the implausibility of this idea, there are two big problems with Macron’s concept.
First, his ideas will find remarkably little support within Europe itself. Macron’s call for NATO to pivot away from containing Putin and toward counterterrorism seems like intentional disregard of the Eastern European countries that do live in the shadow of Russian military power, and that sacrificed their own soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq out of solidarity with their NATO allies, despite not facing much of a terrorist threat of their own.
And Macron won’t get anywhere without support from Merkel, who worries that his remarks are simply exacerbating the pressures on the tran-Atlantic relationship and is understandably unenthusiastic about backing schemes in which Germany’s economic power would underwrite French geopolitical primacy in Europe. It is ironic that the French so frequently accuse Americans of lacking diplomatic subtlety, given the way in which Macron’s utterings have surely reminded many Europeans just how little they would like living in a continent led by France.
Second, Macron has revealed the limits of the idea that U.S. allies can fill the gaps that would be created by American distraction or retrenchment. Within NATO, it has typically been America’s role to help reconcile differing interests and competing priorities — for example, to get the allies to focus on collective defense against Russia and countering transnational terrorism at the same time.
Macron is exploiting the damage Trump has inflicted to offer bold policy ideas. Yet those ideas, if enacted, would simply exacerbate differences within Europe, while weakening trans-Atlantic institutions that have worked so well. If the U.S. declines play a uniting role in the democratic world, more parochial, divisive visions will come to the fore.
Macron’s gambit reminds us that a U.S. geopolitical withdrawal will indeed stimulate the initiative of others, but perhaps not the sort of initiative the democratic world needs.
Bloomberg columnist Hal Brands is a professor at Johns Hopkins University.