Transatlantic Take

What Will Macron’s Words Mean for the Transatlantic Alliance?

November 08, 2019
4 min read
Photo Credit: Gints Ivuskans / Shutterstock

President Emmanuel Macron’s comments about NATO and the security of Europe in his interview with The Economist—and particularly his use of the words “brain dead” in relation the alliance— have generated something of a firestorm of comments, mostly critical, on both sides of the Atlantic. Below, experts from The German Marshall Fund of the United States give their perspectives from Paris, Washington and Berlin.

For Macron, the Transatlantic Alliance Cannot Afford to Be Patient

President Emmanuel Macron’s declarations regarding NATO have triggered heated reactions in European capitals, as the timing and wording of his interview with The Economist were perceived as unhelpful to the transatlantic alliance. Yet France’s president remained largely consistent with the positions he had already taken in the past. He once again stressed the need for European countries to “wake up” in the context of a deep transformation of the transatlantic partnership and the risk of becoming strategically irrelevant in the geopolitical competition between China and the United States.

The sense of emergency, which is a defining feature of Macron’s defense and foreign policy, has only been strengthened by Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria and the lack of transatlantic cooperation in this strategically crucial region. When criticized for participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy by promoting the idea of European strategic autonomy, the president answers that Europeans are sleepwalking over a precipice. Macron’s interview also confirms that his personal view of NATO is remarkably “un-French,” as he considers that the alliance should play a role in fostering policy discussions on all strategic matters that are relevant to its members—including on Syria, China, and terrorism—rather than solely focus on narrow collective defense. France was reluctant to organize a new NATO meeting in 2019, fearing that this would highlight internal divisions and be overwhelmed by theatrics. It seemed that Macron now considers that an open crisis cannot be avoided, and that openly addressing these challenges is the only way forward for the alliance.

—Martin Quencez, Fellow and Deputy Director, Paris Office


Macron Asserts Leadership, and Undermines his Aims

French President Emmanuel Macron grabbed headlines this week in an extremely frank interview on NATO and European security with The Economist. While Twitter exploded over his quote about NATO being “brain dead,” the interview itself is not nearly as controversial as it is portrayed. Essentially, Macron repeated what Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a beer tent in 2017: in the wake of geopolitical shifts including China’s increasing activity on the European continent and U.S. hesitation to pay for European defense, Europe needs to take more responsibility for its own security.

It is hard to disagree with Macron. But with the 70th anniversary NATO summit in London just around the corner, he could have been more careful about his word choice. He could have also opted to do the interview after the summit. Given broad European opposition to the idea of extending a hand to Russia when it has done nothing to change its aggressive posture toward Europe, he may have also thought twice about pushing his engagement plan.

What is clear, though, is that Macron sees himself as the de facto leader of Europe at the moment and is determined to put forward proposals even when they counter his goal of greater European unity.

—Julie Smith, Senior Advisor to the President and Director of the Asia Program


A Strategy More Divisive than Uniting

President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about NATO are another sign of growing nervousness in Europe about an international landscape that is rapidly changing, from China’s rise to Donald Trump’s disruptive rhetoric.

In light of this, allies of the United States take a fresh look at their geopolitical situation, and some of them come up with new strategies beyond trying to preserve the status quo (as Germany does). Macron sees himself as a disruptive figure who wants to put himself on top of change. In his view, U.S. leadership in Europe is already largely gone, and with it NATO which is a body without life, or “brain dead.” Macron wants to move toward a new European security arrangement—removing the Russian threat by reaching out to the Kremlin and turning Europe into an autonomous global player, able and willing to police its southern neighborhood.

Yet Macron’s strategy, especially toward Russia, strikes many European capitals as naive. And unlike France, which always had a competitive relationship with the United States, many other European countries are unwilling to cut ties with Washington that they consider vital. As a consequence, Macron’s initiatives, if pushed further, are more likely to increase divisions in Europe instead of uniting it behind a joint strategy.

—Uli Speck, Senior Visiting Fellow