On May 11, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy hosted an extraordinary gathering of American cultural talent to welcome France’s minister of culture, André Malraux. The dinner—which included luminaries such as the novelist Saul Bellow, the painter Mark Rothko, the playwright Arthur Miller, and the violinist Isaac Stern—was a celebration of the long-standing historical ties between the United States and France. Only hours before this glamorous fete, however, Kennedy, Malraux, and the French ambassador to the United States had a sharp exchange over French President Charles de Gaulle’s increasingly strident critiques of U.S. policy and accompanying demands for strategic autonomy.

De Gaulle’s complaints included criticism of the United States’ strategy during the Berlin crisis, the primacy of the dollar in the international economy, and U.S. support for the United Kingdom’s application to the European Economic Community. The French president, Kennedy remarked, appeared to want both U.S. protection and the unfettered ability to chart his country’s own path, “a Europe beyond our influence—yet counting on us,” as his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, summarized him saying. The French president should be careful what he wishes for, Kennedy added, since “Americans would be glad to take the U.S. out of Europe if that was what the Europeans wanted.” When Malraux proclaimed that the United States didn’t dare leave, the president retorted that the United States had “done it twice” already, referring to the United States’ withdrawal after both world wars.

The discord was only partially alleviated by the president’s toast, which Kennedy claimed would be the “first speech about relations between France and the United States that does not include a tribute to General Lafayette.” Instead, Kennedy highlighted the first president to live in the White House, John Adams, who “asked that on his gravestone be written, ‘He kept the peace with France.’” Ultimately, Malraux was proved right: de Gaulle continued to undermine the United States, yet successive U.S. administrations, although tempted, did not withdraw the United States’ security umbrella.

On January 19, 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron took a page from de Gaulle in a speech before the European Parliament, at the beginning of France's six month presidency of the Council of the European Union, calling for Europe to make “its unique and strong voice heard” in the continent's security. For Macron, strategic autonomy means a Europe with its own place in the world and its own ability to shape world events, even if it that means pursuing a security pact with Russia as the U.S. pushes for sanctions. Similar to his predecessor de Gaulle, Macron does not want Europe—or France—to be a powerless observer in a world increasingly defined by a competition for influence between a rising China and the United States. 

It may seem like not much has changed since Kennedy’s meeting with Malraux given that France and the United States are still arguing over Europe’s independence. But today’s geopolitical reality is not that of the 1960s. The world is no longer defined by Cold War struggles between two superpowers; the United States now sees China and the Indo-Pacific as its greatest foreign policy priority, and the transatlantic alliance faces many challenges, such as addressing climate change and regulating new digital technologies, that it was not designed to tackle.  

But although Macron is right to push Europeans to evaluate the continent’s place in the world, he has yet to lay out the priorities that should guide Europe, nor has he put forth a strategy for expanding the continent’s capacities so that it can act on them. Macron’s vision is more of a laundry list, addressing everything from increased multilateralism to counterterrorism strategies to talks about beefing up the continent’s security. Some proposals seem contradictory, such as the desire for a France that possesses “the ability to rank and have influence among other nations,” a country in which the French would be the “master of our own destiny,” yet also a country in which “our independent decision-making is fully compatible with our unwavering solidarity with our European partners.” Other ideas seem problematic and unlikely to find wide adherence, such as Macron’s suggestion that “there can be no defense and security project of European citizens without political vision seeking to advance gradual rebuilding of confidence with Russia.”

This vision assumes that a continent with a long history of divisions is now united on its defense and foreign policy. But a cursory look at the recent debates on Russia, China, and even the United States shows a lack of strategic coherence among European states. Macron’s vision, in short, could splinter Europe and dilute its capabilities and focus, all while playing into the United States’ worst instincts to disengage from the transatlantic alliance to focus on China.

Same as It Ever Was?

All sovereign states value their autonomy; the real historical puzzle is understanding those moments when states subsume some element of their freedom of action for the common good. This is what is so remarkable about NATO. Most people expected the United States to bring its military forces home after the end of World War II, as it had never participated in a peacetime military alliance in its history. But the alliance’s transatlantic security arrangements have lasted almost eight decades, weathering profound changes in the international system from the fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of China.

To be sure, there have been moments of tension and even crisis, dating from the Suez crisis in 1956 to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. The larger transatlantic relationship has been plagued by disagreements over who controls nuclear weapons, trade and monetary policy, gas pipelines, and now technology regulation. Sharp disagreements are a feature, not a bug, of transatlantic relations, and the ability to manage these conflicts is the unique genius of the Western alliance. Strategic autonomy—where each state pursues its own national interests—is and always has been the easiest answer but not the most effective one.

Europe has been more peaceful than anyone could have imagined when NATO was founded in 1949. Its divergent economies, societies, and governments are integrated in ways that would have been unthinkable when the Treaty of Rome, which brought about the creation of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, was signed in 1957. The EU’s population is highly educated, technologically advanced, and by some measures as rich as, if not richer than, those of the United States and China. Developing its own grand strategy and providing for its own security would be a natural next step.

The United States should not dismiss the potential upsides of greater European autonomy.
Such autonomy is especially appealing at a time when the United States’ reputation on the continent has been damaged. The erratic policies of the Trump administration and the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan raised questions about the United States’ reliability as a strategic partner. Then the AUKUS submarine deal the Biden administration brokered with Australia and the United Kingdom raised hackles in Paris: it deprived the French of a lucrative contract without, allegedly, giving the Macron government advance notice. No wonder many European leaders welcome a compelling, coherent, and widely shared strategic vision.

The United States should not dismiss the potential upsides of greater European autonomy. It would be far easier for the United States to contain China if Europe assumed more responsibility for its collective security. Indeed, the U.S. architects of the postwar order in Europe committed to the continent in the hope that the U.S. presence eventually would become unnecessary. The U.S. commitment to Europe not only has been expensive; it also has limited the United States’ own strategic autonomy, given the extensive commitments it has made to European countries. The consequences of this interdependence are playing out as the United States negotiates with Russia on the future of European security in Ukraine. It is striking that Europe has been unable to deter aggression on its own continent without U.S. involvement.

Wrong Solution, Wrong Problem

Both Europe and the United States would benefit, then, from the Europeans’ stepping up. But Macron’s proposal to speak on behalf of Europe while demanding a leading role in hot spots around the world is the wrong solution to the problems he has identified. China’s rise, Russian aggression, the weakening of democracy, global warming, technology regulation, and public health all demand collective action, and that is the opposite of what the French president appears to be proposing. Rather than going it alone, Europeans would be better off working together with the United States on a few key priorities. For example, they should identify where they could invest more to augment defense capabilities in their neighborhood and allow the United States to focus on shared economic and political challenges emerging from East Asia, in particular by supporting U.S. efforts to compete with China.

Macron’s proposed strategy, in contrast, embraces all of the world’s major geopolitical challenges while also seeking to lead on the great transnational challenges of the day. The French president has made clear that European states should assume more responsibility for the defense of the continent. He has also declared France to be an Indo-Pacific power. France has not abandoned its focus on terrorism, which along with its colonial-era ties drives it to take a keen interest in the politics of the Sahel and the greater Middle East. Meanwhile, France and Europe proclaim the climate crisis to be the world’s most existential challenge. All this must be confronted while buttressing democracy and strengthening the liberal economic order in the midst of the calamitous COVID-19 pandemic. This agenda would be challenging, even impossible, for a state far more powerful than France or even for Europe as a whole. Macron’s approach would result in a Europe that, instead of doing one or two things well, might do everything poorly.

France also does not speak for the EU, and in trying assume that role, it threatens to fracture the continent further. There is great disagreement within Europe over how to deal with the array of challenges it faces, but especially when it comes to security. The EU has put forth a number of defense initiatives, including the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a set of initiatives created four years ago to heighten defense cooperation among participating EU member states; the European Defense Fund, which supports collaborative military research and development; and a potential European army, an old idea both Macron and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel revived in recent years. None of these ideas can get off the ground without European consensus on priorities, and that simply does not yet exist.

Take Russia. France wants to give Russia a say in European security: in his speech to the European Parliament Macron urged Europeans to “conduct their own dialogue” with Russia just as the Kremlin seems ready to invade Ukraine again. This latest call to go against U.S. led diplomatic efforts follows a 2019 initiative when Macron dispatched his defense and foreign ministers to Moscow to explore ways of bringing the country back into the fold of industrialized nations, breaking a four-year freeze on such high-level diplomatic visits. Macron also advocates for taking stock of NATO, which he claims is experiencing “brain death.” In contrast, Poland and other NATO allies in close proximity to Russia want hardened defenses on their borders and a permanent U.S. troop presence—and with Russia mounting a potential reinvasion of Ukraine, those views seem justified.

It is dangerous to presume Europe is a stable, coherent actor on a positive trajectory.
The same divisions are reflected in the treatment of the United States. After the AUKUS fiasco, France views the United States as an unreliable partner that stabs allies in the back in the interest of defense contracts, whereas eastern European countries see it as an indispensable partner. Schisms also exist in regard to China. Former diplomat and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has said that Europe wants to “engage” with China. Germany under Merkel sought a far-reaching investment deal with China, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which was later suspended by the EU, and Italy joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian government has told its own officials to stop using Chinese phones that it says contain censorship software, cozied up to Taiwan, and quit a Chinese-led regional forum. Romania, too, kicked Huawei out of its 5G networks and blocked deals for China to build nuclear reactors in the country.

Macron’s strategic autonomy also presumes that Europe is a stable, coherent actor on a positive trajectory. That is a dangerous assumption: after decades of impressive economic and political integration and institution building, the European project itself is under duress. From Brexit to democratic backsliding to uneven economic growth, European cohesion or stability cannot be taken for granted. Germany has new leadership for the first time in 16 years, and its future strategic orientation is uncertain. To be fair, Macron recognizes the desultory state of European affairs, and much of his strategy is a call for the continent to “wake up.” Yet his recommendations risk further fracturing Europe.

Macron’s vision could also spur the United States to reconsider its security guarantees. There is a mythology that the United States dislikes European autonomy, but a brief look at postwar history shows U.S. policymakers have long harbored a desire to leave the continent to its own devices. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Kennedy saw the United States military commitment to Europe as temporary, a bridge to a future when Europe could defend itself. After the Cold War ended, every administration from Clinton through Obama encouraged Europe to take a greater role in providing for its own security. Many in the United States would like nothing better than for Europe to take care of its own defense, a worrying attitude at a time when Europe is increasingly fractured and lacks the capabilities to meet various strategic challenges.

To be sure, a weak and divided Europe will not benefit the United States in the long term. Nor will a Europe that is rushing to grow up too fast, leaving itself dangerously vulnerable before it is able to defend itself. China and Russia would no doubt like nothing more.

Time for a Rethink

Macron is right that Europe needs to reevaluate its priorities and act on them. The European Union cannot continue to drift and depend entirely on a distant and distracted superpower for its security while standing on the sidelines. At a time when the U.S. position in the world is uncertain, a vigorous European effort to contribute to a strategy for the West would be most welcome.

Any new strategy, however, should be built on several principles. For one thing, Macron should make a greater effort to generate consensus on the most pressing security challenges. The threat presented by Russia provides an early but crucial test in a way that goes beyond immediate military decisions. For example, Europe depends on Russia for energy. Whether the continent is willing to explore serious efforts to end this dependence will reveal the outer limits of what individual nation-states are willing to sacrifice in exchange for reducing President Vladimir Putin’s leverage.

A new European strategy also cannot emerge solely from Paris. It will be Germany, with its economic power and historical legacy, whose actions will matter far more than France’s. And it is an open question whether Berlin can be enticed to contribute to a shared, forward-looking European strategy that goes beyond Merkel’s mercantilist legacy. On decisions ranging from Nord Stream 2 to engagement with China, the longest-serving chancellor was driven, despite her other virtues, by narrow domestic political and economic motivations rather than an outward-looking strategy that recognized new geopolitical dangers. For Europe to play a meaningful role in the world, Germany must be engaged and strategic.

Nor can the continent go it alone; it must involve non-European partners. This goes beyond the obvious need to coordinate with the United States. It is imperative to include the United Kingdom despite Brexit, which, after all, reflected the country’s own desire for greater say over its affairs. No European strategy—especially one advocating for increased autonomy—will have meaning without the capabilities to back it up. European countries, both collectively and individually, massively underinvest in their ability to defend themselves. The European Union spends an embarrassing 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense, less than one-third of what the United States spends. European states must spend more on their militaries. Finally, any European effort must establish priorities, including confronting a difficult question most Europeans avoid: What are they willing to fight and die for?

Even bad ideas can spur good outcomes. In the 1960s, de Gaulle, disparaging a U.S.-led NATO and seeking autonomy, spurred the Western alliance to undertake a serious self-study that reexamined its mission, purpose, and policies. The 1967 Harmel Report reasserted NATO’s basic principles and pushed the organization to take a more cooperative approach to security issues. It strengthened the alliance and helped the West prevail in the Cold War. If Macron’s call for autonomy and NATO’s current strategic review produce a similar outcome, Europe and the United States should be as grateful to him as an earlier generation should have been to de Gaulle.

 

Editor's note, January 19, 2022

This article has been updated to include a reference to remarks that Macron made after its initial publication, regarding an EU-Russia security deal.

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  • FRANCIS J. GAVIN is Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
  • ALINA POLYAKOVA is President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
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