When French President Emmanuel Macron made his first state visit to Washington in 2018, he was in the midst of a fleeting bromance with U.S. President Donald Trump and the transatlantic alliance was in disarray. A champion of both multilateralism and pragmatism, the French president was on a mission to convince Trump to remain in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and maintain a significant U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria—neither of which was to be.

Macron’s second state visit, on December 1, 2022, will take place in a very different context. It comes a year after a public spat between France and the United States over the latter’s new security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS, which cost Paris a valuable submarine deal with Canberra, and at a time of renewed transatlantic unity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. U.S. leadership in Europe has been reaffirmed, while France’s (and Germany’s) has been called into question. Europe’s center of gravity has moved east toward NATO’s borders, pushing France’s main security concern—jihadi terrorism from the Middle East and the Sahel region of Africa—down the list of priorities. Macron was reelected in April, but he lost his parliamentary majority. And like most European leaders, he faces the prospect of a winter of discontent thanks to high energy prices and a looming recession.

Hosting Macron at the White House can be construed as a gesture of grace by U.S. President Joe Biden. He and the French leader have made efforts to rebuild trust after the AUKUS blowup, but their administrations remain to some degree misaligned on vital economic and strategic issues. Since Macron’s last visit to Washington, the world has undergone a series of major shifts—from a global pandemic to the return of war in Europe to China and Russia’s dangerous convergence—that are now forcing the United States and its European allies to adjust their partnerships. In addition to addressing immediate concerns such as energy scarcity and the conflict in Ukraine, Biden and Macron must make sure that the U.S.-French alliance is ready for the even bigger tasks ahead: ensuring that Europe can contain an aggressive Russia and reforming international institutions so that they are more inclusive, efficient, and resilient in the face of challenges such as China’s rise, climate change, and technological threats.

MORE THAN NATO

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, combined with its nuclear saber rattling, has underscored that NATO remains “the foundation and essential framework for Europe’s collective security,” as Macron’s government put it in its national strategic review published in November. After years of pushing for a stronger European defense, France has come to terms with the reality that its credibility as a military partner depends on greater involvement with NATO. France has increased its troop presence and capabilities in the Baltic states and is now a “framework nation” for NATO’s forward presence in Romania, coordinating the training and operations of allied troops stationed there. Yet some of France’s biggest concerns about European defense have not disappeared behind the reassuring shield of U.S. security guarantees. For instance, Europeans remain divided over what a stronger “European pillar” within NATO should mean in practice and over how to respond to threats from an increasingly assertive China—divides that put Washington and Paris on opposite sides.

The war in Ukraine has exposed the perils of Europe’s overreliance on the United States for security. Hampered by limited military stocks and budgetary constraints, European countries have been more willing than able to provide military support for Kyiv. In September, EU High Representative Josep Borrell warned that European military stockpiles were greatly “depleted” and that many countries were struggling to refill their armories. Of the nearly 39 billion euros committed to assist Ukraine’s military as of October 3, almost 28 billion euros had come from the United States, according to the Kiel Institute

France still hopes to persuade Europe to shoulder more responsibility for its own defense, not just by building made-in-Europe capabilities but also by conducting more autonomous missions. After the dispute over AUKUS, Biden issued a joint statement with Macron emphasizing “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense . . . complementary to NATO.” A little more than a year later, Macron seeks confirmation that the war in Ukraine does not invalid this statement but rather affirms it—the target audience being Europeans more than Americans. Translating this idea into action would require a cultural shift: the United States would need to admit that European dependency, while a source of U.S. leverage, is not in the United States’ long-term interest. As a result, Washington would need to start backing explicitly European-led initiatives that make Europeans less dependent on the United States, including on its industry. For instance, Washington should support the EU’s efforts to set up a mechanism for common defense procurement instead of trying to limit the mechanism’s ambitions because it excludes U.S. industry.

Already, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated how NATO and the EU can complement each other. Although NATO has played a critical role in deterring Russian aggression beyond Ukraine, it has not been the driving force behind direct military support to Kyiv. Ad hoc initiatives such as the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group have coordinated most of the military support while the EU has pitched in with aid delivered through its European Peace Facility and Military Assistance Mission. This record of successful collaboration should encourage greater cooperation between NATO and the EU, something that has long been debated in Europe but that, in France’s view, cannot be postponed any longer.

PUSH ME, FOLLOW YOU

If the French are hoping for a push from the United States on European defense, the Americans are hoping for closer alignment from France on China. In its effort to outcompete Beijing and build a strong coalition to oppose its revisionism, the Biden administration aims to close the gap between American and transatlantic priorities. The United States worries about a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan—perhaps as early as 2027. Washington does not expect the Europeans to offer a military response, but it does hope that Europe will help deter China from using force and impose sanctions in the event of an attack. To that end, the United States needs to continue working with France and the EU to make Europe more resilient—for instance, by decreasing its dependence on Chinese trade, technology, and critical materials such as rare earths and by countering Chinese misinformation—while also signaling to Beijing that it is ready to take action if need be. Given that transatlantic unity has proven such an effective weapon against Russia, Washington cannot afford to lose it when dealing with China.

From that perspective, France is a key U.S. partner, but a difficult one to manage. Although it shares many of the United States’ concerns about China, France intends to chart a distinct national and European policy, one that eschews automatic alignment with Washington and that leaves open the possibility of cooperation with Beijing when interests align. France also aims to offer a third way to countries of the Indo-Pacific region—pushing for a reinforcement of international rules and a defense of sovereignty instead of encouraging countries to join competing camps. Within Europe, France has been ahead of the curve in responding to predatory Chinese behavior, pushing for the establishment of EU mechanisms to screen foreign direct investments and combat coercive economic practices. Yet France views itself as a “balancing power” that rejects the logic of opposing blocs, and its cautiousness about confronting China within NATO and joining U.S.-led initiatives perceived as directed against Beijing is an obstacle to European alignment on China.  

To break this impasse, France and the United States will need to identify the best forums for discussing China-related matters. NATO may be one such forum, but it cannot be the only one, as the challenge posed by Beijing is not uniquely military. The EU has a role to play in preparing Europe for potential economic shocks caused by disruptions in world trade. And there is room for increased cooperation between the United States and the EU on trade and technology—for instance, by further empowering the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. Without improved coordination, France and the United States face three interconnected risks: that their lack of unity and preparation will invite Chinese aggression; that divisions over how much to decouple from China will translate into uncoordinated policies that could undermine the stability of the Indo-Pacific; and that the United States will feel it has no choice but to pursue its Indo-Pacific strategy without the Europeans.

No one wants to see the global economy become an arena of zero-sum competition between the transatlantic partners.

In its frenzied competition with China, the United States achieved an important legislative goal with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which authorizes enormous investments in green U.S. businesses and industries. But the law, which incentivizes domestic consumption and may lead to disinvestment from Europe, risks alienating European countries, which fear a permanent U.S. turn toward protectionism. France and Germany are already pushing for similar subsidies for European industries, and Macron has even floated the idea of a Buy European Act. France has also complained loudly that Europeans must pay three to four times as much as Americans for natural gas—a sign that even in a moment of remarkable transatlantic solidarity, protectionist impulses can be divisive.  

With far-right populism rising on both sides of the Atlantic, Macron and Biden each have an acute understanding of the political risks faced by the other. Both may eventually be replaced by leaders who could engage in destructive competition with rivals or antagonize partners: the era of transatlantic unity may not last long. That is why no one wants to see the global economy become an arena of zero-sum competition between the transatlantic partners even before American voters have had a chance to return another Trump-like president to office. In addition to finding common ground on China and on European defense, Biden and Macron must seize this opportunity to fortify the relationship for what may be on the horizon. One way to insulate the alliance from future troubles is to build new bureaucratic mechanisms that are more flexible than established forums such as NATO and the G-7. These could be bilateral (such as U.S.-French strategic dialogues) or multilateral (such as the European Quad), but they must provide a setting to prevent misunderstandings and advance shared strategic objectives.

Biden and Macron also have a historic opportunity to build faits accomplis for the future. As the leaders of two countries with historically universalist aspirations, they can do much to demonstrate how the democratic world is a better ally than the authoritarian one. Both agree on the need to address the challenges and grievances of developing countries, while calling on them to take part in defending universal principles. At the UN General Assembly this year, Macron and Biden gave strikingly similar speeches, both advocating for the rest of the world to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine and to defend the sovereignty of nations.

Yet in this competition for the soul of the world, developed democracies such as the United States and France must achieve practical successes to win over developing nations. Ever since the early days of COVID-19, when many rich countries hoarded masks and other protective equipment, Macron has pushed for “result-driven multilateralism” that can deliver for the “global South.” And in a speech at the UN climate conference in Egypt this month, he advocated for reforming the IMF and World Bank to foster the transition to clean energy, endorsing calls from developing nations to make the multilateral financial system more equitable. But such change can happen only with U.S. backing.

Together, France and the United States can do much to reform international institutions to better serve the needs of poor nations on climate finance, food security, debt, and many other issues. This is no small task. But it must be part of the discussion between Macron and Biden this week if France and the United States are to be prepared for what lies ahead.

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  • MARIE JOURDAIN is a Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Before that, she worked for the French Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy.
  • CELIA BELIN is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
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