The recent evolution in French strategic thinking owes a great deal to the war in Ukraine, but these shifts will have deeper and wider implications for European security and the transatlantic relationship moving forward.
As the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies, it will become increasingly valuable for Washington to see a unified, capable, and determined European pillar within the transatlantic alliance that is willing to effectively manage security affairs on the continent and carry its own weight internationally — an undertaking long promoted by French leaders.
In a 2019 interview, French President Emmanuel Macron infamously asserted that NATO was experiencing “brain death” and urged Europe to “start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power,” lest it risk losing control over its own “destiny.” These comments highlighted concerns across Europe that Washington was losing interest in the continent and could no longer serve as a reliable ally. Four years later, Macron now declares that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “jolted [NATO] back with the worst of electroshock.”
France has a long tradition of seeking an independent geopolitical role for itself, primarily based on its nuclear deterrent, permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, capable armed forces, and experienced diplomatic and intelligence networks. During his tenure, Macron has staked much of his international reputation on forging a Europe with “strategic autonomy,” understood as a strategy rooted in its conception of European interests while preserving the ability to act alone when necessary and with allies whenever possible. Having been elected only a few months after former U.S. President Donald Trump entered the White House, Macron's impression that Europe’s reliance on Washington was an unpredictable gamble was hard to argue with.
For those NATO members that were once part of the Soviet bloc, the deterrent capabilities of the alliance and the U.S. have long been their only guarantee from feared Russian revanchism. Therefore, these states tended to view Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy as a threat to their own security as they doubted western Europe’s ability and willingness to militarily defend the central and eastern nations of the continent absent U.S. leadership. When Biden and his team of committed transatlanticists entered the White House, those fears diminished. Macron, however, persisted in his calls for strategic autonomy.
In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that Washington remained indispensable to European security in light of its ability to respond rapidly, cajole fellow-alliance members, and supply great quantities of military and financial assistance to Kyiv (successes that the Europeans alone would have likely found very difficult to achieve). Such clarity on Europe’s current inability to respond effectively without U.S. leadership to a serious crisis on their border has greatly contributed to a sense of vindication on NATO’s eastern flank and a “we told you so” attitude towards their western neighbors who had long dismissed their fears of Russian ambitions.
However, just as central and eastern Europeans believe their warnings have been vindicated, Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy and defense-industrial cooperation also gained renewed salience. While Washington has demonstrated its commitment to Europe’s defense as the war in Ukraine entered its 18th month, it is clear that U.S. interests in East Asia are likely to take precedence over Europe, regardless of which party occupies the White House in the decades ahead.
Europeans will thus need to develop their own coherent and effective security pillar within NATO, looking to Washington as a last resort. As the 2022 French National Security Review makes clear, Paris’ support for European strategic autonomy is meant to enhance NATO, rather than to supplant it.
Official French attitudes towards Moscow had already been changing, albeit slowly, before the war, in major part due to Russian military actions throughout the Sahel where France had historically played the leading role in concert with the EU. Since last year, Paris has enhanced its military presence in Lithuania and Estonia and is now the “framework nation” in Romania, meaning that it coordinates operations and training with other NATO partners stationed in the country. Not to be overlooked, France recently began delivering its own long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine, becoming only the second nation after the UK to do so.
Unfortunately, Macron, as the most outspoken promoter of European strategic autonomy, has long been mischaracterized as seeking to dislodge the crucial security role NATO (read: the U.S.) provides to the continent. Similar sentiments were expressed following Macron’s announcement of the European Political Community, with many believing it was another French attempt to resist EU enlargement at a time when Brussels was bolstering its support for Ukraine’s and Moldova’s future accession to the Union, as well as that of the western Balkans.
However, Macron’s speech at the GLOBESEC Forum in late May in Bratislava, Slovakia, was undeniably his strongest engagement to date with the interests and concerns of central and east European states. In his remarks, Macron defended the EPC by stating that it “does not compete with NATO, nor does it replace [EU] enlargement”.
In addition, Macron highlighted that EU enlargement was no longer a matter of if or when, but how. To top it off, Paris has, to the surprise of many, come around in support of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations – something previous French governments, and Macron himself, had strongly opposed not long ago.
Nevertheless, while these decisions are generally welcomed across Europe and the war itself has helped consolidate European unity, many internal challenges remain that must be addressed for Europe to become the independent pillar within NATO that France wants it to be and that the U.S. will need it to become.
Washington would be wise to support French calls for European strategic autonomy as it will help to strengthen both NATO and the EU while freeing up American resources for potential foreign policy challenges abroad, as well as for its domestic problems. However, Washington should not be surprised when some European nations — particularly France — express strong opposition to NATO’s involvement in East Asia, as they are unlikely to trade American support in Ukraine against Russia for European support in the Pacific against China. Macron has clearly stated that Europe should not become a “vassal” in the U.S.-China rivalry; he instead wants France to assume the still vaguely defined role of a “balancing power.”
For France, and the whole of Europe, strategic thinking in the long term will require moving beyond the immediate crisis around Ukraine and working towards a reimagination of Eurasian security architecture. Whether Macron will be able to find a way to shape an evolving Europe in the image he envisages remains to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that he has not lost any of his enthusiasm for promoting bold ideas when it comes to Europe’s global role. He still has much convincing to do across the continent. Washington should support him in this quest and encourage its European allies to follow suit while reassuring the most vulnerable states in central and eastern Europe of American support in a worst-case scenario.