Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing France to shift its attention to European defense. This direction could benefit both the EU and NATO.
French President Emmanuel Macron has the knack of annoying his European counterparts.
Germany, traditionally France’s closest ally in the EU, often complains about not being consulted whenever Macron delivers ambitious speeches about Europe. Not that Berlin, either under the former chancellor Angela Merkel or her successor Olaf Scholz have spelt out any original proposals for Europe.
Then there is the view from Poland and the Baltic States. They believe that Macron hasn’t done enough to militarily support Ukraine. More than that, they suspect that Macron still wants to do some kind of deal with President Vladimir Putin to end Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Central Europeans along with other staunchly Atlanticist countries also often think that when Macron speaks about strategic autonomy for Europe, it is about the gradual weakening NATO or the creation of a defense structure in competition with the U.S.-led military alliance. Indeed, Macron once dubbed NATO as “brain-dead,” a description that has endured.
Above all, there is a sense that France, the EU’s only nuclear power, cannot be trusted since its view of the world—and of Europe—is a Gaullist one, in which France is the pivotal, strategic actor that shapes and dominates the union’s future.
Well, if Macron’s new national strategic review is anything to go by, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mark the beginning of a major rethink of France’s military role in Europe and its relationship with NATO.
In this draft review, which will be worked on over the next few months and which aims to set out France’s military posture through 2030, Europe’s security, NATO’s goals, and Paris’s nuclear deterrent go hand in hand.
Given all the old and new threats, ranging from conventional military aggression to hybrid warfare, and including disinformation, cyber-attacks, and new weaponry, Macron knows that no one country can go it alone. Russia’s invasion has exposed Europe’s vulnerabilities and low level of resilience. There are too many unknowns and too many challenges that require not only a huge panoply of capabilities; the economic costs for coping with all these threats are exorbitant.
Against this background, for Macron, Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine “may precede broader geopolitical rivalries and a future that we have no reason to accept with fatalism.” Not only that. The president stressed that “[…] because this war clarifies the state of the world in which we live, the collapse of norms and taboos, the abuse of power, it qualifies that dangerous moment where the old balance is being contested but the new one is not yet established.”
Macron is not prepared to wait for that new order to emerge—something that China (which gets no mention in the draft review) is trying to shape.
Instead, with the new focus on Europe, he confirmed France’s withdrawal from the Sahel, thus ending the Barkhane operation in which Paris had deployed roughly 5,000 troops in Mali to help fight Islamic extremists. In the future, France will create a new organization based on cooperation between France and local armed forces.
With the shift to Europe, Macron has no illusions about the important role of NATO and the United States. “France intends to maintain a unique position within the Alliance. It has a demanding and visible position because of the specificity and independence of its defense policy, in particular because of its nuclear deterrent,” he said.
At the same time, France “intends to strengthen its influence and that of the European allies in order to weigh on the major changes in NATO’s posture and the future of strategic stability in Europe.”
Strategic stability is the core element of Macron’s national strategic review. Since Russia has challenged the stability of Europe and overturned the post-Cold-War era, NATO and the Europeans have to recognize how and why the continent has to be defended. A “credible, modern” nuclear deterrence is key, Macron said. “Our nuclear forces contribute through their own existence to the security of France and Europe,” he added.
Here, “Macron is restating France’s position on nuclear deterrence,” said François Heisbourg, senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Indeed, defense experts in Europe often raise the possibility of France, with its nuclear capability, providing the Europeans with a special security umbrella. Atlanticists may shudder at the idea. But Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing allies to think about the future strategic direction of the EU and NATO.
The conflict highlights “the need to maintain a robust and credible nuclear deterrent to prevent a major war;” this deterrent must be “legitimate, effective and independent,” said Macron.
So while he wants France to be an “independent, respected, agile power at the heart of the European strategic autonomy,” he has reassuring words for NATO and several European countries. France will maintain strong links to the Atlantic alliance. The strategic partnership with the United States “will remain fundamental and must remain ambitious, lucid and pragmatic.”
France will also deepen its relationship with Germany and forge defense partnerships with Italy and Spain while strengthening the European pillar in NATO.
“It is good that Macron refers to France’s sovereignty at least several times but places it in the context of a strong alliance within the EU, NATO and the United States,” said Eugeniusz Smolar from the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. However, as Smolar points out, Macron doesn’t refer specifically to Poland yet mentions strengthening ties with Italy, Spain, Greece, Croatia, and Belgium. Even Moldova and Georgia get a mention.
In short, the review does the rounds of NATO, the EU, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Maybe it is too sweeping and too general in scope on how to deal with the sheer magnitude of the challenges ahead.
The details and financial costs for preparing France for 2030 will become clearer in the coming months. And maybe Macron’s throwaway line will be fleshed out: “When peace is back in Ukraine, we will need to assess all the consequences” through a “new security architecture” in Europe.