French President Emmanuel Macron made yet another appeal last week for reducing European security dependence on the United States.
Returning from a meeting in Jordan, Macron explained his view to a group of journalists: “An alliance isn’t something I should depend on. It’s something that I should choose, something I work with…. We must rethink our strategic autonomy.”
After decades of European “free-riding” on U.S. military protection, Americans should welcome Macron’s remarks. The Biden administration would do well to endorse Macron’s comments and urge other European allies to work with him.
The war in Ukraine and the U.S.-led allied response to it have reconfirmed how much European governments still rely on the U.S. for the defense of their own continent. This overreliance has become a cause of frustration for many in the United States and a source of embarrassment for European governments. Macron has been one of a very few European leaders to face up to this imbalance and to demand that it be corrected, but he has so far found few takers in Washington or in other European capitals for greater European self-sufficiency in defense.
It is in the best interests of both the U.S. and its European allies if the allies begin taking up a larger share of the burden for their own security. The war has exposed how much weaker Russia is than Western governments supposed, and Russian losses in the war mean that Russia will pose much less of a conventional threat to Europe for the foreseeable future than it did just a year ago. Eur-opean allies are more than capable of protecting themselves, especially against t-his badly weakened Russia, and the main thing the U.S. can do to support this is to get out of their way.
This is an opportunity for European governments to take more responsibility for their own defense as they should have been doing for the last thirty years, and the U.S. should be supporting and welcoming European efforts to do this.
The U.S. has traditionally discouraged any move towards European autonomy because it has seen that as detrimental to its own influence and to NATO, but the time has come for Washington to rethink its hostility to this change. If European governments are going to increase their military spending and assume a larger part of the burden for security, they should have greater freedom and influence within the structure of the alliance as well. The U.S. has often criticized its allies for spending too little, but then it has swatted down every suggestion that European governments exercise greater autonomy. The U.S. needs to recognize that it isn’t likely to get significantly larger spending commitments from its allies without letting them have more autonomy at the same time.
Macron clarified that he does not see reduced reliance on the U.S. as a threat to NATO, and he insists that greater European autonomy should take place in the context of the alliance. There should be a way to reform and reimagine the alliance so that it is not so heavily dominated by the U.S. Europe is home to some of the wealthiest states in the world, and they should be expected to take responsibility for their own defense almost eighty years after the end of WWII. This would be a desirable change for the U.S. and our allies, as it would free up U.S. attention and resources from Europe and give European governments the incentive to reclaim their proper role in providing more for their own security.
Despite intense criticism this year over his willingness to engage with Moscow diplomatically, Macron has not given up on that position, either. The French president has courted some controversy with allied leaders by keeping lines of communication open. Earlier this year, the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned Macron’s outreach to Putin and objected that “nobody negotiated with Hitler.” The obvious counter to these attacks is that there need to be open channels available for de-escalation and negotiation for the day when the Russian government is looking for a way to extricate itself from the disastrous war that it started.
Patient diplomatic engagement can often be a thankless task, and it will seem to be of no use for years until it eventually pays off with a negotiated solution that doubters claimed was never possible. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Christopher Chivvis said in an interview a few weeks ago, “So far it hasn’t produced any results, but it might someday look prescient if Russia and Ukraine end up in negotiations.”
When we have every reason to expect that this war will end in some kind of negotiated settlement, it is necessary to keep the option of talking available even when it seems that there is currently no point in talking.
Most recently, Macron has suggested the outlines of a new security architecture for Europe that would provide reassurances to all sides, including Russia. If any new security architecture for Europe is to succeed, it will have to take at least some Russian interests into account or it will not be a stable and enduring arrangement.
It is worth noting that Macron has also spoken about how he understands the Ukrainian position and compared the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory to the German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War, so he has been clear that he believes that nothing should be imposed on Ukraine against its wishes. Instead of bashing Macron for “appeasement,” his European colleagues should give him credit for trying to plan for the post-war world and how to stabilize Europe once the conflict has ended.
One of the criticisms of Macron’s outreach to Russia is that it has damaged his standing in other parts of Europe and undermined his effort to promote autonomy, but the one shouldn’t have much to do with the other. If European allies are too dependent on the U.S., and they are, that is a problem that needs to be corrected no matter the disagreements that individual governments may have with each other about a particular policy.
Part of developing greater European autonomy in security matters will have to involve hashing out differences among European states. The existence of these disagreements should not be allowed to serve as an impediment to improving European military capabilities.
The U.S. should want to have many more capable European allies that pull their own weight and far fewer dependents. That is desirable not only because the U.S. has other more important concerns elsewhere in the world that require its attention, but also because the U.S. should not have to subsidize the defense of some of the wealthiest countries in the world in perpetuity. Both the U.S. and its European allies have become used to the current arrangement in which the U.S. is their main security provider, and it is long past time to overhaul it and bring it up to date.