Biden Wants to Restore NATO. Macron Is Looking to Move On.
The two leaders appeared to talk past each other at this week’s Munich Security Conference.
President Joe Biden came to office promising to renew the spirit of the Western alliances born after World War II. It’s his deliberate rejection of the Trump-and-Brexit era of hyper-nationalism and the America First bullying that has beleaguered Europe for five years.
“I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back,” Biden said in a Friday speech streamed from the White House to Western leaders listening in at this year’s virtually-held Munich Security Conference. “And we are not looking backward, we are looking forward — together.”
But are they?
France’s President Emmanuel Macron is looking forward — to an entirely new transatlantic “security architecture” for the 21st century. Macron’s vision is an all-European defensive collective that is armed up and can act independently and ahead of “brain dead” NATO. Biden knows this, but made no mention of it in his remarks, offering instead only sweeping declarations that Europe and the United States must again “trust in one another.” And so, just minutes after Biden’s speech, the first by a sitting U.S. president to the annual event, Macron pumped the brakes.
“I listened to President Biden” and appreciated the list of “common challenges,” Macron responded in French, “but we have an agenda that is unique.” Declaring that his message to this year’s conference had not changed since last year’s, he delivered his by-now-familiar sales pitch, repeating that Europe has its own security issues that should not always require or rely on U.S. participation or permission, especially for military actions on Europe’s borders with the Middle East and North Africa. “We need more of Europe to deal with our neighborhood,” Macron said. “I think it is time for us to take much more of the burden for our own protection.”
Like Biden, Macron is reacting in part to his tumultuous experience with President Donald Trump and the far-right American nationalists who almost kept him in power for four more years. Don’t forget: for a short while Macron tried to buddy up to Trump and American political leaders. But three years ago, he popped the “bromance” bubble and delivered the best political speech Americans had heard in years, rebuking Trumpism and isolationism during a joint session of Congress. And by last year, he was delivering a codified lesson from those experiences: Europeans no longer should leave their security to the Yanks.
For Macron’s idea to work, he must convince the new American president, European politicians and voters, and his own electorate in France. Macron is up for reelection this year, and the left already is unhappy with his less-than-liberal shifts, including this push for a far-more-robust European defense.
To France’s allies, Macron argues, this new order is no threat. “It is totally compatible. More than that…I think it will make NATO even stronger than before,” he said Friday. But it also would require shifting resources, strategy, and culture, increasing defense spending and acting collectively to deploy troops beyond Europe’s borders.
And statesman-to-statesman, the 43-year old French leader will have to convince the 78-year old Biden — or, at least, Biden’s team of Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Macron laid some of that groundwork two weeks ago when he spent 90 minutes speaking to the Atlantic Council, the influential Washington-based think tank. He gave three priorities for working with the Biden administration, all of which would lead him to his new-era multilateralism that gives Europe more control and flexibility over its regional security. “My mandate has been to try to reinvent or restore an actual European sovereignty,” he said.
Macron argued that NATO had been under U.S. control for decades, and that its European members under the umbrella of the U.S. Army had to buy American. Meanwhile, American troops, he suggested, are beginning to linger in Europe without purpose.
“First, because this is not sustainable to have, I mean, U.S. soldiers being in Europe and in our neighborhood involved at such a scale without clear and direct interests. At a point of time, we have to be much more in charge of our neighborhood.” In other words, he said, NATO’s sustainability was always at risk.
“I think we are in a period—in a moment of clarification for NATO,” he said.
Macron hopes the idea of shifting European defense to Europeans is palatable to Americans. “I think the more Europe is committed to defend, invest, and be part of the protection of its neighborhood, the more it is important for the U.S. as well, because this is a more-fair burden sharing. The question is the nature of the coordination at NATO and the clarity of our political concept and our common targets at NATO.” To wit, he said, the “Middle East, Africa [are] our neighbors. It is not the U.S.’s neighborhood.”
At the moment, this neighborhood is more on Macron’s mind than Washington’s. France’s spat with Turkey over its independent positioning in Libya and at-sea standoffs with the Greeks has the French president calling for a new system that somehow requires NATO allies agree to work together to be of the same minds militarily but also politically. What he seems to want is a way to force Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to capitulate. Macron said Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria hurt the entire alliance.
“The absence of any regulation, I would say, by NATO — the absence of intervention to stop the escalation — was detrimental for all of us,” he said. At the time, NATO forces were on the ground in Syria with their proxies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Ankara broadly alleges are all anti-Turkish terrorists, he recounted. “And suddenly one of our members decided to kill them — because they became terrorists. This is exactly what happened. The credibility of NATO, U.S., France was totally destroyed in the region. Who can trust you when you behave in such a way, without any coordination?”
Macron pushed for NATO members to deliver “concrete results” — meaning, “Fix the Libyan situation. Get rid of Turkish troops from Libya. Get rid of thousands of jihadists exported from Syria to Libya by Turkey, itself, in complete breach of the Berlin conference.”
It’s a hot moment for Macron, who is fighting for his political life and European “strategic autonomy.” If Biden and his team are ready for it, they didn’t show it on Friday’s virtual teleconference.
“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined — to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” Biden said, in a rather low-energy reading of the speech.
Consulting may not be enough. Biden and his team may have to act. They have an opportunity and momentum to fundamentally re-make the outdated transatlantic security balance with less reliance on American dollars and troops. That may not necessarily mean Washington has less influence, as NATO’s Article V promise — Biden’s “unshakable vow” — and NATO’s treaty-based nuclear deterrent umbrella will remain intact. Macron just may need to find a way to lead Biden where he wants this to go.