French President Emmanuel Macron during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ahead of talks at the Chancellery on January 25, 2022, in Berlin, Germany.

French President Emmanuel Macron during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ahead of talks at the Chancellery on January 25, 2022, in Berlin, Germany. Kay Nietfeld / Pool / Getty Images

It’s Macron’s Moment to Move Europe Beyond NATO

Russian threats, Normandy talks, and the EU presidency give the French leader a golden chance to advance his new European security arrangement.

While the world is waiting to see if Russia will invade the rest of Ukraine, some national security leaders are keeping an eye on Paris. Can French President Emmanuel Macron use this crisis to realize his vision of European security? 

On Wednesday, negotiators from Russia and Ukraine are to meet with counterparts from France and Germany. It’s called the Normandy Format; the group of four first met on the sidelines of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 2014. It may be a waste of time. But it may be the start of something much more, no matter what Putin decides. 

First, President Joe Biden and the Americans won’t be there, by design. Though U.S. media have focused much attention on the U.S. reaction to Moscow’s buildup, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is largely a European one. In November, Ukraine’s top spokesman called the Normandy Format “the only platform for negotiation.”

Second, all parties have largely ignored the United Nations in New York, and tried to keep NATO out of it. Alliance leaders have rejected Putin’s assertions that this is a fight between Moscow and NATO over Ukraine’s potential membership, although they offered to join direct Russia-NATO talks. Putin has not responded, and this week several alliance members are promising to send thousands of additional NATO troops into Eastern Europe as buffers if needed, but still not into Ukraine. 

“How does it stop Putin from going into Ukraine” if U.S. troops are sent on defensive-only missions into neighboring NATO states? Fox’s Pentagon reporter asked U.S. officials at a Monday press conference. 

After a video conference of some world leaders on Monday, Biden asserted total unity among the allies. But even Americans aren’t unified. Hawks in Congress have called on Biden to send U.S. troops to Ukraine’s front lines before Russia advances. 

European governments have acted both collectively and independently toward Russia, but Germany has hardly played along, refusing overflight rights for allies to deliver even ammunition and breaking with allies on other issues, like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Its Navy chief resigned over the weekend after embarrassing remarks that appeared to concede to Putin. “Germany is no longer a credible ally,” declared one columnist in the Wall Street Journal.

In comes France 

For the last five years, Macron has repeatedly proposed a new non-NATO, Europe-only security architecture: a “strategic autonomy” intended to be more flexible and responsive to continental Europe’s needs, and independent of America’s isolationist whims. In other words, something made for exactly this kind of moment.   

Now a coincidence of timing has installed France as the six-month president of the Council of the European Union, and Macron promised to continue pushing for a new “collective security framework” for the continent and “strategic rearmament.” 

Can the Normandy Platform, the EU presidency, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict be the triple springboard Macron needs to launch a new European defense? 

Scholars and professionals of European and transatlantic security have long debated whether security issues in Europe should be handled without the United States or NATO. Will a more independent Europe give openings to adversaries on issues as diverse as Huawei’s Chinese telecom hardware, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, migrants, nuclear weapons, and counterterrorism? On the other hand, U.S. leaders have called for stronger European defenses for decades and Macron’s pitch really does nothing to weaken NATO’s defensive treaty pact, so why should Europe need Washington’s permission (or any involvement) in regional disputes? 

“I think that it is good for there to be coordination between Europe and the U.S., but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia,” Macron said last week, in calling for a continuation of the Normandy Format. The French president repeated his familiar calls for a European “collective resilience.”. 

“The security of our continent requires strategic rethinking, strategic rearming of Europe as an area of balance and peace,” he said.

Like clockwork, an essay titled “Macron’s Flawed Vision for Europe” appeared that same day in the journal Foreign Affairs. Noting that French leaders have been calling for strategic autonomy from the United States since Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy, the piece is a prime example of academic hand-wringing over the idea, both chiding and thanking the French for it. The authors argue that Macron is not wrong to want autonomy for Europe. “Developing its own grand strategy and providing for its own security would be a natural next step,” write Frank Gavin, professor at Johns Hopkins, and Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis. But they warn that Macron has not yet fully articulated how to do it, and Europe may not be quite ready. “This vision assumes that a continent with a long history of divisions is now united on its defense and foreign policy. But a cursory look at the recent debates on Russia, China, and even the United States shows a lack of strategic coherence among European states.” 

They argue that Macron is wrong to assume that France actually can lead, or that Europe is able to handle all of its problems. “Rather than going it alone, Europeans would be better off working together with the United States on a few key priorities,” they write. “Macron’s approach would result in a Europe that, instead of doing one or two things well, might do everything poorly.” It’s a jarring and arrogant criticism, as if the existing toolbox of security arrangements—including the American and European publics who voted in their recent governments—have done much better leading the world in recent times.

“To be fair,” they write, “Macron recognizes the desultory state of European affairs, and much of his strategy is a call for the continent to ‘wake up.’ Yet his recommendations risk further fracturing Europe.” 

Does it, though? We know Europe is not a nation, but if Europeans can survive being lumped together under NATO, the EU, and the euro in the last century then perhaps they can survive in the new one with a new arrangement whose sole purpose is to improve their collective security and power with greater autonomy from Washington. 

Macron’s critics here and elsewhere say he needs to do more to unify Europeans, get them to agree on their security priorities, sell his idea as theirs, and be sure to include the United States and not undermine NATO. That’s all true, and it’s no small task. 

But by Macron’s own words, that’s exactly what he’s trying to do, and he’s not backing down. One year ago, the French president welcomed Biden into office not with deference, but with a blunt message that global security will require more than shoring up the old transatlantic NATO alliance. Now he is seizing an opportunity to advance European strategic autonomy by broadening its constituency and consensus. It’s worth a shot. NATO will survive, and the Western world likely will survive or perish for many other reasons. With Macron at the bully pulpit during this latest crisis, perhaps these are the first steps toward giving everyone what they want: a stronger Europe.