French president Emmanuel Macron has again sparked controversy by suggesting that Europe should chart an independent course from the United States, this time over Taiwan. This is a recurring theme from the French leader, one that is both a challenge to his fellow Europeans and an opportunity for the United States.
On the one hand, the French have sought ways to distance themselves and Europe from U.S. leadership, while at the same time advancing their own authority. On the other hand, they have shown a reluctance to participate in the very organizations they seek to benefit from and to head. It is not easy to belong to a group whose leader does not seem to want to be a member.
The French have at least been consistent. Charles DeGaulle withdrew France from NATO's integrated military structure in 1966, intent on maintaining French autonomy, while at the same time retaining France's membership, and voting rights, in the organization.
In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia, French officials promoted the Western European Union (WEU), a fully-European security organization and tacit substitute for NATO. The WEU—made up initially of French and German military units—was supposed to provide Europe with the modest level of security it needed in the post-Cold War era, cutting Washington out of the scene.
But the WEU did not work. Worse still was what might have happened if it did. France would not accept German leadership, nor were the Germans eager to cede authority to Paris. In the wake of European paralysis in response to dueling crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, the WEU was quietly euthanized and Europe returned to its security dependence on the United States.
However, the Gallic dream of a purely European security alliance—one with France at the helm—never entirely perished. Macron has enthusiastically sponsored a new security dialogue with his counterpart in Germany, Olaf Scholz, both before and after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Germans, for their part, appear amenable to continuing the conversation, though the question of which great power will hold greater sway in the relationship remains unaddressed.
Such posturing regarding jettisoning reliance on the United States routinely elicits anguish and anxiety from members of the Atlantic security establishment. Yet it is doubtful that European security run, and paid for, by Europeans constitutes a significant problem for the United States.
Indeed, there are a number of benefits. The first, and most obvious, is that it would be cheaper. There has long been bipartisan support in the United States for the idea of Europe ponying up more for its own defense. American presidents from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have called for Europeans to do so. The problem is that Europe did not have to. Free-riding is a thing. European autonomy would force Europeans, not Americans, to pay for Europe's security.
Europe was also skeptical of the need for security and reluctant to provide what U.S. officials thought prudent. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has kindly resolved doubts on this matter. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has made it clear that in military terms Russia is not the Soviet Union. What was once thought to be “the second best army in the world” is now more widely acknowledged as possibly the second-best army among the former Soviet republics.
While Russia and other security challenges remain, Europe is fully capable of addressing them. Gone are the days when Europe, humbled by two world wars, could not afford to protect itself. Europe has instead become addicted to American largesse (a phenomenon I refer to as "military welfare") while at the same time complaining about their North American partners.
One final concern is that the United States will lose the benefits it accrues from membership in NATO. What are these benefits? One of the most often referenced, and vague, is "influence." The notion that Europe will stray into darkness without U.S. supervision, as it did twice in the twentieth century, is a uniquely American conceit. Europe is a different place today, one that is stable, affluent, and moderate in its posture. It does not need Americans telling it what to do.
Nor is it the case that the United States needs to meddle in European affairs for its own policy purposes. By and large, Europeans will adopt policies and actions that are, for the most part, compatible with U.S. interests, with or without U.S. efforts to impose outcomes on Europe.
At the same time, America needs to focus on problems elsewhere. China is richer and likely more competent militarily and politically than Russia. While some European militaries have executed gestures in solidarity with U.S. efforts to contain Beijing, these efforts mostly just demonstrate the limited value of Europe's contributions in a region that is distant from Europe geographically and politically. A better outcome for the United States would be for Europeans to resolve their own security concerns, allowing the United States to actually pivot to Asia.
Macron has laid heavy hints that the United States has overstayed its welcome in Europe. Other leaders are more polite, but their sentiment is also clear. America can afford to be gracious in response. As tensions in Eastern Europe abate in the aftermath of the Russo-Ukraine war, there will be an opportunity for the United States to refocus and streamline its security commitments in Europe. Doing so will free up resources and reduce liabilities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California at San Diego.
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