Apparently, a devastating thunderstorm stopped President Trump from gathering with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to celebrate the 100th anniversary of World War I. This came after Macron, in a feat of culot, argued that France and Europe need to unify and have a joint European Union army capable of defending the continent in face of a growing China, a revanchist Russia, and even the United States of America.
This bold statement immediately drew a couple of threatening tweets from Trump, an awkward joint press conference, and Trump’s cancellation of the visit to the commemorative event.
“We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America,” Macron thundered, a claim that drew Trump to tweet caustically “President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”
Macron carried on the feud with a veiled dig about nationalism. “This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France as the bearer of universal values was displayed during these dark hours, as the very opposite of a selfish nation that only looks after its own interest,” Macron said in his speech. “Patriotism is the opposite of nationalism and Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” One wonders what the French patriots and nationalist partisans who died fighting Nazi imperialism must have felt.
Macron’s Napoleon Complex
Macron’s Napoleon complex is nothing new. But the question that led to this moment in history will continue to haunt the two countries and the European continent in the future. Trump or Macron, or any individual leader, is frankly irrelevant. For centuries, a joint Europe under a single political umbrella was an English (and later British) dread.
The reason was geopolitical: if any hegemon unites Europe under one single empire or political union, it would prove to be too powerful for the maritime powers. One of the primary reasons for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was, in the timeless words of Lord Ismay, to keep the Germans down, Russians out, and Americans in. The American hegemony was therefore by design, not a flaw in the system, and followed the British grand strategy of offshore balancing and divide and rule.
Unfortunately, that led to a paradox. European muscle atrophied because there’s the guarantee that someone else will cross the Atlantic and break glass if there’s a fire. The once mighty German air force currently has four operational Typhoons, the French infantry needs over a month to deploy to the Baltics, and the less said about the Royal Navy, the better.
The lack of European military resources and American concern is not a new one, either, and will not go away after Trump. But instead of spending money on individual armed forces as nation-states and retention and maintenance capabilities, the European Powers, led by the EU, started to duplicate NATO bureaucracy in parallel organizations like Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a division of the EU’s security and defense branch.
If individual nation-states fund their own armed forces and spend more than 2 percent of gross domestic product on it, which fulfills NATO criteria, that might satisfy the U.S. leadership and military. But if EU as a union forms joint command and joint military, that leads to a dilemma.
Some Tactical Errors
First, on the superficial level, that makes American presence redundant. If Europeans can defend themselves under Brussels, why should America spend so much taxpayer money to stay on the continent? But the moment American troops threaten to pull back from anywhere east of Danube, European unity will be at risk. There is no question which superpower the Eastern and Central Europeans want as their security guarantor.
Second, on a broader grand-strategic level, any joint parallel European military command would also make NATO obsolete, and with that, the end of American hegemony in Europe. As I have written before here, even without military muscle and an independent foreign policy, EU and U.S. interests are diverging over trade, China, Russia, the Middle East, and Iran. Also, the chances of Europe uniting under a single military union or fielding a joint army and nuclear umbrella are statistically negligible and remain a pipedream.
With the return of nation-states, national sentiments, and great power rivalry, the last quarter-century of post-national utopia is over. It is only a matter of time until that reality hits the EU. Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker might have Château Latour-fueled dreams about a European superpower, but internal problems of law and order, a broken social contract, lack of martial spirit and interest, and centrifugal forces which are trying to pry the union open, are just going to stay and grow.
The frog, so to speak, will continue to boil slowly. Every political union, at one point of time, faces a choice to centralize and crush internal dissent, and consolidate the union, or to federalize more and give more powers to the regions. European leaders have not decided on that course of action, yet.
One therefore wishes good luck to Monsieur Macron. He will need it, and he probably realizes it as well, as he stands on armistice day, next to a lonesome black-clad German chancellor once touted as the next liberal leader of the free world who is now politically dead at home. He wants to run the simulation of uniting Europe, under one military command, through force if necessary, and he is free to test that hypothesis.
The paradox of European hegemony will continue. Europe cannot be united without a single hegemonic force. If anyone from within tries to unite Europe by force, it would bring about external great powers balancing against it. Power, as Kenneth Waltz wrote, begs to be balanced.