France's push for a European army, greater autonomy from the US and its apologia for Russian expansionism raise questions about its commitment to NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has gone through several different phases and survived despite recurring internal and external challenges. However, the alliance currently faces a new danger that has gone largely unnoticed.
France, under President Emmanuel Macron, is inflicting discord into the alliance, misleading the public, and pushing a Russophile geopolitical perspective mixed with a false aspiration of European autonomy from the US. Macron’s now famous ‘brain death’ statement about NATO was just the tip of the iceberg.
French ambiguity towards NATO is nothing new and can be found throughout the history of the alliance. During the Cold War in 1966, the French decided to fully withdraw from the alliance. At the time, French President Charles de Gaulle wrote: “France is determined to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty.” The alliance survived and even defeated the Soviet Union without France.
To no surprise, by the time Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would rejoin NATO in 2009, the Cold War was already over. France's fair-weater committment to NATO and their different approach to Russia or the former Soviet Union continues until today.
Most recently, French president Macron advocated for a ‘comprehensive dialogue’ with Russia and argued that Russia is essential to the security of the European continent and that it is geographically and historically a part of Europe.
He stressed that dialogue with Russia on the Middle East is crucial as Russia has expanded its role while the Europeans and the Americans ‘almost disappeared’. Not only in rhetoric but also, in reality, France is already partnering with Russia.
In Libya, both sides support the warlord Khalifa Haftar in his pursuit of a military takeover of Tripoli. While Russia sends in private military contractors, France supplies Haftar with weapons and diplomatic support.
France even managaed to convince the European Union to implement Operation IRINI that only targeted the UN-recognised government of Libya – de-facto support to Haftar. While France ignored Syrian and Russian mercenaries brought to Libya by Russia, the French president repeatedly accused Turkey of sending ‘Syrian jihadists’ to the country.
In the Caucasus, an area regarded as part of the Russian hinterland, the French sided with Russia and tried to prevent Turkey from entering the Caucasus and strengthening the the NATO alliance by investing in Azerbaijan and its legitimate claims stemming from international law.
Moreover, France openly questioned solidarity in the alliance and suggested that France would not side with Turkey over a conflict with Russia in Syria. While Paris has become the Russia's strongest advocate in NATO, it is also Turkey's harshest critic. In doing so, France attacks the essence of the alliance, weakens its internal solidarity, and brings into question the validity of its defense treaty.
For instance, Baltic states may ask themselves that alliance members openly express their lack of solidarity with another alliance member over potential escalation with Russia, so what guarantees that they will see solidarity in the wake of a Russian attack.
Moreover, Paris has been pushing the idea of European autonomy from the US. The French president views NATO as an obstacle and sees France as the natural leader of a potential European pole.
Most notably, he foresees a duopoly between China and the US. Instead of suggesting to strengthen the alliance, he propagates weakening it to form a 'European army'. As one article put it, the main goal of French rhetoric is to replace NATO and detach Europe from the United States. A European army is unlikely to materialise, but it does not prevent Paris from positioning itself as a real and natural member of the alliance. In reality, a state is either an alliance member of NATO or not.
Another aspect of France misleading the public and torpedoing relations in the alliance was the French accusation towards Turkey regarding an incident in the Mediterranean Sea. After an investigation, the French accusations proved to be lies and Turkey demanded an apology but the damage had already been done. The idea that two NATO states were engaging in hostile activity against each other threatened the essence of NATO.
The combination of advocating stronger ties and dialogue with Russia while the alliance has to show solidarity with Ukraine and the Baltic states; active geopolitical collaboration with Russia in North Africa and the Caucasus; propagating European autonomy and the formation of a European army; and spreading misinformation and mistrust in the alliance, all weaken NATO.
To prevent Paris from continuing its destructive policies regarding NATO, the Biden administration has to fix what Macron broke.
Macron had exploited the general skepticism in Europe against the Trump administration to push forward its agenda, but with the new Biden administration, the transatlantic ties could be mended. A joint approach towards Russia and a new commitment to the alliance, its members, and the security threat perception of the alliance members will ultimately strengthen the alliance. Most importantly, the Biden administration has to signal very clearly to Macron that its policies vis-à-vis the NATO alliance have to end.
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