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[Andreas Kluth] France, Germany agree on US more than they realize

By Bloomberg

Published : Nov. 30, 2020 - 05:31

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“I profoundly disagree” with the German defense minister, French President Emmanuel Macron said the other day, calling her view on trans-Atlantic relations “a historical misinterpretation.” The German minister in question, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, promptly upped the ante, labeling Macron’s contrasting vision “an illusion.”

This unusual dialectic between a French president sometimes described as “Jupiterian” and a generally understated German Cabinet member suggests something big is at stake. Indeed, it’s the future relationship between the European Union and the US, not only during the coming presidency of Joe Biden but far beyond.

The debate originates in Macron’s vision that the EU should strive for what he calls strategic autonomy and sovereignty. He wants Europe to be strong enough to declare independence from the US and stand up to China, Russia and others.

Kramp-Karrenbauer counters that Europe can’t go it alone. “Without America’s nuclear and conventional capabilities, Germany and Europe cannot protect themselves. Those are plain facts,” she said. The US currently provides about 75 percent of NATO’s capabilities, from satellite reconnaissance and helicopters to its nuclear arsenal.

Portrayed thus, these two vantage points should lead to starkly opposed notions about trans-Atlantic relations on defense. But, in fact, they don’t. While they place different emphases, they point in the same direction.

The impetus of this debate was, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump. With his caprice and contempt for allies such as Germany and alliances including NATO, he spooked most of the EU’s leaders, planting the thought that America may not be there in a crunch.

Biden, a believer in alliances and multilateralism, assuages the worst of these European fears. But Trumpism in some form could be back in four years. And even if it’s banished, America will remain distracted by polarization at home and its rivalry with China abroad. For the foreseeable future, the US will be interested more in Asia and less in Europe.

The reactions by Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer to this reality largely reflect the strategic cultures of their nations. Kramp-Karrenbauer comes from the postwar West German tradition, in which the US was regarded almost as a “father figure,” holding its protective aegis over the continent and country. America to her is and remains indispensable. That’s why she wants to offer the US “a new deal.”

Macron’s European autonomy, meanwhile, is in a sense just the latest iteration of a yen by French presidents since Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s founder, to play down American influence in Europe and better project French power through the institutions of Brussels. If Macronism differs from Gaullism, it’s only in appearing to care also for European, rather than just French, grandeur.

But beyond these differing motivations, the two worldviews converge. Both Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer appear to agree that the long-term alternative to US leadership in NATO would have to be a “European army.” And yet the two seem to concede this isn’t likely to come about any time soon.

It’s unrealistic in part because the EU’s nations aren’t ready to abandon their individual armies and thus the ultimate relic of their sovereignty -- in the 1950s, it was in fact France that killed an early push for a joint military for this reason. It’s also unlikely because the Poles, French, Germans, Italians, Greeks and others can’t even agree on what threats they should defend against. And even if they all miraculously merged their armies into one, they still wouldn’t come close to replacing American might.

What Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer therefore suggest is aiming at the same goal: Europe must become stronger militarily and coordinate its forces better. The relevant projects are already in the works; unfortunately, they often get lost in the usual Brussels gobbledygook of acronyms such as PESCO, CARD, CDP and EDF.

Both agree that Europe must have stronger armies, deploy them more often than in the past, and even use them without American backup in certain cases. These include missions to maintain order in Europe’s “neighborhood” -- from Africa (a French priority) to the Baltic (most urgent for the Poles and Balts) and the eastern Mediterranean (the greatest Greek concern).

Higher defense spending and more military missions, with the inevitable body bags, will be controversial and a hard sell to citizens, especially in Germany. But it’ll be necessary if Europe is to have any geopolitical credibility. You can call this a quest for “sovereignty,” as Macron does. Or you can consider it, as Kramp-Karrenbauer does, an offer for a new division of labor between Europe and the US -- in effect, a new form of burden-sharing.

Even Macron admits that in the world’s biggest conflicts to come -- with China or Russia, say, or between democracies and autocracies -- Europe’s interests will usually overlap with America’s. Kramp-Karrenbauer thinks this thought through to the end. How do you redefine, but also reinvigorate, the trans-Atlantic alliance? The best way to get future US administrations to take Europe seriously, she rightly concludes, is to do so as a “strong partner,” not a “helpless child.”

Andreas Kluth
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.