Is NATO an unnecessary entanglement for America?
French President Emmanuel Macron took office in Paris in 2017, just four months after Donald Trump became US president. Early on, the two seemed destined for a strong partnership. That summer, when the two were both newly in office, Macron invited Trump to be his guest of honor at the Bastille Day celebrations. While others across the world struggled to determine their response to the brash new American president, Macron sat proudly beside Trump as the pair observed a parade of the French and US militaries along the famed Champs-Elysees.
But the relationship soured. Macron made a side remark, fulfilling a stereotype Americans hold of the French. Trump reacted harshly and without nuance, fulfilling a stereotype the French hold of the Americans. Soon enough, the two world leaders appeared as distant as two partners could be. Much of the dispute was about the US role in Europe and the future of NATO; and the feud reached new depths this week as the future of NATO was discussed on either side of the Atlantic.
First, it is important to understand that the US and France are not in danger of ending their partnership. France has been an ally to the US longer than any other country. Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer, is one of the most celebrated heroes of the American Revolution. He led the colonial (the predecessor of American) soldiers in important battles such as the Siege of Yorktown, and his name and image are memorialized across the country. After his experiences in the US, Lafayette fought in two revolutions in his home country.
The French Navy was also pivotal in the colonies’ success in defeating the British in 1783 and achieving independence. The French again assisted the US in the War of 1812, also against the British. The two countries remained close and, in 1886, French citizens gave the Statue of Liberty to the US. In 1917, as Europe was stuck in a stalemate and the hellish battle trenches of the First World War crisscrossed parts of Europe, including eastern France, the US military arrived to help its allies. An American officer, Charles Stanton, famously declared, “Lafayette, we are here.” The French and American alliance was strong. And again the US came to help France end the Nazi occupation in the Second World War.
Nothing will permanently break the bond between France and the US, but the two countries do not understand each other. French people seem confused by American culture, and Americans are surely confused by French ways. However, the two countries are joined by a history of cooperation and a love for liberty.
The disagreement today is about something far less essential. It is about policy. Macron recently accused Trump of causing the “brain death” of NATO. Macron went on to indicate that, perhaps, it is time for Europe to have a joint defense force. Perhaps NATO is over. Macron, like many of his European counterparts, is confused, hurt or insulted by Trump’s constant remarks about Europe not paying its share for NATO.
But maybe Macron’s reaction is right, and maybe it is not far off from what Trump has advocated. Since his 2016 presidential election campaign, Trump has said that all NATO allies should commit their share to military budgets. Otherwise, Trump argues, NATO is just an organization of countries being defended by the US, Britain and a few others. Trump has said that, if NATO allies do not spend enough on their militaries, the US should not be committed to defending them. In that regard, Trump might not mind Macron’s idea of discarding NATO.
NATO was founded less than four years after the Second World War ended. It was designed as an alliance of nations to defend against Soviet expansionism during the Cold War, but it continues nearly 30 years after the Soviet Union dissolved. Meanwhile, the alliance has grown from 12 to 29 countries, as it has incorporated the successors of states that were once controlled by the Soviet Union.
Nothing will permanently break the bond between France and the US, but the two countries do not understand each other.
Ellen R. Wald
Today, NATO finds itself without an identifiable threat to face. It has been used to fight far from the eastern front of Europe, where its founders feared a Soviet invasion. NATO has been used, for instance, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, NATO binds countries together where perhaps they should not be bound. In the US, there was much debate recently about whether the US should maintain troops positioned between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria to potentially deter or even fight against a Turkish advance. However, Turkey is a NATO ally — a country the US is supposed to defend, not fight. But, despite the treaty, the US does not generally consider Turkey a close ally and the two countries have more separating them than joining them these days.
Trump wants all NATO countries to meet the commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but some, including economically strong countries like Germany, refuse. For Trump and many Americans, this is a sign that NATO may be an unnecessary entanglement, obligating the US military with little benefit for America. So maybe Macron is angry and making threats. But, from an American perspective, maybe Macron should tear NATO apart. Then he can take the blame.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy