Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was well into his speech, opening a conference at the Korber Foundation in Berlin on November 26, when a news alert popped up on my phone: 13 French soldiers and officers had died when two helicopters carrying them collided during a combat operation in Mali.
Suddenly, Maas’s reassuring tone offered a striking contrast with the details about the casualties emerging on my screen.
“German foreign policy is not disruptive,” he said. “Nato is strong and able to act, Nato is alive, from head to toe, even if there are different diagnoses.”
Germany’s top diplomat was obviously taking aim at President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose diagnosis of “brain death” on the trans-Atlantic military alliance, in an interview with The Economist three weeks earlier, had rocked the Western foreign policy establishment.
Germany was particularly stung: “This is total nonsense,” Norbert Rottgen, a conservative Member of Parliament who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Bundestag, shot back when I asked him about Macron’s metaphor.
Yet the dichotomy between France’s military experience in the sands of the Sahel, where it has been fighting a difficult war against Islamist militants for six years, and Berlin’s refusal to disrupt what it sees as life insurance for its security perfectly illustrates the Atlantic alliance’s predicament.
The Nato summit near London last week, which was supposed to celebrate the organisation’s 70th birthday, ended awkwardly on Wednesday in a formal commitment of countries at odds with one another to stick together for a future that nobody dares to define.
At the heart of the malaise lies the United States’ gradual withdrawal from Western leadership, as well as the reluctance of many of its allies to accept it.
When the president of the United States announced via Twitter in October that he was withdrawing his troops from Syria, for Germany it was probably undiplomatic. For France it was not just that; it has become a very concrete problem, because France has troops in Syria along with the Americans, and the withdrawal affects them directly.
For historical reasons, France and Germany have different attitudes toward defence; Germany has delegated its security to Nato and its major contributor, the United States, which maintains 35,000 troops on German soil. France, having nuclear weapons, likes to think of itself as a geopolitical “power,” albeit “mid-size”; Germany has been “disempowered” in the post-Second World War decades and lives happily with it.
This is why Macron’s “‘brain-dead’ interview” as it came to be known in foreign policy circles in Berlin when he applied that description to Nato, could not go down well in Germany.
It has not gone well either in most other European countries, notably those closer to Russia’s borders, like Poland, the Baltic States, and the Northern states. But those members were probably more worried about President Macron’s unilateral and ill-explained offer of a new dialogue to Russia.
Telling Germany that Nato is dead is like pulling the rug under its feet; there is a sense of panic in Berlin that you don’t feel in Paris, because France has learned to walk beside the rug.
“It is like a cappuccino,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoffe of the German Marshall Fund, a trans-Atlantic think tank: “France has both the strong coffee and the foam, but Germany cannot live only with the foam.”
In the end, it is more about the United States than about Nato.
Why is it more shocking for President Macron to talk about “brain-dead” Nato than for President Trump to say it is “obsolete”?
Extreme symptom of American unilateralism
Why are European partners more upset when the French president raises doubts about the validity of Article 5 of the Nato Charter (an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us) than when those doubts come from the American president himself?
Because there is still, in most European capitals, the blind hope that Donald Trump is an aberration and that it will all reverse to the good old trans-Atlantic days after November 2020 if he is not re-elected. And President Macron, through his unwelcome provocations, ruins that hope.
The French, very early on, made the diagnosis that Trump is the extreme symptom of a deeper trend of American unilateralism and withdrawal from Western leadership. Macron insists that his warning that America “is turning its back on us” is designed as a useful wake-up call for Europeans to strengthen their capacity to defend themselves in a very dangerous world. Unfortunately, although they may agree privately with his analysis, most European leaders are irritated by Macron’s methods. Too “Gallic” or “Gaullist,” as the cliches go. This French leader is not their style.
What is left of Nato politically, after this tense episode? President Macron is satisfied that at least his fellow European leaders can’t hide their heads in the sand anymore, and he takes credit for it. “When the ice has hardened,” he told the press on Wednesday, “you need an icebreaker. It makes a big bang, but it opens the way.” Now the difficult issues are on the table for all to see: Russia, Turkey, China, terrorism and setting up a new regime of arms control with more weapons and more actors around are only some of the challenges.
What is also missing after the London meeting is who will lead the necessary turnaround to meet those challenges. By all accounts, if Donald Trump wins a second term, it will not be the United States. After almost three years, European leaders seem to have learned how to deal with this president — and without him. More revealing than the “stolen video” showing the leaders of Canada, Britain, France and the Netherlands making fun of their American counterpart at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evening was the cold, brutal exchange the day before between Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump. When Trump asked with a grin whether Macron would like some “nice Isis [Daesh] fighters,” — a proposal to the president of a country where Daesh fighters gunned down 130 people in one evening four years ago and which had just buried 13 soldiers — it was offensive. Macron answered with serious fact-checking about the resilience of the very Daesh that Trump claimed to have defeated. This time, nobody criticised him.
Just as important, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Macron had dinner together in London, on the margins of the Nato meeting, to patch things up. Maybe they discussed a recent poll, carried out by the Pew Research Centre for the Korber Foundation, which showed that for 52 per cent of Germans, their country should strive for greater independence from the United States in defence matters, even if it means more than doubling defence spending. By the same token, 22 per cent of the Germans are in favour of continuing to rely on the American nuclear umbrella, while 40 per cent think Germany should seek nuclear protection from France and the United Kingdom.
But what the German and French leaders most certainly discussed was their coming meeting, on Monday in Paris, with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. An important meeting for Europe — without the United States.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer