In the month that has passed since Emmanuel Macron issued his call for greater European strategic autonomy, two rival camps have gone to battle over its legacy. The first is populated by Atlanticists such as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, outraged by Macron’s alleged ingratitude towards US security guarantees and his suggestion that Europe must consider its own strategic interests independent from Washington. The second contains Macron’s neo-Gaullist and pan-European supporters, such as European Council president Charles Michel, who praised him for standing up to Washington with a vision of the European Union as the alternative “third pole” to China and the United States in a multipolar world.
Both responses were entirely predictable; and both suffer from a similar misapprehension about the emerging paradigm of international relations today and the structural shifts on the horizon.
From the Euro-Atlantic standpoint, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a galvanising event. The war reforged a long-dormant Manichaean framing of existential conflict between Russia and the “West”. What is, for Ukraine, a physical and territorial conflict thus assumed ontological, apocalyptic dimensions. In the spiritual fires of the war, the myth of the “West” was rebaptised. For a Nato that was seeking a mission ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, here was an opportunity to renew its institutional and ideological rationale, as well as to project solidarity in an the face of an emergency crisis.
From the perspective of America’s elites, meanwhile, the Ukraine war has underscored Europe’s profound military dependence on Washington and further reinforced the US-centric basis of transatlantic relations. Not only did it ostensibly justify their long-held position that Europe must pay a much larger share for the privileges of a US security guarantee, but the debate over the strategic worth of Nato and its enlargement was effectively silenced. Since the invasion, the alliance has already expanded to Finland, while Sweden remains in the process of accession. All of this was cause for celebration, if not triumphalism, in liberal internationalist circles: America, along with the Western order it sponsors against great power challengers such as China, appeared to be vindicated.
It was not surprising, then, that Macron’s remarks drew the ire of the Atlanticist foreign policy establishment, who not only falsely conflate the transatlantic relationship with Nato and measure its health in terms of Nato’s strength and durability but, crucially, have also internalised America’s Wilsonian and “Nato-centric” approach to European security. For them, the endurance of Nato as a permanent alliance serves as an effective hedge to the formation of a European defence force independent of Washington. Yet, the alliance is also an instrument for continued American influence over European policy. As Ronald Steel presciently wrote in the Sixties: “There is more than one kind of empire, more than one way of exerting control over others, and more than one justification for doing so.”
In his war memoirs, former French general and president Charles de Gaulle certainly agreed, calling Nato a “false pretence” designed to “disguise America’s chokehold over Europe”. The Americans, he argued, “should recognise that the United States’ best ally is not the one who grovels before them, but the one who knows how to say no to them”. Yet, de Gaulle, a proud European aristocrat who had had to deal with an imperious Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War, was also more pessimistic about the future direction of US policy, fearing Americans had developed “that taste for intervention in which the instinct for domination cloaked itself”.
Across the Atlantic, de Gaulle’s views found parallels with those of America’s original cold warriors, such as George Kennan and Dwight D. Eisenhower. “If in 10 years”, observed then-Presidential-candidate Eisenhower in 1951, “all American troops stationed in Europe for national defence purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole [Nato] project will have failed”. Recognising the strategic value of the Europeans as equal and sovereign partners, Eisenhower understood that US policy should aim to foster a separate transnational defence force in Western Europe with the capacity to eventually become fully self-reliant.
Some seven decades later, it appears we have gone full circle. More than a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the sense of consensus produced by the tragic war is slowly dissipating. As French President Emmanuel Macron noted, with America shifting its strategic focus to Asia, the question of European strategic autonomy is no longer academic but vital if Europe wants to be one of the “poles” in the emerging multipolar world, rather than a vassal of Washington.
Yet there is also a different, more complex story here, too. Notwithstanding their questionable practicality, recent calls for a collective defence initiative premised on European unity and its claims to shared identity paradoxically suffer from a globalist and Caesarist predisposition: not only are they wedded to the project of European integration designed to keep Franco-German elites in a position of primacy, but their cast of mind seems entranced by the notion of great power competition on a global scale.
Indeed, Macron has internalised the epistemological basis of modern international relations theory and its stubborn fixation on global realpolitik. This reflects the far-too-common modern bias towards the world as the spatial setting of choice for both life and strife. “The fundamental event of modernity”, as Heidegger wrote, “is the conquest of the world as picture.” Within this distortive vision, to stay relevant, an entity — whether individual, national, or organisational — must develop the capacity to influence the global, because one draws existential meaning from the hope of mastering the world as such.
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