U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t impressed with Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion Europe should have its own army.
Others in the U.S. say the plan may put Macron on side with Trump’s military aims, if the two presidents can get past their war of words.
Two days after the French president declared Europe should have its own military force, Trump went on the offensive against a perceived slight — especially Macron’s apparent suggestion the army would defend the Continent against the U.S.
Aides to Macron point out the French president was referring to cybersecurity, but Trump’s umbrage — and subsequent comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel — gave the spat more oxygen.
“This issue is usually dramatically exaggerated by the European security crowd,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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Macron’s suggestion Europe should raise its capabilities is essentially the same as Trump’s request to EU capitals to spend more on defense, he said. “It’s just sort of silly that the two of them are at loggerheads … They’re just finding a way to disagree when they’re actually agreeing.”
While Trump mocked France’s role in World War II when lashing out against the plan, other U.S. officials suggested Washington could use the help.
“We in the NATO alliance, we see NATO as the cornerstone for the protection of Europe in the security realm and we fully support nations doing more to carry the load,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said when asked whether he supports an EU military, after meeting Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak on Tuesday. “I would just point to Poland as a role model, as an example of what democracies do as we share the burden for protecting democracy in the world.”
O’Hanlon chalked up Macron’s comments to decades-old resentment of American power that has simmered among European allies since World War II.
Creating a European army would not be based on “a fear of an American invasion,” he said. “It’s more about not relying on the U.S. as much. It’s almost a statement of [Macron’s] own nationalism.”
But an independent army to shoulder the defense burden in Europe could create a competitor to NATO rather than complementing it, according to James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander and a retired U.S. Navy admiral.
“If we think we’re having trouble now getting Europe to participate in various NATO operations — Afghanistan, the Balkans, in counter-piracy operations — just wait until they have an independent armed force for Europe,” said Stavridis, now an operating executive at private equity firm the Carlyle Group. “That’s where the resources will go.”
Stavridis said that as well as being a “political distraction,” the new army would send the wrong message to Moscow. “By breaking that unity between the U.S. and its partners, it emboldens Russia,” he said. “That’s what I’m really concerned about here.”
Who’s in charge
Europe faces significant obstacles to military integration, including the multiple weapons systems used around the Continent, as well as linguistic and resource constraints.
“How would you decide to deploy it? What body would oversee it? How would the chain of command work? That’s all worked out in extraordinary detail in NATO, and no one really knows what it means [for a European army],” Stavridis said.
“After a great deal of effort, we can get things done in NATO. But it’s hard and it requires significant U.S. leadership to accomplish everything,” he said. “If you take the U.S. out of the equation, it’s only going to be more difficult for these European nations to come together and operate.”
Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said European countries may achieve more success from focusing their ambitions on enhancing existing bilateral arrangements such as the joint German-Dutch corps.
While a unified army is unlikely, Hunter said, it’s possible Europe creates something on a lower scale simply because the desire has been there for years.
The angry rhetoric of the past week may say more about the presidents’ personalities than about their politics.
“There is a pretty strong, long, continuous trend line toward a more robust European defense capability that is distinct from NATO,” he said. “And that I expect to continue. They’re very serious about it.”
O’Hanlon says the angry rhetoric of the past week came about simply because Macron was trying to get a rise out of Trump after the U.S. president misinterpreted his statements — something that may say more about the presidents’ personalities than about their politics.
“This goes back to when Macron used an unfortunate choice of words. Trump chose [to] interpret it the wrong way, which is not unlike Trump,” he said. “Instead of thinking about what Macron really meant — that Europe wants some strategic autonomy and [to] not count on some fickle temperamental transatlantic superpower — Trump interpreted it as a threat to him.”