French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration of the “brain death” of NATO not only sounded alarm bells across Europe and America but also sparked long overdue conversations about profound shifts in global strategic priorities that have been occurring for over a decade.
While Macron’s remedies — European sovereignty, or a separate military force apart from NATO — are easy to criticize, his compelling analysis of today’s global realities cannot be readily dismissed. His premise of a world shifting “from a global order based on rules to one determined by muscular power politics” is hard to deny in an age of rogue states and surging nationalism. His call for “rapprochement” with Russia is reflective of what several European governments are thinking but not saying.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead acknowledges the strength of Macron’s insight, stating, “The Western alliance that won the Cold War is adrift and confused.”
Macron also punctures the myth that European-American relations were fine before President Trump reached the White House and will be fine again as soon as he leaves. What Trump does loudly and not diplomatically — complaining about NATO members failing to meet their financial obligations — is an issue that has been pushed, albeit more quietly, by American presidents going back to George W. Bush.
In Macron’s view, a much clearer sign of growing European-American alienation was President Obama’s game-changing “pivot to Asia” and declaration of himself as “America’s first Pacific president.” Many commentators at the time saw this major policy shift as a clear devaluation of Europe and the Middle East as American priorities.
The central reality behind these changes is the emergence of a new “bipolar world,” much like the one we knew throughout the Cold War. Only this time, our main geopolitical adversary is not a shrunken post-Soviet Union Russian Federation, with an economy the size of Italy’s and a defense budget less than one-tenth that of the U.S., but rather China, whose dramatic increase in military, economic and technological power has been the big strategic story of this century.
The big strategic story of the previous half-century was Richard Nixon’s “opening of China” in 1972, a diplomatic coup that gave the U.S. leverage in dealing with both China and the Soviet Union while also facilitating America’s extrication from the Vietnam War. This wedge between the two communist giants proved to be an invaluable diplomatic tool for the remainder of the Cold War and beyond.
As a counterweight to growing Chinese power, recent U.S. presidents have sought to maintain productive ties to Russia, though sometimes naively. Bush (“I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul”), Obama (“Tell Vladimir I’ll have more flexibility after the election”) and Trump (“Maybe Putin and I will get along great”) all realized that preventing two of the world’s three great military powers — China and Russia — from forming a close alliance was a major American diplomatic priority.
Today, however, the door to any productive U.S.-Russia ties is firmly bolted shut as a result of the upheaval in American domestic politics. Putin fully understands this and predictably moved toward China, as exemplified by the huge energy deals between the two countries and the recent joint Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and the Sea of Japan. Today relations between Russia and China are closer than at any time since the 1950s.
Unless the United States steps back from the destructive political weaponization of its foreign policy — the delight of our enemies and the despair of our friends — a new American strategic consensus will not emerge anytime soon.
Sadly, the thoughtful Macron can offer no solutions to these multiplying problems, but he has provided a most valuable service in compelling both Europe and America to gaze upon the true realities that are shaping our volatile and increasingly dangerous world. Hopefully, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who fancy themselves to be statesmen can heed this warning and reach beyond the parochial towards a higher and better vision for the future.