BRUSSELS – Donald Trump’s presidency was marked by exceptional disregard for European allies and the NATO alliance.
But it also forced European nations to consider whether they had become too dependent on the United States for leadership and their own security, and to ponder how far they were willing to go to defend themselves.
But Trump is leaving. And the prospect of his departure has reopened old fissures among major European allies on their defense relations with the United States, with considerable doubts about what a few months ago seemed like a decided shift toward greater European ambition and integration.
President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del. Photo Ruth Fremson / The New York Times.
The most immediate consequence has been a bitter dispute between France and Germany on the future of European defense and strategic autonomy, showing the different anxieties of two countries central to the functioning of the European Union.
The dispute has included an unusual personal attack by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to the German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
He even suggested that she, one of the Chancellor’s favorites Angela Merkel, was out of step with the chancellor, which German officials and analysts flatly deny.
The dispute is a measure of the raw sentiments aroused by the Trump presidency, which raised questions about the long-term commitment of the United States to world leadership and European security that a presidency of Joe Biden not likely to erase.
Those attitudes helped Macron push forward the idea of ”strategic autonomy“of Europe versus a changed America, one that believes it is no longer willing to bear the burdens of world leadership, no matter who the president is.
Macron’s concern, French officials and analysts say, is that a friendly Biden presidency will put Europe – and more importantly Germany, its largest and richest nation – back to sleep, content to take refuge under the American umbrella. Y reluctant to compromise with a more energetic European voice in the world.
Yet it is Kramp-Karrenbauer, commonly known as AKK, who is the German official who is most vocal about the need for Germany and Europe to take military and security matters more seriously, said Claudia Major, senior analyst at defense of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Having this counterproductive and toxic debate doesn’t help us at all,” Major said.
“Macron is focusing on the wrong issue. The question in Germany is not whether we are Atlanticists or Europeanists, but whether we take more responsibility in defense or not, and the AKK wants to do more.”
The debate is important, said François Heisbourg, a French security analyst, “because it nakedly shows the discrepancies between French and German perceptions, as referents of a broader European divide.”
The two countries have very different starting points, he said, with different views on the centrality of transatlantic dependency.
“But deep down – the need to do more – there is not that much difference.”
Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington who leads the Munich Security Conference, said: “This is the most unnecessary fight that I have witnessed between Germany and France in a decade. “
A moment’s reflection, he said, “I’d tell you that AKK is Macron’s closest ally in Germany in strengthening European capabilities, and whether you call it autonomy or a better US partner in NATO, it’s just a dispute over the words, not the meaning. “
The plot was more or less the same as they had to handle Charles de Gaulle Y Konrad Adenauer after World War II, Ischinger said.
“The French defy the need to have America here a little bit, and the Germans say, ‘I can’t live without the safety of the Americans, so strengthen Europe to be a better partner.’
Germany also believes that the American security umbrella is crucial for the European balance, for keep to Central and Eastern Europeans committed to NATO and to the European Union itself, said Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Germans want to frame the increase in European military efforts as part of transatlantic cooperation, as a message to the United States, but also to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe” that only rely on the security guarantees of the United States against Russia , said.
“Germany wants to be the most inclusive possible in Europe, while the French are much more willing to move forward with fewer countries, “said Schwarzer.
“This is seen with the defense but also with the coronavirus recovery fund.”
Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, points out that NATO and the European Union are critical to Germany in a way that they are not critical to France, which maintains its own nuclear arsenal.
“If you take NATO or the EU from France, the French could make coalitions of volunteers. If you take them away from Germany, we feel naked,” said Puglierin.
“The idea of NATO collapsing scares us.” The problem, he said, arose when Macron insisted that he wanted to stay in NATO, but wanted strategic autonomy as well as good relations with the United States.
“The Germans are not sure how that would work and no one has explained it,” he said. “So we really don’t believe it.”
Macron, criticized for his handling of the pandemic, feels unsupported by his allies, Heisbourg suggested. Macron sees France as at war with radical Islamists, both at home and in North Africa, and has come under fire for his responses by Muslim nations, especially the president. Recep Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey.
Erdogan has insulted Macron, claiming that he speaks in the name of Islam, and is exercising military power in the eastern Mediterranean at the expense of Greece and Cyprus, and in Libya and Azerbaijan, against French allies.
However, Germany has tried to mediate between Turkey and EU members Greece and Cyprus, “as if they were the same,” Heisbourg said, infuriating Macron.
Partners or opponents?
France and Germany are also fighting over the future of a joint military project, a new fighter plane, which is not going well, according to Major and Christian Mölling, writing in The world.
The project aims to show “that European sovereignty is possible, and that Paris and Berlin are carriers of this ambition,” they write.
“This also means that if this flagship project fails, the greatest damage will be political, not economic.”
The great divide began when Kramp-Karrenbauer provoked Macron’s ire in a speech, which followed with an opinion piece in Politico, in which he bluntly stated: “Europe still needs America”.
“The illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a provider of security,” he wrote.
Macron clearly took it as a direct rebuttal of its own arguments in favor of strategic autonomy, and therefore of its efforts to position itself at the center of European leadership in the last days of Merkel’s mandate.
He responded in a lengthy interview 10 days later.
“The question, if we are direct, is this: Will the change in the American administration see that Europeans are relaxing?” said.
He then pointed to Kramp-Karrenbauer for a special criticism, saying he “deeply” disagreed with his op-ed.
“I think it’s a historical misinterpretation“Macron said.
“Fortunately, if I understood things correctly, the chancellor does not share this point of view.”
The United States, Macron continued, never mentioning Biden’s name, “will only respect us as allies if we are sincere, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defense.”
A new administration, he added, would be an opportunity for Europe “to continue building our independence.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer gave another speech last week to students at the German military academy in which he again argued that the best way to maintain America’s security commitment to Europe was to “do more for our own security.”
“The French President has recently made that same observation – and I agree,” he said. But he did not back down, adding that “trust exclusively in the EU it would create a division in Europe. “
On Tuesday, when asked directly whether Merkel and Macron agreed, Kramp-Karrenbauer bluntly said: “I did not hear the chancellor say that NATO was superfluous “.
Puglierin said it was time to forget about “this stupid debate.”
“Americans hope we come up with something,” he said, “and that we don’t wait like children.”
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