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”? 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 Mr. Trump is the extreme symptom of a deeper trend of American unilateralism and withdrawal from Western leadership. Mr. 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 Mr. Macron’s methods. Too “Gallic” or “Gaullist,” as the clichés 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 ice-breaker. 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 Mr. Trump asked with a grin whether Mr. Macron would like some “nice ISIS fighters,” — a proposal to the president of a country where ISIS fighters gunned down 130 people in one evening four years ago and which had just buried 13 soldiers — it was offensive. Mr. Macron answered with serious fact-checking about the resilience of the very ISIS that Mr. Trump claimed to have defeated. This time, nobody criticized him.
Just as important, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Mr. 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 Center for the Körber Foundation, which showed that for 52 percent of Germans, their country should strive for greater independence from the United States in defense matters, even if it means more than doubling defense spending. By the same token, 22 percent of the Germans are in favor of continuing to rely on the American nuclear umbrella, while 40 percent 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.
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