Today, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to be meeting UK PM Theresa May to discuss global crises and plans to tackle them ahead of a Nato summit. France is still working with the US-led coalition, but the series of responses to the failure of the French and US-supported forces in the Operation Desperatoire Ouest Salida (OAS) in Mali, and to the French request for UK-led offensive operations in the Sahel, speak not only to the state of the French alliance but to the underlying difficulties of the EU and the UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.
Today’s summit in Brussels will be seen as particularly significant as it will be the first gathering since the July row between the US President and the British Prime Minister, when Trump once again lost his temper and reportedly remarked “Why do we have to defend the UK with all of these costs?” and criticised the UK’s contribution to NATO. Nevertheless, EU leaders are much more united in their concerns about the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the WTO. Much of the problem in this atmosphere is that Europe’s often weak defense and security institutions have not yet been built to function smoothly as a true coalition of the willing as envisioned by the first Nato post-cold war summit in 1999. This is demonstrated not only by the US veto at the UN security council and EU disunity at the G20, but by the post-colonial ethos in which EU leaders must work together to confront challenges which may only afflict their own continent or a small region of the world and not much more.
Foreign policy and defence are never easy or popular enough in a country to challenge the ideas that the French also need to fight foreign wars and that Europe needs to use its exceptional wealth to exert more influence abroad. Foreign leaders face a hard choice: choose between their alliance with the US and a more assertive role in defence and diplomacy, or ditch the US and follow China, Russia or China. The problems that the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and Nato or for that matter the Brexit could cause for Europe are many but if the US vacates Africa, post-Brexit, the consequences of a disengaged Europe for the world are likely to be overwhelming. This is not to argue for a return to the Ottomans but the days of the Europe of external rule and resources on the sole continent are past.
It is not surprising that Macron has shown himself willing to fall back on America’s commitments to the current crisis. Indeed, defence ties between the UK and US have been on the rise for some time, and one senses the Trump-Macron spat might work for Macron’s best friend in Europe, Theresa May. Instead of attempting to leverage a stronger alliance with the US into an ideological priority like Europe’s goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK may now end up relying on a pragmatic partnership with the US against ISIS and against China’s expansionism.
Macron’s criticism of the US as well as the US’s plans for Africa reinforces the Euro-Atlantic view that Trump’s administration will act most proactively on the European agenda when force deployments are guaranteed. Macron’s rhetoric in favour of “multi-polarity” and finding economic alternatives to international trade and a number of other issues has also won him points with US allies like Germany who would rather deal with the Germans than with the US, an idea that has come to pass with Merkel’s open door immigration policy.
Thus far, the US has done a poor job with its defence spending, but Trump’s approach to allies and adversaries alike could become increasingly successful if France joins America’s coalition for African stability in Mali, a country Macron has pledged to restore to its former colonial status. The military campaign can be carried out on a more favourable bases given the need to stay below 5 000 troops, which is the Obama administration’s ceiling. It also undermines the future balance of power on the continent, especially given the Italian and Iranian opposition to creating a Muslim NATO that would result in a more powerful axis of Islamic powers, especially Iran, Turkey and the Russians.
The renewal of the partnership between France and the US has given it a practical value that far outweighs any political advantage which Macron’s politically neutral approach could bring. President Macron’s diplomatic behaviour in recent months might only strengthen the traditionally useful trust between two countries that rarely go at it over the choice of roles in an international crisis.