The French and the Germans say they are intent on building a European Army independent of the United States. Don’t laugh.
“We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign way,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters earlier this week. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday seconded Macron’s opinion. “The days where we can unconditionally rely on others are gone,” she said.
Yet reaction from Washington has been a mix of consternation and laughter. President Trump, who ran in part on a platform to force Europe to bear more of the cost of its defense, on Tuesday criticized Macron’s idea for a “true European army.”
Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2018
In Moscow meantime, would-be czar Vladimir Putin is licking his lips as hopes of cleaving continental Europe from the orbit of the United States and the United Kingdom play out before him.
Yet, for all of their bluster, Europe will never fall under the spell of either Germany or France (at least, not any more than they already have). Though there is a history of alliances between France and Russia as well as Germany and Russia, those alliances have tended to be short-lived and usually ended in disaster.
The French and Russians had their Dual Friendship treaty, which is credited with precipitating World War I (and we all know how that ended for Europe). Then the Germans and the Soviets inked the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which fell apart when the Germans decided it was in their national interest to invade and conquer Russia. Why would anyone think things would play out differently today between these three powers?
Even as the Germans and French have grown closer to Russia, this “alliance” has been based on the most reptilian needs imaginable. There is no reason to think a new round of Franco-German-Russian cooperation would herald some imagined European Empire. Besides, should these three powers become close allies, they’d still be bickering over who was really in charge.
Stumbling Blocks for the New Franco-German-Russian Alliance
Today’s Europe is somewhat more complex than it was during the last round of great power competition. Eastern Europe has grown stronger and more independent. Poland and Hungary, for example, have proven themselves largely immune to the totalitarianism of Brussels and the authoritarianism of Moscow.
Sure, Hungary has made some energy deals with Moscow recently—but so, too, have France and Germany. We’re somehow supposed to think Germany and France’s economic pacts with Russia will not weaken their ties to NATO or undermine their resolve to stave off Russian aggression. Yet Hungary’s decision to buy Russian nuclear power makes it a de facto member of the Russian Federation. Strange how that works. (I suspect the reason France and Germany are let off the hook in their support of trade deals with Russia is that Berlin and Paris are major backers of the European Union, while Hungary, like Poland, is “Euroskeptical.”)
Sweden and Spain have also become increasingly skeptical of Russian power. Should a European Army dominated by Paris and Berlin come to pass, you can rest assured the Hungarians and Poles won’t simply shrug. Nor would the rest of Europe. Many European countries would instead look to the United States to balance against such a force—especially if this French and German-dominated European Army cozies up to Moscow.
Who Would Support Such a Boondoggle?
Fact is, any proposed European force would find itself hemmed in. Washington may be an ocean away, but it exercises a greater geopolitical pull than Moscow does—which means it remains a better bet for Warsaw, Budapest, Stockholm, Rome, and the rest.
Far from becoming a Russian highway to the West, a more sovereign Europe would be a major stumbling block for whatever grand ambitions Moscow may have in mind.
For instance, any proposed European Army undoubtedly would be mostly French, as France currently has the most powerful indigenous military on the continent. Germany may be the unofficial economic capital of Europe, but its’ military is a disaster, which is why Germany openly supports France’s calls for a European Army.
Aside from money, however, Germany could contribute little to enhance such a force. Yet it is unlikely that Berlin would simply kowtow to Paris in military affairs—especially if the Germans ended up bankrolling the force. At the same time, though, France would not readily acquiesce to its historic German rivals just because Berlin is footing the bill.
These are cleavages that Washington could exploit.
History and Geopolitics Are Back in Europe
Clearly, history has returned to Europe. And with the return of history has also come the return of geopolitics and the need for traditional military force. If France and Germany want to build their combined military force to balance against the Americans, let them. If Berlin and Paris want to try to make nice with Moscow, let them try that, too.
If history is any guide, it will end up badly for the Europeans—and America could stand to gain from the aftermath.
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