As Donald Trump continues his habit of criticizing and alienating US allies (a habit which, believe it or not, might actually reflect a real, coherent strategy), the US President has, in the last few days, publicly criticized (via Twitter, of course) France and its leader, Emmanuel Macron, for President Macron’s call to build a “true, European army” to protect the continent against the possible threats of “China, Russia and even the United States of America.” President Trump lashed out at France for making such a proposal while failing to pay its fair share in the NATO alliance, and the US President later mocked the French for “starting to learn German”, i.e. capitulating, in the face of German aggression during WWII (a variation of the old insult that France should be grateful to the US for saving it from the Germans).
For good measure, President Trump reportedly berated United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on a phone call last week, grilling her foreign policy toward Iran and concerning Brexit, the process of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, which actually seems to be making progress after two years of stalemate and uncertainty. While President Trump’s ire may have more to do with the results of the US midterm elections (in which the narrative is shifting from uncertainty to a feeling of victory for the Democratic Party), the issues Trump chose to hit reflect a period of both uncertainty and opportunity for the European Union.
Earlier this week, Europeans marked Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the first World War, a conflict that entangled much of the world (in ways that are sometimes forgotten), but which primarily reflected an explosion of tensions between the great powers of Europe. The Great War was, of course, followed by an even deadlier Second World War that finally settled the Great Power conflicts that had pitted Germany against countries such as Britain and France, but at the cost of devastating Europe, fatally weakening the empires of the major European powers, destroying these country’s status as Great Powers, and establishing the US and USSR as superpowers locked in a Cold War.
In the midst of all these massive changes, the major nations of Europe found themselves employing two institutional solutions to guarantee their peace and physical safety. With the Soviet Union hiding Eastern Europe behind an “iron curtain” of communist governments, the Western European powers joined with their North American allies to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an alliance against Soviet attack or expansion. Even with this new potential conflict, however, Europeans still feared the prospect of a third World War arising one day from the old intra-European rivalries that had raged for centuries, and took institutional measures to prevent this from happening. France and West Germany (the East was under communist dominance at the time), along with Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, founded the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to establish shared control over these resources, which at the time were vital to making the types of weapons that they had just used against one another in the war. Over time, this organization grew extensively in its membership and scope, increasingly integrating the economies, populations and even politics of member countries.
The Soviet Union eventually fell apart, and post-Soviet Russia no longer posed an imminent threat to Western Europe (although Russia’s barely-concealed military actions and partial annexations in Georgia and Ukraine show that Russia can still be dangerous to its Eastern European neighbors, especially those that were once part of the Soviet Union and, in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, should still be under Moscow’s influence). As such, a European defense strategy centered around NATO, which brought United States firepower to bear on behalf of its European allies in exchange for recognition of America as the leader of the free world, has been a less appealing deal for many European powers, such as France.
Meanwhile, economic integration within the European Union, coupled with political homogenization and the prospect of deepening EU military cooperation, has created the prospect of a unified Europe that could not only assert its interests independent of US backing but could actually act as a Great Power in its own right and rival the most powerful nations on earth, as Macron’s comments suggest. The European Union, encompasses most of the independent nations of Europe, creating the world’s third largest combined population (behind only China and India, and ahead of the United States) and, by some measures, the world’s second largest economy (behind China and ahead of the US).
This prospect of a united Europe assuming the Great Power status that several of its underlying states (like Britain, France and Germany) once enjoyed depends on a high and sustained level of cooperation between the member states of the European Union. The United Kingdom has essentially opted out of this arrangement through its Brexit vote (which was complex but largely driven by issues of xenophobia rather than more direct skepticism about a united Europe).
Although the UK’s exit, which now seems like it will actually happen, weakens the overall economic and military might of the EU, Macron likely sees an opportunity to consolidate the rest of the EU in a way that magnifies French leadership within the union. France and the UK of course have a very complicated history. After centuries of rivalry and warfare, these two countries found themselves as allies in both world wars and in the Cold War. Yet, even the threat of Soviet aggression did not end the British/French rivalry. The UK initially refused to join the ECSC at its founding, and legendary French President Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed later British attempts to join the European Economic Community, as it was called at the time.
A European Union centered around France and Germany (Chancellor Angela Merkel today echoed, nearly verbatim, Macron’s call for a European army in a statement that was welcomed by the current leadership of the EU), even without British participation, could conceivably exert itself as a major world power, should it chose to extend its cooperation on external matters, such as foreign policy and even military action. This development, despite Macron’s urgings, would have to overcome various practical hurdles, as well as decades of reticence about militarizing the EU – which, remember, had the goal of preventing another major war as its raison d’etre.
A cohesive Europe that acted as one in relation to the rest of the world would also have to be a Europe that can contain the growing nationalism and xenophobia that has swept through much of the west and instead foster a sense of European identity, something that has varied considerably within the EU member countries. Ironically, however, Donald Trump, a vocal proponent of nationalism, may actually, by his rhetoric and his weakening of NATO, be pushing the United States’ European allies away from their own nationalisms and toward the type of multilateral cooperation that could lead to Europe presenting itself as a true rival to the US one day.