By David Brennan, newsweek.com
The president has warned Europe can no longer rely on Trump’s United States—and is busily preparing France and its allies to face off Islamist threats and an increasingly ambitious Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron has long wished for greater European military cooperation. This week, he continued the drive, suggesting the bloc can no longer rely on American military support to protect members against outside threats.
In a speech to relaunch his political agenda Monday, the president explained, “It is up to us to guarantee European security” and said he would “launch an exhaustive review” of security relations with “all Europe’s partners, which includes Russia.”
After decades of underinvestment, Macron is spearheading a push to revamp France’s military, returning it to its historical position as one of the most well-funded and potent forces in the world. With Europe facing an emboldened Russia and the Western allies battling Islamist threats across Africa and the Middle East, France needs its bite back.
President Donald Trump’s residency in the White House has presented a challenge for European nations. For decades, NATO stood united and firm against the threat of the Soviet Union and later the new Russia. In recent years, Russian foreign policy has become more bellicose, and relations have deteriorated as Moscow’s military tendrills reached into countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, to name but a few.
But Trump’s disdain for nearly every multinational alliance or agreement apparently includes NATO. The president incorrectly believes that European nations are not paying their fair share toward the shared military budget, and reportedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of the bloc unless its allies took on a greater part of the burden.
Though Trump has since expressed his backing of continued American participation in the alliance, the administration’s unpredictability has forced European leaders to imagine a geopolitical world without unquestioned U.S. support. Such a world would require major nations like the U.K., France and Germany to take the lead.
Ian Anthony, the director of the European Security Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Newsweek France remains one of few countries with “the capacity to undertake a wide range of military operations under national command and with broad autonomy.” French forces are able to carry out many different types of operations, making the country “one of the most capable global military powers.”
The 40-year-old president wants to build on this foundation, and has already said the country will invest around $344 billion in its military between 2019 and 2025, Defense News reported. This outlay will bring the country up to the NATO 2 percent of gross domestic product spending target, so intensely discussed when Trump came to Brussels in July.
The money will upgrade France’s armored vehicle armoy, bring in new submarines and frigates, expand the number of combat and support aircraft available and fund the development of the country’s next-generation weapons.
“The priority is to ensure sufficient personnel with the appropriate training and equipment to meet existing obligations,” Anthony explained. However, this focus will make it difficult to give much attention to future weapons.
“France will want to follow global developments in military technology and be able to develop the next generation of capabilities,” Anthony said. This means “stable partnerships with like-minded military powers will be needed, so building those key partnerships will be an important area of investment.”
Much of the new focus on the military had already been set in motion before Macron took office. What is new is the president’s staunch backing for greater European Union cooperation on defense matters. Though not for a lack of enthusiasm, Anthony said Macron’s advocacy “would have to be judged as largely unsuccessful since he would have preferred to go further, faster in certain aspects of developing EU common capabilities.”
As one of the continent’s most competent military powers—and given the U.K.’s Brexit break from its allies—France would be at the very heart of any future European army. EU member states are already developing bilateral and small group partnerships to improve collective defense, whether as part of the bloc or as part of NATO. “We can expect that tendency to continue, and France to play a leading role in a number of the small group collaboration efforts,” Anthony predicted.
France has been designated a “framework nation” within the EU, meaning it will “sit at the centre of federated operations with very diverse partners,” Anthony said. This cooperation will range from NATO allies in the Baltic states to guard against Russian aggression to African forces in Mali or Niger where Islamist militants are a major threat.
As such, its government will need to invest in intelligence and command and control capabilities, elements smaller or poorer nations may struggle with. France will also need to take the lead on advanced weapons like autonomous vehicles, cyber warfare capabilities and stand-off weapons, even if the current strategy might make this a challenge.
For Anthony, this paints a challenging picture for Macron and future French presidents—balancing national commitments with international cooperation will be no easy task. There is a risk that “national projects consume so many of the available human, technological and financial resources that France will have to prioritize a small number of bilateral partnerships over any wider international cooperation in either the EU or NATO,” Anthony suggested.
The challenges are great, but Macron is ambitious. The real test will be whether French voters give him time to achieve his goals. He was swept to power on a reform ticket but so far Macron’s domestic policies have not met with much success.
Nonetheless, France’s military planning will cut across administrations with the current funding blueprint stretching though to 2025. Even with a new president in office, the French military will remain a global force and a pivotal player in ever-closer European cooperation.