By Wang Peng Source: CGTN Published: 2018-11-11
It was reported earlier this week that French President Emmanuel Macron suggested Europe should "build its own military in order to protect itself from the US, China, and Russia." This claim enraged American President Donald Trump, who soon angrily tweeted “very insulting” as a response.
However, the latest news shows that Trump and Macron have reached an agreement on Saturday involving issues of increasing European defense spending and related security affairs. As international public opinion suggested, this conduct is expected to paper over the embarrassing trans-Atlantic dispute. But does it really work? Hard to say right now.
Europe's dream of building an autonomous defense
Rome was not built in a day; it is the same with the trans-Atlantic tension and resentment. This seemingly accidental event actually has a much deeper root in the long history of trans-Atlantic inter-relations.
After World War II, the US rebuilt ruined Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. Years later, the US military force integrated Western European defense through the framework of NATO as a strategic response to the escalating Cold War against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
From then on, Western Europeans enjoyed the privilege of “free-riding” in security that maintained a high level of collective security at a relatively low cost.
However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Saving military expenditure under the US nuclear umbrella constrained the strategic and political autonomy of Europeans.
When the two sides across the Atlantic Ocean shared the same strategic goal in front of a common enemy, such as the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the impulse of defense independence was covered.
But when the common foe collapsed and the Cold War ended, a growing determination of military autonomy emerged; and the EU, which aims to play a more provocative role in both global and regional affairs, began to call for larger discourse power within NATO.
If these demands aren't met, it is reasonable for European leaders to call for a “real European army” to protect themselves from external threat. This long evolving history constructed the deep background of the Trump-Macron Twitter War.
Macron's 'insult': The beginning of a bitter trans-Atlantic divorce?
Before commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Macron welcomed Trump under “rainy Parisian skies with a firm handshake…But there appeared to be less immediate warmth in the greeting between the two than in the past.”
CNBC's vivid description of the weather and meeting details have set the atmosphere of this visibly reluctant reconciliation performance:
Seated on gilded chairs in the ornate presidential palace, Macron placed his hand on Trump's knee and referred to him as “my friend,” while Trump kept more distance, although he also talked up common ground on an issue that had caused friction.
However, beyond analyzing the ritual elements of this event, it is still hard to predict an immediate “divorce” between Europe and America. The process and interactive results may depend on the two sides' costs-benefits calculation of various “strategic asset portfolios,” as well as considering related security and political risks.
For the EU, they have to make a choice between running a highly independent and autonomous defensive system at a much higher financial cost and maintaining the current collective security system and regimes that enjoy economic benefits with the disadvantage of bearing the American changing moods and bad temper.
Key internal and external elements that may change European strategists' calculations include but are not limited to:
(1) Trump's bargain and “price making”: To what extent of the portion that Trump urges the EU to bear NATO's military expenditure;
(2) US “threat”: In the EU's perspective, the US does not pose an actual direct military threat (such as invasion, territorial annexation, etc.); however, the Trump administration's abuse of the US' arbitrary power has insulted and weakened the EU's collective sovereignty as a whole.
And the US military's adventurism and consequent military catastrophes in regions around Europe (such as the Middle East) have created a lot of (non-traditional) security and social problems for Europeans, including, but not limited to, refugees, terrorism, social division, the reactive trend of rising far-right parties in EU member states, and so forth.
(3) Third-party threat: When the threat from a third party (e.g. Russia) decreases (in other words, their bilateral relations are promoted), there will be less necessity for the EU to enhance its defensive force, and hence, less motive and demand for expenditure.
Therefore, the EU may be satisfied with a new option that maintains a smaller but more independent-autonomous defensive system. This situation requires a general reconciliation between the EU and the targeted “third party,” which may serve to cripple the US military existence in Europe.
What option will US and EU leaders choose eventually? Where is this nearly a century-long trans-Atlantic “marriage” going in a Trump era of uncertainty? May bitter time and tougher bargains tell the story.
Wang Peng is an associate research fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.