US needs to keep France and Germany in line on Ukraine
“Boy, the food at this place is terrible — and such small portions.” As in Woody Allen’s famous joke about a Catskills resort, the problem with Europe’s security and defense policy is not simply that there is not enough of it — as the former President Donald Trump was always eager to point out — but also that it is often wrongheaded.
Just a few hours from the glamour and the seeming warmth that characterized President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States last week, the French leader suggested that any future peace agreement over Ukraine will have to involve Western security guarantees to Russia as one of its “essential” elements.
The idea is an affront, not only to Ukraine, but also to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. It elevates the Kremlin’s talking points about the West’s supposed “encircling” of Russia to the same level as the well-founded concerns of the Baltic states and others about the danger a revisionist Russia poses to their own statehood.
Macron’s approach, however, is echoed across France, laced, as always, with anti-Americanism. The United States is profiting from the war, a common narrative goes, by selling weapons and making Europe dependent on its expensive liquefied natural gas (LNG). Thierry de Montbrial, president of the highly influential French Institute for International Relations, claimed recently that the end of the war is possible only if the United States stops providing weapons to Ukraine.
In Berlin, the picture is not encouraging, either. “We can come back to a peace order that worked and make it safe again if there is a willingness in Russia to go back to this peace order,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently stated. Despite his government’s promise, in February, of a “Zeitenwende,” a historic break, Germany will likely miss its target of spending 2% of GDP on defense next year, too.
The absence of French and German self-awareness is shocking. For years prior to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, governments and analysts in Poland, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic have been ringing the alarm bells about Russia’s revisionism. Meanwhile, successive French and German leaders were perfectly happy with business-as-usual with Russia, oblivious to the fears of their Eastern neighbors. Perhaps now would be the time for Macron and Scholz to show humility and listen – to the likes of Kaja Kallas of Estonia, Andrzej Duda of Poland, or Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic — instead of doubling down on their hubris?
Of course, the problem with France and Germany — accounting jointly for more than a third of the population of the European Union and almost 40% of its GDP — is that they are indispensable to the continent’s security. At the same time, giving them free rein to “do more,” without close supervision and occasional correction from Washington, means appeasement of Russia over the heads of Eastern Europeans and a set of European policies on China unlikely to be aligned with our own interests.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is correct to say that “Europe isn’t strong enough” and “would be in trouble without the United States.” She is not referring simply to the continent’s immediate defense capabilities, where Finland, with its 900,000 reservists and a defense budget worth 2.25% in 2023, could serve as a model to other European nations.
More importantly, she is talking about the continent’s collective resolve and willingness to do the right thing, even if it is costly in the short term. When American leadership was absent — as it was in 2013 in Syria or after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, for example — Europe’s leaders did not naturally rise to the occasion. Quite the contrary. Therefore, if the goal of US policy is to induce Europeans to do more of the right thing, not only in Ukraine but also on thorny issues such as China, it cannot afford to disengage from the continent.
Any US administration, Republican or Democratic, must continue to work with our traditional, if frequently irksome partners, in Berlin and Paris. More importantly, however, it needs to work much harder to amplify and elevate the more clear-eyed and enlightened voices coming from capitals in the East — Warsaw, Tallinn, Helsinki and Prague.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.