Two people separated by a common idea: Why Macron and AKK agree

Macron’s and AKK’s distinct styles obscure a core agreement: threats to the transatlantic relationship mean that European countries must finally stand up and defend themselves.

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French President Emmanuel Macron knows how to draw people’s attention. His interview with the Economist last week, in which he described NATO as “brain-dead”, rocked the European boat. In contrast, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) – the new German defence minister and heir apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel – speaks in a more measured tone. Her workmanlike speech to a German defence college on the same day garnered little notice beyond German-speaking circles – but, in fact, AKK’s intervention had more noteworthy elements than Macron’s.

Reading their comments in parallel reveals how their distinct styles obscure a core agreement: the threats to the transatlantic relationship from within (the Trump administration) and without (Russia under President Vladimir Putin) mean that Europe – particularly France and Germany – must finally stand up and defend themselves. It is perhaps time that France and Germany recognised just how much they agree.

At first glance, the two interventions appear to be at odds with each other. They were widely perceived as such, with Macron facing criticism for allegedly bashing NATO while AKK was welcomed for having taken a step in the right direction. But this conclusion favours style over substance. The French philosopher-king, who likes to see himself as more of a thinker than a politician, uses rhetoric very different to that of the German defence minister, whose background is in provincial politics. Macron aims to provoke; AKK uses qualifiers and caveats with abandon. Macron has no problem calling out specific countries; AKK prefers to speak in general terms about how “states evad[e] rules of international order that have been established for decades.”

But, beyond these rhetorical differences, they largely share the same analysis of the world. They both worry about the rise of China, the return of great power competition, and the risk that Europe will be marginalised. They agree that “the United States remains our major ally, we need them, we are close and we share the same values” (Macron), but that “both the willingness and ability to do more than its fair share are dwindling in the United States. This is why we must step up in future, just like others who are defending a reliable, free and democratic order.” (AKK). Given that there is no evidence that the two politicians coordinated their interventions, their many points of agreement are all the more meaningful.

Of course, they are not completely aligned. True to national stereotypes, Macron worries more about Europe losing geopolitical power while AKK states that the aim of German defence policy is to safeguard Germany’s and Europe’s wellbeing, prosperity, and freedom. Most importantly, they approach NATO differently. Macron’s 8,000-word interview was overshadowed by his comments about NATO’s supposed brain-death. There is little doubt that he chose the term deliberately. And yet it did not seem to perfectly convey his message. People associate brain-death with death. But Macron seemingly intended his comments to convey brainlessness and a lack of coordination rather than death: “Just look at what’s happening. You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None.”

Instead of announcing NATO’s death, Macron’s “brain-dead” comment was supposed to sound the alarm – especially over the US commitment to the Alliance. “NATO is only as strong as its member states, so it only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such,” he said. “I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” Macron has concluded that NATO is currently wobbly – and that, structurally, it is on its way out. And he wants to prepare for the potential collapse of the Alliance, by strengthening Europe’s capabilities.

For decades, Germans have been taught that interests are bad.

In Germany, this is a radical notion. Yet AKK, in her understated way, agrees with him. She didn’t include NATO in her list of concerns but, like Macron, she emphasised the importance of improving European defence. “We intend to strengthen European cooperation in the field of defence,” she argued. “We have ambitious plans that we want to implement with the other EU members.” She made sure to underline that European efforts contribute to NATO and, as such, are not designed to replace it: “the European Defence Union is always oriented towards cooperation with NATO, which remains the anchor of security in Europe. We want complementarity, not competition.”.” But Macron also emphasised complementarity, adding that European defence “now needs to become stronger … to be able to decide and increasingly take responsibility for more of our neighbourhood security policy.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that AKK is more cautious about calling out NATO’s problems. There is a long tradition among German politicians of being as measured as possible, especially on security and defence questions. But the fundamental cause of the differences between their assessments of the situation can be found in their comments. Whereas Macron noted that “France knows how to protect itself”, referring to the country’s nuclear capabilities, AKK had to admit: “we all know that the Bundeswehr has some catching up to do, especially with regard to the operational readiness of materiel and equipment.”

It was, in fact, AKK’s intervention which had more novel points than Macron’s. His interview provided little new analysis. She, in contrast, made at least two major statements. Firstly, she admitted that “Germany, like any other nation in the world, has its own strategic interests. […] we act according to our interests every day. We must finally start to admit that.” And, secondly, she noted that Germany’s safe existence in the middle of a peaceful, prosperous Europe “cannot be had for free”.

To anyone but a German, this sounds banal. But, to German ears, it is almost heresy. For decades, Germans have internalised the idea that interests are bad, as they are part of the power politics of the past – which led to war and destruction. Furthermore, the idea that we may have to defend these interests – that peace itself may need defending, and that the military may have a part to play in this – is shocking for many Germans. Of course, as AKK mentioned, speeches given by the German president, foreign minister, and defence minister at the 2014 Munich Security Conference – the so-called “Munich consensus” expressed a similar sentiment – without leading to much. Nonetheless, Germany’s European partners, particularly Macron, should take note of this change in German political rhetoric and use it to push for an increase in European defence capabilities.

In general, the two interventions show that AKK and Macron agree on the need to improve Europe’s defence capabilities – to strengthen the European pillar of NATO, as she argues, or to step in if NATO fails, as he suggests. German and French ideas on European defence remain divided by language, style, and even by some important substantive issues. But AKK’s and Macron’s interventions show that German and French leaders now share a common idea more than ever before. This is something they should build on.

In their own words




On the state of the world

“[These are] times of upheaval and uncertainty.

Where change is tangible, but new things have not yet taken shape.”

[…] “A world that, as many people claim these days, has been thrown out of joint.”

“I don’t believe I’m over-dramatising things; I’m trying to be lucid. But just look at what is happening in the world. Things that were unthinkable five years ago.”

“Within a few years, it became clear that the world was breaking up again; that tragedy had come back on stage; that the alliances we believed to be unbreakable could be upended; that people could decide to turn their backs; that we could have diverging interests.”

On China

“China’s rise in power politics, and its claim to power that by now extends beyond its immediate neighbours. We are currently witnessing a return of great-power competition for spheres of influence and supremacy.”

“The rebalancing of the world goes hand in hand with the rise – over the last 15 years – of China as a power, which creates the risk of bipolarisation and clearly marginalises Europe.”

On Russia

“Russian aggression in Ukraine, in particular the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law”

“This re-emergence of authoritarian powers, essentially Turkey and Russia, which are the two main players in our neighbourhood policy – and the consequences of the Arab Spring – creates a kind of turmoil.”

“We need to reopen a strategic dialogue, without being naive – and which will take time – with Russia.”

On the US

“For the longest time, others have put in most of the necessary effort, first and foremost the United States.”

“Nowadays, however, both the willingness and ability to do more than its fair share are dwindling in the United States. This is why we must step up in future, just like others who are defending a reliable, free and democratic order.”

“The ultimate guarantor – the umbrella which made Europe stronger – no longer has the same relationship with Europe.”

“A benevolent United States act[ed] as the ultimate guarantor of a system and of a balance of values, based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values … But their position has shifted over the past ten years – and it hasn’t only been the Trump administration.”

On European sovereignty

“We intend to strengthen European cooperation in the field of defence, and we will.”

“We want to provide a Strategic Compass for the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.”

“The common objective, my objective, too, is a Europe that has, as the experts call it, “A2A”, the Ability to Act.
This is what is essential, not autonomy or isolation”

“I’ve always said to our partners, whether it’s the Americans or the Chinese: ‘I respect you because you’re sovereign’. And so I believe Europe will only be respected if it reconsiders its own sovereignty.”

On strategic interests

“For of course Germany, like any other nation in the world, has its own strategic interests.

“We act according to our interests every day. We must finally start to admit that.”

“I think that European humanism, in order to win, needs to become sovereign once again and to rediscover a form of realpolitik.”


“NATO which remains the anchor of security in Europe.”

“The NATO we’ve known since the beginning is changing its underlying philosophy. When you have a United States president who says that, we cannot … in all responsibility fail to draw the conclusions, or at least begin to think about them.”

On NATO and European defence integration

“…the European Defence Union is always oriented towards cooperation with [NATO], which remains the anchor of security in Europe.

We want complementarity, not competition.”

“Today, European defence is complementary to NATO. But I also believe it now needs to become stronger, because it needs to be able to decide and, increasingly, take responsibility for more of our neighbourhood security policy.”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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