William Drozdiak is the author of “Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West.” His forthcoming book about French President Emmanuel Macron and the future of Europe will be published early next year.
As exasperation grows in Europe about U.S. leadership of the Atlantic alliance, France has taken the bold and unprecedented step of pledging to extend its nuclear deterrent to cover German territory in the case of armed aggression.
The French action comes as perhaps the strongest signal yet that European governments are reevaluating basic defense doctrines that have underpinned the Western alliance for the past 70 years. Senior officials in France and Germany say Europe needs new security concepts that address the rise of China, the return of Russia as a belligerent actor and the disengagement of the United States.
The implicit French promise is contained in a 16-page treaty signed in the town of Aachen, Germany, last month by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The treaty is designed to deepen cooperation in military and foreign policy between the two leading powers of the European Union.
The treaty commits the two countries to “providing aid and assistance by all means at their disposal, including armed forces, in case of aggression against their territory.” During an hour-long interview at the Elysee Palace in Paris, for a book I am writing about him and the future of Europe, Macron acknowledged that “all means” would include the French nuclear deterrent force.
Under the treaty, a French-German defense and security council will be established as the decisive political body to guide these reciprocal engagements. In her speech at the signing ceremony, Merkel said Berlin and Paris had scrutinized “each and every word at length” and vowed to build “a common military culture” that “contributes to the creation of a European army.”
Both Merkel and Macron have lamented the erratic nature of U.S. leadership under President Trump, who at various times has questioned the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and complained that the United States bears too much of the burden for Europe’s defense.
Their mutual tensions with Trump, at a time when the United States is shifting its strategic focus toward China and Asia, have prompted them on different occasions to declare the time has come for Europe to take destiny into its own hands.
The idea of France and Britain, as Europe’s sole nuclear powers, expanding the scope of their deterrent forces to cover other partner countries has long been considered as a possible alternative to Europe’s continued reliance on American nuclear weapons.
In addition to air and sea-based missiles, the United States keeps nuclear warheads in Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands as a tangible symbol of its promise to shield its allies from outside nuclear threats.
In the past, France has regarded its nuclear arsenal, estimated to include about 300 nuclear warheads mainly aboard submarines, as a strictly national force. Germany has been reticent about embracing a European deterrent because of strong anti-nuclear sentiment at home and a reluctance to weaken U.S. commitments.
But the accelerating estrangement with the United States, coupled with uncertainty about Britain’s future defense role on the continent if it leaves the European Union, have compelled France and Germany to reconsider the foundations of European security.
French and German officials say there are growing strategic differences with the United States over how to deal with Russia, Iran, China, global trade and multilateral institutions. They contend European leaders have begun to realize that these conflicting approaches are not likely to end with the Trump presidency.
The binding character of the Aachen treaty is striking in that it goes well beyond the NATO treaty’s Article Five, which commits a member state to take only “such action as it deems necessary” to come to the aid of a fellow ally under armed attack.
The treaty represents a significant upgrade of the Elysee Treaty, the agreement signed in Paris 56 years ago by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French President Charles de Gaulle. Since then, Berlin and Paris have tried repeatedly to integrate their defense and security networks, without much success.
A joint military unit, the French-German brigade, was created in 1989 in the hope it could serve as the embryo of a European army. But the brigade has lost much of its significance in recent years and plays no major role in French and German military doctrine.
France and Germany have collaborated well in fighting terrorism and in building a military-industrial complex that accounts for almost half of Europe’s capabilities. Nonetheless, both countries have basic conflicts in their strategic and military cultures that will prove difficult to reconcile. But mounting alarm in Berlin and Paris about the reliability of the United States is pushing both governments to take actions that once seemed inconceivable.