Not since Gen Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from Nato's integrated command in 1966 has a French president – or any Nato member – issued such a stinging disavowal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
"What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato," president Emmanuel Macron told the Economist magazine in an interview published on Thursday.
On December 3rd and 4th, Macron will attend a Nato summit in London. The alliance, which was founded as a bulwark against Soviet and Warsaw Pact aggression, celebrated its 70th anniversary last April.
France rejoined Nato’s military command in 2009. Macron’s remarks echo a tradition of French resentment of US domination of Nato, coupled with ambitions for united European defence.
Calling the alliance "irreplaceable", German chancellor Angela Merkel said, "The French president has chosen drastic words. This is not my view of co-operation within Nato."
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Germany, called Nato "one of the most critical strategic partnerships in all of recorded history".
Yet Donald Trump has called the EU, most of whose members are in Nato, "a foe . . . almost as bad as China, just smaller." He toyed with the idea of leaving Nato if members did not contribute more money.
Trump's decision last month to withdraw US troops from northern Syria led Macron to his dramatic conclusion. Both countries belong to the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State terror group, also known as Isis, in Syria and Iraq. Macron bitterly criticised Trump's move as a betrayal of the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces who fought so hard to defeat Isis.
Trump relativised the help of the Kurds, saying “they didn’t help us in the second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy.”
There had been “no co-ordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the US and its Nato allies. None,” Macron said, referring to the US withdrawal as “a military retreat”.
Another Nato ally, Turkey, committed "unco-ordinated aggressive action . . . in an area where our interests are at stake", also without co-ordinating with Nato, he said.
Nato is only as strong as its member states, so it only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such
Article five of the North Atlantic Treaty guarantees that if one member is attacked, the others will come to its assistance.
Asked whether article five still held, Macron replied, “I don’t know, but what will article five mean tomorrow? If the Bashar al-Assad regime [of Syria] decides to retaliate against Turkey, will we commit ourselves under it? Both the American decision and the Turkish offensive have had the same result: sacrificing our partners who fought against Daesh [Islamic State] on the ground.”
The Syrian experience showed him that European defence was essential, Macron said. "Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability."
Macron questioned the US commitment to protect its Nato allies. “First of all, Nato is only as strong as its member states, so it only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what Nato is in the light of the commitment of the US. In my opinion, Europe has the capacity to defend itself.”
Though his words are likely to be construed as anti-American, Macron based his observations on the US leader’s rhetoric. He said that Trump tells him in discussions: “It’s your neighbourhood, not mine . . . The terrorists, the jihadists that are over there, they’re European, they’re not American.”
Europeans must listen to what Trump is telling them, Macron argued. “When he says, ‘It’s their problem, not mine,’ we must hear what he’s saying . . . It simply means what was only implicit under Nato until now: I’m no longer prepared to pay for and guarantee a security system for them, and so just ‘wake up’. Will he be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders? It’s a real question.”
The French leader was pessimistic about Europe’s current predicament, but believed that with sufficient determination, the EU could assert power and sovereignty.
No one would have believed the EU would be “wearing ourselves out over Brexit . . . finding it so difficult to move forward” and “have an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues”. This situation was “unthinkable five years ago”.
Europe was “on the edge of a precipice”, Macron said. It had “lost track of its history . . . forgotten that it is a community, by increasingly thinking of itself as a market, with expansion as its end purpose.”
If Europe did not organise itself, US and Chinese superpowers would rule the world, Macron warned. “If we don’t wake up, face up to this situation and decide to do something about it, there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny . . . So I think the first thing to do is to regain military sovereignty.”