Macron’s European Security Order: Stronger European Defense, Less Reliance on US and New Post-War Dynamic With Russia
Since French President Emmanuel Macron was first elected in 2017, he has advocated for reviewing the terms of the European security order to adjust them to post-Cold War realities. The fundamentals of his vision have remained largely constant. They continue to be based on supercharging European defense, depending less on the U.S. and establishing a new dynamic with Russia.
And since his May 2023 speech at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, he has regularly conditioned the emergence of a sustainable and secure new European security order on Russia not winning its war against Ukraine. “A Russian victory is the end of European security, it is the end of a European security architecture,” he said in January 2024 in a New Year speech to the French armed forces.
For Macron, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and American political tribulations ahead of the 2024 presidential election are the irrefutable proof that Europeans need to expand their defense industrial capabilities and capacities, rely less on the U.S. and be at the table for renegotiating a strategic balance in Europe alongside the U.S. and Russia, while overhauling their relationship with Moscow to achieve sustainable stability.
Nevertheless, his vision for a new European architecture of security is less a structured doctrine than a broad framework within which Macron grants himself ample tactical leeway. That often manifests in sometimes contradictory public statements, which both signal resolve to counter Russian aggression and also repeat some Russian talking points about the period that immediately followed the fall of the USSR. These verbal gymnastics are driven by a desire to create margins of maneuver toward new diplomatic dynamics with Russia. But they have often translated into undermining the positive actions Macron has taken and sowing confusion, even feeding distrust, with his closest partners and allies in Europe and the U.S. about his real strategic goals at any given moment.
For instance, since his speeches in February 2023 at the Munich Security Conference and at GLOBSEC, Macron has consistently stated that Russia cannot and must not win its war against Ukraine—but at the same time, he has repeatedly talked about the need to build a security architecture “with” Russia once the war is over (as opposed to against it), and said that NATO countries failed to build an security architecture with Moscow in 1990, both of which are anathema to Eastern Europeans, the Baltics and the U.S.
Yet, Macron’s push to beef up EU defense capacities, and the means to navigate its security environment with less American support (in the event of a second Trump presidency) have garnered more support from some of his European partners. However, the vision as a whole suffers two persistent shortcomings: a deficit of credibility and of means.
While France has ramped up its reassurance on NATO’s Eastern Flank since 2022, the French military’s long-term investment priorities have not been geared toward making it a game-changer on that front commensurate with Macron’s stated goal of “strategic autonomy.” And while Macron has stated that France’s vital interests (which are protected by its nuclear deterrence) have a “European dimension,” France’s nuclear doctrine remains far from the extended deterrence and nuclear sharing that the U.S. provides for Europe. These two factors have weakened the credibility of French leadership on EU security.
More broadly, as Macron and the EU seek to establish a post-war dynamic with Moscow they will need to create a credible power dynamic with a Russia that promises to remain adversarial for the foreseeable future. Yet without the current level of American involvement, as well as an overhaul of the European defense industrial base, that goal seems elusive. Both French and European defense companies have struggled to quickly and effectively ramp up production to beef up military posture and keep up with the needs of the war in Ukraine, while Russia has transitioned into a war economy footing. The EU is firmly on track to miss its own goal of producing a million 155mm rounds for Ukraine by March. As a result, while EU member states have come a long way in awakening from their strategic slumber, they still lack the means to confront the strategic challenge posed by Russia.
On Russia, Macron’s view has been that, for better or worse, the EU and Russia, as neighbors on the same continent, must find a modus vivendi that maintains stability on the basis of new arms control treaties and Russia renouncing its neo-imperial designs. This overarching goal remains a primary feature of his vision for the European order, even if Russia has not expressed any interest in it and even if it is more elusive than ever.
During his entire first term, which ended three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops to invade Kyiv, Macron doggedly sought an open, if at times blunt, dialogue. It was an ill-fated attempt to slice up the body of contentious issues between Europeans and Russia into smaller components they could gradually make progress on and lay down the foundation for a more stable and less confrontational order.
“Alliances still have their relevance today, but the equilibriums, and the automatisms on which they are built need revisiting,” Macron said in 2018 in a clear reference to the post-World War II security order in his speech to French ambassadors. “This reinforced solidarity will require revisiting the European architecture of defense and security. On the one hand, by initiating a renewed dialogue on cyber-security, chemical weapons, classical weapons, territorial conflicts, space security or the protection of the polar zones, in particular with Russia.”
What Macron hadn’t accepted at the time, and continues to reject, is that his Russian counterpart is not interested in such grand negotiations with France or Europe. Perceiving the U.S. as Russia’s real counterpart, Putin remains wedded to the Cold War era framework that Macron wants to overhaul.
Moscow’s acceptance of Macron’s overtures in 2019 to kickstart this dialogue didn’t mean Putin intended to engage in good faith. Russia paid lip service to the diplomatic process that was established between the two capitals with a dozen working groups meeting to discuss the panoply of issues from 2019 to November 2021, all the while planning the biggest invasion Europe has seen in decades. Talks ended without any concrete progress, and without serving as a conduit to deter Putin from launching his assault against Kyiv in 2022.
For the first year of the war, Macron maintained telephone contact with Putin, and repeatedly angered the Eastern Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians by advocating for more talks with Russia, cautioning against “humiliating” it and even discussing the need to provide security guarantees to Russia.
But by February 2023, a year into the current Russian-Ukrainian war, and with his standing among his European partners severely dented, Macron started changing his public tune. He publicly thanked the U.S. for its vital military support of Ukraine, recognized NATO’s effectiveness—de facto retracting his 2019 accusation that the alliance was suffering “brain death”—and toughened up his rhetoric vis-a-vis Moscow. He’s consistently held to this position since.
“Russia cannot and should not win this war, the Russian aggression must fail… because otherwise it is the entire European security, and more generally, global stability, that will be threatened,” he said at the Munich Security Conference in February 2023.
Four months later, Macron went further. “The aggression against Ukraine is the extreme manifestation of a challenge to our European unity that played out over 15 years, 15 years during which Russia attempted to upset the entire edifice of European security and remodel it,” he said at the Globasec Conference in Bratislava.
He then explicitly laid out his vision for the new security order that he believes needs to rise from the ashes of the Ukraine war.
“More medium term, it is evidently the stability of our Europe and its security that we will have to build on the basis of a solid peace in Ukraine, security guarantees to our neighborhood and … we will have to rebuild, over the medium term, a de-escalation framework, but it will be at this moment that Europeans will have to really build it in a transparent framework where we have to be actors of these treaties, be around the table to negotiate and around the table to judge they implementation and evolution, unlike what we have done in the past,” he said.
Most recently, on a state visit to Sweden on Jan. 31, 2024, Macron added details, in English, to his approach, while reiterating a Russian talking point on events in 1990 that is sure to bother his Eastern European and Baltic partners that were emerging from Soviet occupation at the time.
After restating that Russia will remain the EU’s immediate neighbor and repeating the Russian talking point that the West didn’t seek a stable security order with Moscow in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the USSR, Macron said: “[B]ut the day after a sustainable peace being negotiated between Russia and Ukraine, we will have to reengage with Russia with very clear goals: no satellites, no threats on the functioning of our democracies, no aggression, and monitoring of reciprocal commitments and a set of guarantees in terms of securities, arms control and so on, where the Europeans will be at the table and in a situation to check and monitor the reality of the situation the day-after. Where, let’s be clear, during the past decades we were not part of those negotiating with Russia, the main treaties dealing with European security were negotiated decades ago, by the U.S. and the USSR at the time. So now we have to build a new architecture of security the day-after, being around the table, at the table as Europeans deciding for ourselves and putting on the paper the key elements of security for us in order to live in sustainable peace with Russia.”
France’s bilateral security guarantees to Ukraine, as well as its detailed vision for the new arms control framework remain works in progress. And Macron’s new European security order does not provide a ready-made answer for integrating Ukraine into the EU, and providing it with a credible security guarantee, without it also joining NATO. It is a question that will need answering as Washington’s resistance to Ukrainian membership in NATO is expected to grow ahead of the U.S. presidential election in 2024.
The Transatlantic Relationship
The U.S. position on Ukraine’s NATO membership, difficulties with the production of weapons revealed by the Ukraine war and growing uncertainty about the American posture toward Europe if Donald Trump is reelected, has nudged at least some European leaders slightly closer to Macron’s vision for the future of the transatlantic relationship, without fully embracing it. It is predicated on both accepting reduced U.S. military involvement in European security—something U.S. administrations welcome if Europeans can step up credibly without weakening NATO—and requiring Europeans to buy less American weapons—which the American political establishment rejects—and invest more in their own defense industry and ensure their own security of weapons supply.
“What Ukraine has shown is that we can only give with certainty what we have and what we produce… By depending too much on the outside we are preparing the problems of tomorrow,” Macron said at the Paris Air Show last June. “When we have a tension at the same time, our American friends may have other priorities and deliver their capabilities at the rhythm of their needs and their priorities.”
This would imply a major evolution of the security relationship that has tied the United States to Europe and underwritten the international world order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. Macron has clarified over the years that none of this is aimed at decoupling from the U.S. or replacing NATO. Instead, it is presented as in line with America’s increasing focus on China, and its louder demands, since Barak Obama’s presidency, for Europeans to spend more on defense. It is also meant to enable Europeans to act without the U.S. when Washington doesn’t want to get involved, or when the NATO framework is not the most apt.
“Whatever happens in the U.S. [2024 election] I think we should be more involved in Western Balkans, in Ukraine, in [the] Caucasus, but as well in Africa altogether because it’s part of our neighborhood and it’s normal, it’s legitimate to share the burden and not just look at the U.S. saying okay, guys where are you, what do you pay?” Macron said, speaking in English, in an interview with the BBC on Nov. 10, 2023.
Macron still has three and a half years left before the end of his presidential term to overcome the growing internal European divisions and structural industrial and economic challenges to generate the concrete strategic and industrial transformation this new European security order would require.
Rym Momtaz is a Paris-based Consultant Research Fellow for European Foreign Policy and Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Prior to that, she spent more than three years covering President Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy and defense policy for Politico, writing "The Macron Method," "Emmanuel Macron's Russian Roulette" and "Emmanuel Macron, Think Tanker In Chief."