FEBRUARY 1, 2021| BONNIE KRISTIAN
President Biden’s first call with French President Emmanuel Macron, per the readouts from both leaders’ offices, was conventional and congenial. Some differences of priority may be detected among the topics specified in the Élysée statement (Lebanon, Iran, the WHO) and the White House release (Russia, China, NATO), but the documents both suggest a return to the pre-Trump status quo of U.S.-France relations.
Insofar as it means diplomacy elevated, sanctions repealed, and tariffs dropped on French wine, this is great news. But it may also mean undoing even the smallest shifts away from the dynamic of the last 70 years, in which the U.S. subsidizes European defense and spends decades entangled in no-win wars. With the Trump administration over, Macron is reversing himself, dropping calls for “European solutions” and a Europe “in control” of its own fate and calling on Biden to re-escalate U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
The totality of Macron’s about-face is striking. When Donald Trump was in office and talking up burden sharing, Macron declared himself a witness to “the brain death of NATO,” expressing doubt that the alliance’s collective security agreement would still be honored. Europe should once again conceive of itself as a “geopolitical power” in its own right, he urged, and not merely Washington’s dependent. “We cannot be the United States’ junior partner,” Macron insisted.
Yet now he seems eager to be exactly that. While insisting he still supports “a European strategic autonomy,” Macron in a speech last week expressed hope for a United States “re-engaged in multilateralism,” “re-engaged in several places of conflict,” and making “key decisions that will mark a greater commitment and awareness in the fight against terrorism.”
In other words: a United States recommitted to the forever war Macron believes is necessary for counterterrorism, which he argues should be NATO’s new organizing principle.
Most worrisome is that Biden may well be willing to provide exactly that re-engagement. His plan for the two-decade war in Afghanistan has long entailed keeping a small contingent of U.S. forces present indefinitely. Biden likely has no intention of expanding that deployment to anything like the circa 2011 surge, which he opposed as vice president. But maintaining that permanent ground presence still props open a door to a new escalation.
Though he has made an unambiguous promise to end U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war, Biden’s plans for Iraq and Syria are far from clear. One ill omen: Antony Blinken, nominee for secretary of state, thinks U.S. meddling in Syria has been unsuccessful because it wasn’t meddlesome enough. If Biden’s understanding of “end[ing] forever wars” can include a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, it may well include permanent presences in Iraq and Syria, too.
Macron will be pleased if so, but the American people shouldn’t be. Though Trump’s push for more equitable burden sharing in the U.S.-Europe defense relationship was ineffective and guided more by personal pique than principle or strategy, there was an important grain of truth in his insistence that Europe—long past its post-war fragility—should provide for European security instead of relying on American largesse. Washington should turn its attention and resources homeward, particularly while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Likewise, Biden’s refreshing willingness to recognize the limits of American military capability and responsibility would, if carried through to its strategic conclusion, mean a full U.S. departure from the “several places of conflict” where Macron hopes the Biden administration will re-engage.
Maybe it is France’s interest to be more engaged in those conflicts, but that does not obligate the United States to do likewise. As Biden himself said in February, there are “a thousand places” the U.S. military could fight to right wrongs. But “could” doesn’t mean “should,” nor is opportunity any guarantee of success. “The responsibility I have,” Biden continued, “is to protect America’s national self-interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force.”
That’s a truth the president should remember as allies, antagonists, and rivals reach out in these early weeks of his administration. A renewed multilateralism of restraint, realistic diplomacy, and mutually beneficial trade and cooperation is a hope Biden should fulfill. But reckless, needless military interventionism is no more defensible when done with friends.