The French President likes to make blunt statements that provoke public outrage. The “brain dead” comment on NATO did the job. Berlin should brace for more to come.
Emmanuel Macron is a trained philosopher. In a country, in which appearing cultured is the status currency, he never misses a chance to spice up his speeches with some thoughts from the wise and often dead.
Among Macron’s favorites is the enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. The man from Kaliningrad famously argued that lying was never justified, as it undermines your interlocutors’ dignity and prevents them from taking rational decisions. This is Macron’s standard line of defense for the rhetorical bombs he likes to throw every now and then.
Arguing the 35-hour workweek is a mistake, qualifying the demographics of the African continent as a “bombshell,” or declaring NATO “brain dead” in an interview with The Economist, Macron likes to provoke public outcries at home and abroad and justifies himself in always the same way: “I am being honest with the French,” “I am saying the things as they are,” or “It is no sign of contempt to tell the truth.”
Battle of Ideas
But eager beaver Macron is certainly not only sharing his thoughts on NATO’s health condition out of a Kantian ideal and to enable his EU partners to take fully-informed decisions. He also believes speaking the “truth”—and doing it publicly—yields political spoils.
This is where another philosopher Macron likes to quote comes in. Antonio Gramsci reasoned that ideological victory precedes political victory. To persistently tell the “truth” and force society to think in your terms is thus the real revolutionary act, the Marxist argued.
For Gramsci, who is also en vogue with today’s right-wing populists, “Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously born in each individual brain: they have had a center of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion—a group of men, or even a single individual, which has developed and presented them in the political form of current reality.”
The French President certainly sees himself as this Gramscian hero. The “brain dead” statement in conjunction with his calls for Europe to relearn “the grammar of sovereignty” and “rearm mentally,” served as a “wake-up call” Macron said in a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. In the Economist interview, Macron also questioned whether Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which commits members of the alliance to collective defense, was still valid.
If the goal was, first, to make it impossible for him to be ignored, second, to force Europe to debate his ideas of a “sovereign EU” and partnership with Russia, which, third, should help disseminate his views and, fourth, pave the way for policy change down the line, Macron can certainly declare “mission accomplished” on the first two counts.
Politicos in the Twittersphere have been all over the “brain dead” comments. Other EU leaders reacted fiercely and even the normally calm Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown her frustration.
And indeed, saying that NATO is “alive and kicking” with a straight-face has become somewhat of a challenge. One tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump telling off Macron would have sufficed to scotch the debate for good. But Trump has remained silent so far and prefers to continue poking at Germany.
Even worse, three days after the Economist interview, Macron boasted on Twitter about the “many convergences” and the “excellent phone conversation with Donald Trump on Syria, Iran and NATO.” The two also agreed to meet ahead of the NATO summit in London on December 4. Paris is keen to point out that Trump, who described NATO as “obsolete” before he took office (he later withdrew the comment), is on the same page as Macron.
Limits of Truth
Still Macron’s gamble poses problems and many in the Paris administration feel uncomfortable with his grand strategizing.
First, telling “the truth” can do damage. If a murderer rings at your door and asks where your friend is who he wants to kill, should you lie? Kant argued No, taking his position to its (absurd) extreme. But by questioning NATO’s Article 5 and reaching out to Russia, the EU’s eastern members feel Macron is doing just that.
Second, changing the way Europeans think about security and Russia will—if at all possible—take time. Indeed, an overlooked element in Macron’s interview is that he sketches out a five to ten-year horizon: “Things won’t happen overnight. But once again, I am opening a track that I don’t think will yield results in 18 or 24 months. … If I don’t take this path, it will never open up.”
Lastly, by claiming to speak in the name of “truth,” Macron implicitly says his adversaries are at best stupid or at worst liars. Macron’s interventions spur debates, a precondition for bringing Europeans closer, according to Jürgen Habermas, another of Macron’s favorite philosophers. But his bulldozer mentality and refusal to listen to others also creates bad blood. The Yellow Vests taking to the streets and the European Parliament rejecting Sylvie Goulard’s candidature for the EU Commission certainly had one thing in common: frustration with Macron’s self-righteous attitude and stubbornness.
No End in Sight
Nevertheless, Macron believes that France has more to lose than others if a real debate over his “sovereign Europe” dream keeps being suffocated. He thus continues to double down, following the motto of Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things.”
In the press conference with Stoltenberg, Macron said “Is our enemy today Russia? Or China? … I don’t believe so,” and suggested NATO should essentially be reduced to an anti-terror alliance. He also demanded more help from allies in the Sahel adding in a grave tone: “If some want to see what they call cost-sharing, they can come to the ceremony on Monday that France organizes (for the 13 soldiers killed in a helicopter collision in Mali).”
Attempts to out-maneuver Macron, for example by setting up an “expert group” to study NATO strategy, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas proposed, don’t seem to work. If Berlin wants to calm spirits and regain some control over the new debate on European security, including enlargement, Germany must find an understanding with Macron.