Should Europe build its own army? Or spend more to support the transatlantic alliance? A rift has opened up between Europe and the United States.


A soldier takes part in a NATO exercise in Poland, 10 November 2018 (EPA-EFE/Tytus Zmijewski)

A call by French President Emmanuel Macron for “a real European army” has highlighted a rift in the Western military alliance that has been growing since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

In a radio interview on November 6, five days before he welcomed leaders of some 80 countries to ceremonies in France to commemorate the armistice in 1918 that ended World War One, Macron said:

“We will not protect Europeans unless we decide to have a real European army. We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign way.”

He singled out Russia as a physical threat to Europe’s borders, but also said European democracies were “destabilised by attempts to intrude into cyberspace.”

He added: “We should protect ourselves with respect to China, to Russia and even to the United States of America.”

Before his plane landed in Paris, Trump tweeted that Macron’s remarks were “insulting” and said “Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidises greatly” — referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the transatlantic military alliance that grew out of the Cold War. (For a decoder on NATO, click here.)

French officials noted that Macron had distinguished cyber from military threats, and Macron himself agreed that European members of NATO should increase military spending, but that did not remove the air of mutual distrust.

Macron also criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which helped eliminate thousands of missiles from Europe. The “main victim” of Trump’s decision, he said, was “Europe and its security.”

Is the U.S. subsidising NATO?

Even though he tweet-inflated the level of U.S. military spending, Trump’s demand at first glance seems reasonable. NATO statistics estimate U.S. defence spending last year at 3.57 percent of gross domestic product and 67 percent of the alliance’s total expenditure.

At a NATO summit in 2014, members committed themselves to devoting at least 2 percent of GDP to defence, but according to NATO figures, only Greece, Britain and Estonia have done so.

It is questionable, however, how much of U.S. military spending can be described as “subsidising” NATO, as Trump put it.

Established in 1949 to counter Soviet threats in Europe, NATO is an alliance based on collective mutual defence. It has no army of its own and defines a member’s contributions as its military expenditure.

More than 1.3 million people serve in the U.S. armed forces, or 0.39 percent of the population, a proportion exceeded among NATO members only by Turkey, with 387,000 military personnel, or 0.47 percent of its population, under arms.

More than one third of U.S. troops are stationed overseas, including 170,000 on active service. Of those, about 69,000 are in the Pacific area, close to 42,000 in the Middle East and 34,520 in Europe.

Whether one sees that as defence or as a projection of American might, the role of the U.S. military is clearly very different from that of its European allies, the vast majority of which are deployed at home or elsewhere in Europe.

The U.S. military devotes a much greater proportion of its military budget than other allies to equipment, including its costly nuclear weapons and “fifth generation” warplanes. NATO puts the figure at 28.4 percent, compared to 24.2 percent for France and 22 percent for Britain, the only other nuclear powers in the alliance.

NATO’s definition of equipment includes research and development, an important factor in helping to promote arms sales. The United States is by far the world’s leading arms exporter, with sales exceeding $250 billion between 2007 and 2016.

“They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War Three.”

But disagreements about money cannot explain the recent animosity between the United States and its allies.

A week before he took office in January 2017, Trump said NATO was “obsolete, because it wasn’t taking care of terrorism.”

He later reversed himself, but at his first NATO summit in May last year he failed to explicitly endorse Article 5 of the NATO charter, a cornerstone clause that says an attack on any member is an attack on all, to be met with a collective response.

Instead, he offered a vague promise to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

The United States is the only member ever to have invoked Article 5, demanding in 2001 that its allies join in invading Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government suspected of harbouring the perpetrators of 9/11.

Four months ago, Trump appeared to question whether it was worth risking a war to protect NATO’s newest member, Montenegro. “Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” Trump told Fox News. “They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War Three.”

But he caused deepest disquiet by pulling out of the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, which was signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and in which Britain, France and Germany had invested huge diplomatic effort.

His National Security Adviser, John Bolton, made matters worse by warning Europeans that they would face reprisals if their efforts to protect their investments in Iran and safeguard “legitimate financial transactions” were seen as trying to circumvent new and draconian U.S. sanctions on Iran that took effect on November 5.

Among European Union leaders, the one with whom Trump has the worst personal relationship is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, despite the fact her country has traditionally been more pro-American than most.

A day after the armistice commemorations, Merkel told the EU Parliament: “We Europeans should take our fate more into our own hands if we want to survive as a European community. The days when we could unconditionally rely on others are gone.”

“What we should not welcome is if EU starts to develop duplicating structures.”

It is far from clear, however, how Macron’s call for “a real European army” would become reality.

Merkel herself was cautious, saying it was something European leaders should consider “one day,” while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned:

“As long as the EU efforts take place in a way that strengthen the European pillar within NATO, that’s something we should welcome.… What we should not welcome is if EU starts to develop duplicating structures.”

Macron did not say what he meant by Europe. Six of the 28 EU members are not in NATO, while three NATO members in continental Europe are outside the EU.

Britain’s former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said in 2016 that his country would veto the creation of any EU army.

That point may now be moot since the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019 — a departure that Merkel described as “a great wound.”

But even if Britain can no longer prevent the creation of an EU army, it would not be obliged to work with one, and it is hard to imagine a credible European force of any kind without Britain.


  1. What is NATO?
  2. Why would the United States not necessarily support the notion of a European army?
  3. How did NATO respond after 9/11?

Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.

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