Lucidity and Brain-Death

8 November 2019

Yesterday I had harsh words for Emmanuel Macron. Today I must pay respect: à tout seigneur, tout honneur. About yesterday’s post a friend commented, “Yes, but there is no alternative.” And that is the Macron problem in a nutshell: there is no alternative, either domestically or, as the president demonstrated in his interview with The Economist, published yesterday, internationally. What other Western leader is thinking and speaking about such a wide range of such subjects with such strategic intelligence or–to use a word that Macron himself used three times in his interview–lucidity?

Macron professes to “look reality in the face.” Like Raymond Aron, whom he has studied, he thinks that politics should depend not on pious hopes for the better world described by this or that ideology but rather on the way things actually are. And like de Gaulle, whom he admires, he believes that the way things actually are is defined by relations of power. One can quarrel with these assumptions–to some extent I do–but from these prior Macron deserves credit for deriving a consistent and cogent world view.

What is that world view? Put simply, he sees Europe caught between two superpowers, the US and China (for de Gaulle it was the US and Europe). Since World War II, Europe conceived of itself as the “junior partner” (his term) of the US, even if de Gaulle struggled to maintain a modicum of independence. But that partnership depended on the existence of a common enemy, the Soviet Union. That was NATO’s raison d’être. Sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella, Europe allowed its military capabilities to atrophy. As the world changed after 1990, it ignored the shifting strategic situation, only to wake up in 2019 to the fact that the US president “no longer believes in the European project,” as Macron puts it, and regards problems on Europe’s borders–such as Russian expansionism, Turkish aggression, and mass migration–as “your problems, not mine” (Macron paraphrasing Trump, in whom he says he has “invested enormously” only to reap this paltry reward).

“What will NATO do if Syria attacks Turkey?” Macron reasonably asks. Does the Article 5 guarantee still apply if Russia attacks the Baltics? “I don’t know,” he candidly admits. Hence “NATO is brain-dead”: this is the startling conclusion to which his ruminations have led, prompting from Angela Merkel the reply that Germany has no qualms about continuing to rely on America’s protection. As commentator Pierre Haski remarked this morning, in other European capitals, leaders hear Macron pronounce the words “European sovereignty” and think, “French hegemony.”

So Europe finds itself witnessing a peculiar spat between the partners to the Franco-German couple. The French president is urging–begging–the German chancellor to increase her spending on the military. A century ago, who could have imagined France begging Germany to increase its military might? Not only that, but Macron challenged the (anyway defunct) 3% SGP deficit rule as “an idea belonging to the last century.” He–along with Mario Draghi, Christine Lagarde, and a host of others–wants Germany to spend, but unlike those others, Macron’s reasons are strategic as well as economic. He believes that Europe needs to have an armed force if it wishes to remain an economic force.

He is also keenly aware of European shortcomings in areas of technology likely to become crucial in the years ahead: artificial intelligence, 5G telephony, batteries, etc. He recognizes the need to spend in order to earn, and where he was once prepared to cajole his German counterparts, their intransigence has now forced him to go on the offensive. One may doubt that this leadership style will prove effective. As I remarked yesterday, other European leaders find him “imperious” or worse. One can be “lucid” without flaunting one’s sense of intellectual superiority, as Macron so often does. But he at least deserves credit for refusing to succumb to the paralyzing complacency that settles over Europe in the intervals between crises.

If only he could learn to temper his lucidity with compassion. From China, in response to critiques of his immigration policy like the one I posted yesterday, he said that his role was “not to comment on the commentaries or the emotions.” As a candidate, he was less contemptuous of those états d’âmes. He spoke of the need for “proximity” to the people affected by the decisions of their governments. He again, briefly, discovered the virtues of proximity during his marathon listening tour–during which, truth be told, he did more speaking than listening, because, frankly, people were more interested in hearing him than in listening to their peers spill out their grievances. “The people” know what they think, but only rarely does the supreme authority reveal what it is thinking. That is why The Economist interview deserves attention.


Photo Credit: IsaacMao, Brain, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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  • Anonymous says:

    I have always thought that one of Macron’s strengths is his disdain for personal popularity with the electorate, a quality he shares with de Gaulle. “Politics ain’t beanbag”, as Mr. Dooley said. France finds itself in the position of a second-tier player relative to the United States and China. With German leaders not willing to consider strengthening the European Defense Force (which a high-ranking U.S. Army officer once said “could not win a bread fight in a college dorm”), Macron must use the “bully pulpit” and upend the conventional mentalities in Europe if European multilateralism in the form of the EU is to thrive, rather than decline, as it is threatened with doing. Of course, while forging ahead with his multilateralist organizing principles, he also needs to keep his thumb on the pulse of the French public, which is not inclined to give this young man in a hurry the benefit of the doubt. That public is populist, whether of the Left or the Right, and disinclined to see the forest, preferring the trees in their particular part of France. Which is why Macron can never get it “right” in their eyes, although he must stay on course and do his best to persuade. To embrace the small bore approach (as Hollande did), is a certain recipe for defeat of his program.. Even his approach to immigration –which you correctly call out as “ham-handed” (or perhaps that is too generous a depiction by your lights), correctly focuses on the overarching problem which requires multilateral solutions, which the EU’s member states reject. It’s quite a juggling act Macron has to do; that does not excuse obvious gaffes, but puts them in perspective.

    • Geoffy says:

      You put your finger on the problem, but didn’t push down hard enough:
      “That public is populist, whether of the Left or the Right, and disinclined to see the forest, preferring the trees in their particular part of France.”
      His problems with “Europe” are really just as much with “France.” The irritation [with EM] that Prof. Goldhammer references on the part of other EU leaders no doubt stems from their thinking “If this is another lecture about unity, start with your own constituents.” As indicated in the post, Macron rules by default, not by worship. And his most intransigent ally, Germany, knows this. They have always been more willing to pay lip service than pay money to the European experiment. Now, with their economy slowing rapidly, perhaps their patience for being lectured is at an end.

  • Anonymous says:

    “Yes–” but the French have always been a fissible people, that’s nothing new –the Germans know that. At least Macron’s lectures are intellectually cogent, as Professor Goldhammer points out. The Germans may learn the hard way that going it alone is not as easy as it once was, when their economy was supreme on the Continent. As such, NATO’s weakness and the consequences of that weakness may not be something they can ignore much longer, as Macron seeks to point out.

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