The French President Can
Say ‘Non’ to Ukraine Joining NATO
Anatol Lieven / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
(January 21, 2022) — President Emmanuel Macron of France can end the present threat of war in Europe with just four words: J’ai dit: Non (“I have said: No”). These were the words of his great predecessor, President Charles de Gaulle, when he announced in 1963 that he had vetoed (quite rightly, as it now appears) Britain’s application to join the European Common Market. In the present context, Macron can use them to declare that he will veto, and he expects his successors to veto, any Ukrainian application to join NATO.
This would be symbolism — since nobody really thinks Ukraine can be offered NATO membership in the foreseeable future and Macron cannot dictate his successors’ actions — but it would be an immensely powerful piece of symbolism. It would signal the determination of France, the only significant military power in the European Union, not to be led into an unnecessary conflict with Russia; and it would begin to rally European publics finally to take responsibility for the security of their own continent. This, in turn, would lay the initial foundation of a new European security architecture including Russia, and open the way for a solution to the various unsolved disputes around the borders of NATO and the EU.
A French initiative along these lines would at last bring some honesty and clarity to a Western debate on Ukraine characterized up to now by deceit, self-deception, and hypocrisy. For not only does the West totally lack both the will and the military forces to defend Ukraine whether or not it is in NATO; following the lamentable records of the Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians since joining the EU and NATO, there is also absolutely no will at all in Western Europe to make any serious moves towards bringing Ukraine into the EU.
President Macron has made a good start with his statement this week (marking the start of France’s six-month presidency of the EU) that he hoped to restart the “Normandy Format” of talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine aimed at the implementation of the Minsk II agreement on a solution for the Donbas conflict in Eastern Ukraine aimed at internationally-guaranteed autonomy for that territory within Ukraine. This is indeed the only way that dispute can be solved peacefully.
“[I]t is good for there to be coordination between Europe and the US but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia,” Macron said. This has rightfully caused flurries of anxiety in both Brussels and Washington.
Calling for “European” dialogue with Russia is however in itself pointless. The EU has demonstrated again and again that it is by nature simply incapable of formulating a common approach to Russia or indeed any other major issue of foreign policy. One core country has to take the lead; and in present circumstances that can only be France — albeit in the expectation of being able to pull a divided Germany along with it.
Shuffling responsibility off onto “Europe” is therefore a recipe for hopeless delay and confusion, and will convince no-one, least of all the Russians. One of the reasons for Moscow’s present escalation is precisely that the Russian establishment lost confidence in the Normandy Format and in the willingness of France and Germany ever to maintain a position that annoyed Washington. Only an exceptionally strong gesture by France can restore that confidence and begin a positive negotiating process with Moscow.
In the present French presidential election campaign, all the candidates from far right to center left have sought to wrap themselves in the mantle of Charles de Gaulle. They should remind themselves that de Gaulle most certainly would not have allowed France to be dragged into an unnecessary and disastrous conflict by the megalomaniac ambitions of Washington and the ancestral Russophobe hatreds of Poles and Swedes. De Gaulle believed in a “Europe des Patries,” not a European super-state (a project which has definitively failed), but a confederation of independent nation-states with France in a leading role.
De Gaulle, it may be recalled, in 1966 withdrew France from NATO’s military structures in protest against Washington’s refusal to allow France a share in the control of U.S. nuclear weapons on French soil. He also attempted a dialogue with the Soviet Union based on the concept of a Europe that stretched “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” His hopes were frustrated by the Cold War and the nature of Soviet communism; but they can be said to have reappeared in Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision of a “Common European Home.”
The end of the Cold War should have been a perfect moment for this Gaullist vision to re-emerge. Tragically, a whole set of factors combined to make this impossible: the descent of Russia into criminalized chaos and near state-collapse under Yeltsin, followed by its move to authoritarianism under Putin; and on the French side, the growing deference to Washington on the part of the French right and security establishment (in part because of growing reliance on the U.S. military to help maintain France’s sphere of influence in Western Africa); and the French left’s adoption of the religion of (American-led) global human rights and democratization to replace their previous infatuation with Marxism.
Now, at a time of grave European crisis, is the moment for de Gaulle’s vision to re-emerge. If Macron wishes to lay claim to de Gaulle’s legacy in the French elections, and more importantly in the eyes of history and la France eternelle, then this is the moment for him to show some of de Gaulle’s vision, courage, and patriotism.
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