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Macron’s Vision for European Autonomy Crashed and Burned in Ukraine

A grand intellectual edifice has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

By , a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 7. SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was elected on the promise of revitalizing the European Union with new vigor and vision. Arriving at his victory rally with the EU anthem playing and EU flags flying behind him, he pledged to “defend Europe” and protect its “civilization.”

At the heart of Macron’s vision for Europe, which he has developed in great detail during his years in office, lies the notion of European strategic autonomy. What sounds sensible and practical at first—Europe should be able to assert its independence and ensure its own security—is part of a much bigger ideological edifice of Europe’s place in the world and pursued by other French leaders before Macron.

This elaborate vision for Europe just crashed and burned in Ukraine. Other than a flurry of failed attempts at personal diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Macron has been all but absent in mobilizing Europe’s response to the gravest threat to the continent since 1945.

Five years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was elected on the promise of revitalizing the European Union with new vigor and vision. Arriving at his victory rally with the EU anthem playing and EU flags flying behind him, he pledged to “defend Europe” and protect its “civilization.”

At the heart of Macron’s vision for Europe, which he has developed in great detail during his years in office, lies the notion of European strategic autonomy. What sounds sensible and practical at first—Europe should be able to assert its independence and ensure its own security—is part of a much bigger ideological edifice of Europe’s place in the world and pursued by other French leaders before Macron.

This elaborate vision for Europe just crashed and burned in Ukraine. Other than a flurry of failed attempts at personal diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Macron has been all but absent in mobilizing Europe’s response to the gravest threat to the continent since 1945.


Macron’s failure to come to terms with Russia’s war, increasingly widespread atrocities, and threat to Europe’s security hark back to his own foreign-policy ideology. With a strong intellect and vast constitutional power to operationalize his beliefs, he has articulated them at length at Sorbonne University, annual French ambassadorial conferences, the French War College, and the European Parliament. This edifice of ideas has several core elements that led Macron straight to his fiasco with Putin.

First, Macron defined France’s mission to restore Europe as a great and “singular” civilization—not least to secure a leadership role for France and leverage its own interests. Macron sees a “balance of values” in Europe—freedom, human rights, the market economy, and social justice—that “cannot be found anywhere on the planet.” Macron defines European culture as an “art of being in the world,” including “feeling great emotion before” artistic and historical treasures as well as in “envisaging the human adventure.”

Second, Macron has repeatedly emphasized that European culture and civilization is distinct from the United States and China—but includes Russia. Macron acknowledges that the United States is in the “Western camp” but argues it is “not promoting the same brand of humanism” as Europe (including, as Macron defines it, Russia). Similarly, “Chinese civilization” does not have “the same collective preferences, to put it mildly, or the same values” as Europe. By equating Washington and Beijing as equally inimical to European interests, Macron argues that “what Europe represents” cannot be entrusted to “the other side of the Atlantic or on the edges of Asia.” Russia, on the other hand, has a special place in Macron’s pantheon of powers as “part of Europe” as much as France—even as an active player in spearheading the “project of European civilization.” (This is, of course, an odd reading of Western cultural, political, and intellectual history.) Macron’s conviction that Russia should be pulled into Europe and the United States should be kept out made him seek a “new relationship” with Putin’s Russia—against the obvious interests of many European nations that saw Russia and the United States differently.

Third, Macron undergirds his theory of a pan-European civilization from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains with a security doctrine that emphasizes European strategic autonomy to balance against other great powers. His term for this is “European sovereignty”: “our ability to exist in today’s world to defend our values and interests.” Europe requires “autonomous operating capabilities, in complement to NATO,” Macron has argued, though he also believes NATO is “brain dead.”

To that end, France has launched some modest military initiatives within the European Union, though they are nowhere near as effective as NATO’s capabilities and structures. One senior European Union official quipped that the European Intervention Initiative, a joint military project based in Paris with other European countries, has been deployed only to march during the annual Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées. But whereas the United States could abandon Europe at any time, Macron argues, “there can be no defense and security project of European citizens without … gradual rebuilding of confidence with Russia.” With Putin, he aimed to “build a new architecture based on trust and security in Europe.” Indeed, he claimed that countries such as the United States were urging Europe to “impose more sanctions on Russia because it is in their interest.” Europe’s interests, Macron said, would “most certainly not” be served by sanctions on Russia.

In the early hours of Feb. 24, as the first Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities, Macron’s intellectual edifice collapsed under the weight of its own illusions and contradictions.


Before the Russian invasion, Macron positioned himself as the key mediator who could speak to all sides—Russia, Ukraine, and the West—as well as negotiate a way out of conflict. Driven by his theory of Russia’s place in European civilization and confidence in his abilities as a negotiator, he seems to have placed little emphasis on building up deterrence by positioning forces on Europe’s eastern flank or pre-announcing hard-hitting sanctions. Instead, he bet on diplomacy and his own intellect to reconcile Russia’s perceived concerns by constructing “a new security and stability order” for Europe with Putin. He flew to Moscow first and to Kyiv only afterward—in contrast to other leaders, such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who coordinated his position with the Ukrainians first. To no one’s surprise except Macron’s, diplomacy without leverage proved to be ineffective.

Even as Russia’s increasingly brutal war was well underway, Macron still did not admit he gravely misjudged Putin. Instead of changing tack and helping build the coalition to stop Russia, Macron has since doubled down on his diplomatic outreach with multiple calls to Moscow since the invasion. He even warned U.S. President Joe Biden against escalation in words or action. France has deployed a mere 500 soldiers to Romania since the start of the war, in addition to its 500 troops already stationed in Estonia, and has not disclosed its arms supplies to Ukraine—whether because they are so small or because Macron wishes to avoid provoking Russia by making them public.

Macron’s choices are not just tactical misjudgments; they reflect long-standing strategic decisions that rest on a deeply held intellectual construct. Throughout his tenure, Macron fêted Putin at the Palace of Versailles and Fort Brégançon with the aim of building “a new architecture based on trust and security in Europe” while taking barely disguised swipes at the United States by telling Putin that a grand strategic arrangement with Russia “is not in the interest of some of our allies.” He claimed that the “European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia.” Otherwise, he argued, Europe risks continuing to be the “theater of a strategic battle between the United States and Russia” and “will not lay the groundwork for the profound recreation of European civilization.”

Macron has been all but invisible on the Ukraine crisis the last few weeks. Whether he has changed his mind on the desirability of accommodating Russia and its so-called security concerns is unclear.

Instead of leading Europe, as he had undoubtedly hoped to do, Macron has ceded the field to others. Russia’s war has laid bare his deep-rooted strategic misconception of Europe as strategically autonomous. Right now, the main line of Europe’s defense—besides the Ukrainian army—is 100,000 U.S. troops on the continent, including more than 10,000 troops on rotation on the front lines in Poland as well as tens of thousands of troops from other NATO countries. As former West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said at the height of the Cold War, Americans are the best Europeans. It’s an old adage Macron might do well to remember.

Bart M. J. Szewczyk is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po, a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a former advisor on refugee policy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the author of Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order. Twitter: @bartszewczyk

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