‘The only unified European construct in terms of security and defense for the time being is NATO, to be blunt,’ Heisbourg says.
Pressure on Recep Tayyip Erdogan domestically could prompt the Turkish strongman into distancing his country from the West, says Francois Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and special adviser at the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (Foundation for Strategic Research).
A member of the Presidential Commission of the French White Paper on Defense and National Security (2007/2008 and 2012/2013), Heisbourg advised French President Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign on national security.
Speaking to Kathimerini on the sidelines of the 3rd Land Forces Conference in Athens, Heisbourg said that Europe and NATO must not allow Erdogan to drift away from the West.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about what direction Europe should take in terms of security, defense, geopolitics and so on. Do you think Europe is at some kind of crossroads, or is it far behind compared to the rest of the players in the region?
It’s a very difficult question in terms of answering why Europe is at a crossroads. It’s not simply that there are immediate challenges like the ones you mentioned. It is the broader picture. The sort of background music is that great power competition is back. We are no longer in the unipolar moment, we are no longer in the bipolar moment, we are in a situation of competing powers – Russia is obviously back, China has become a superpower, and it’s beginning to act like one, including in this region, and the United States is becoming more transactional in its approach to its relations with its European allies. So the backdrop which we are facing is that of great power competition, which poses the whole question of how can Europe manage its own affairs against this competition which is playing out and will increasingly play out at our own expense.
Can there be a unified European answer to that?
For the moment there is no unified European answer. The only unified European construct in terms of security and defense for the time being is NATO, to be blunt. The European Union has some involvement in defense affairs, it definitely has involvement in security issues, but for the time being there is no European concept, European doctrine, and European military capability which it could use as a substitute for NATO if the US were to remove itself from its NATO commitments, which may or may not happen. But the question is open, President [Donald] Trump forces us to look at this question.
Are you saying that the US is withdrawing from its NATO obligations?
The United States is focusing more and more on China – in Asia Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, and logically so because China is the other superpower now. And because East Asia is the economically most important region of the world – not Europe, not even the United States. And American policy towards Europe will become more and more a function of American perception of whether Europe is helping or hindering American policy vis-a-vis China. And that of course is a completely different conundrum from the one that we had with NATO during the Cold War, or after the Cold War. This is the end of the post Cold War-period – this is a new period.
Is the US pursuing a so-called "frontier state" strategy, or is this just non-consequential because of the behavior of the US towards Asia Pacific?
What is the most consequential is the reciprocal relationship between China and the US; this is dominating the logic of the system. Whatever happens in the Balkans, whatever happens in the Middle East, whatever happens in the Black Sea in 15 or 20 years time will be a function of American-Chinese relations, not something else.
China is still learning how to operate as a global payer; this is a tricky process – China is basically prudent in the way it goes about this, and as a consequence it is also quite efficient. For example, it is already impossible now for the European Union to have a common position on freedom of navigation vis-a-vis China, it is impossible for us to have a common position on the 5G problem, it is impossible for us to have a common position on the control of foreign investment and notably Chinese investment. This China has managed to do without us even noticing and this happened over the last three to four years. And the relationship with Russia is an important component of our international relations and our strategy, whether it’s for defense, whether it’s for diplomacy, whether it’s in a damage limitation mode or a more constructive mode, Russia is important – but Russia is like the weather. China is like climate change – it’s not simply the thunderstorm you had in Athens last night, it’s the climate in Athens in 10 years’ time.
President Macron recently said that NATO has suffered “brain death.” You seem to disagree with his remarks.
I had two problems with Macron’s statements. A first problem is that he is not a think-tank analyst, but he expressed himself like a think-tank analyst. And the problem of course is that when you say things like a think-tank analyst and you are a politician, there are consequences. Some people say Macron tried to shock in order to provoke Europe to rise to the challenge. You can’t simply drop a big statement like that without any prior discussion, without any preparation and at a time which makes things much more difficult: Germany is paralyzed politically until 2021, Spain is having its election, Poland has problems with France and vice versa, the United Kingdom is completely obsessed with Brexit. So who is our audience? If you want to lead, there have to be people who are ready to be led. The ones I have just named are not ready to be led. And these are the biggest countries in Europe. So this is a small problem.
The second problem I have, which is more serious, concerns Article 5. Article 5 is the heart of NATO, it is the heart of the Alliance. If you start questioning Article 5, you run the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if Trump is saying the same thing, which he has been.
You referred to changes to international treaties. How do you think Turkey sees itself in this new environment?
Two things here: The first one which is not directly about Turkey, although it’s indirectly about Turkey, is that Greece’s strategic situation and the role of Greece in this important East Mediterranean region is something which is well understood now in Europe and this is a big change – and notably in Paris. Because – go back seven or eight years – you had a monetary crisis, the euro crisis, catastrophes, demonstrations, institutions collapsing, and so Greece was viewed entirely as a problem – a problem to be resolved and I think the French played a significant and positive role in helping Greeks resolve the problem. Greece made it through the tsunami, now you have to deal with the wreckage of the tsunami. But the tsunami has passed, and now Greece is no longer a problem. Greece is now a solution. And this is something that has taken some time in Europe – Western Europe I mean, and in France – to realize this. But this is now understood. That Greece vis-a-vis Turkey is a partner. And it’s an alliance member. It’s an EU member, not Turkey.
Turning to Turkey, past Turkish policy in strategic terms was not irrational, and it was understandable. The real question now is whether Turkey is going to try to sustain this positioning, and therefore remain in the Atlantic Alliance, remain in NATO and confine its relationship with Russia to a partnership as opposed to an alliance – partnership is not the same thing. And normally the answer would be yes, of course this is what Turkey would normally want to do because it actually is the policy which offers to Turkey the maximum amount of leverage and the maximum amount of advantage. It’s not a stupid policy. It’s not always easy for the neighbors, but it’s not stupid. But Erdogan feels that power is beginning to slip through his fingers domestically – the Istanbul election was a real shock. And so domestically he may be tempted to do a “fuite en avant,” what the Germans in 1914 called “Flucht nach vorn” – a forward leap without regard to consequences. There is a real risk but we NATO and EU members have to work on the assumption that Turkey’s basic interest is to remain in the alliance. That is the baseline scenario, and in terms of the EU we should continue to pretend they are a candidate country and I think they can continue to pretend they are a candidate country. Yes, we must denounce Turkey’s misbehavior in Syria, but we should not act in a way which would increase Erdogan’s incentive to do a forward leap.
What is your opinion on France’s policy on North Macedonia’s EU membership ambitions?
The French essentially vetoed further progress by North Macedonia and Albania into the EU. I understand where this comes from politically – further enlargement of the Union is deeply unpopular in France. This is a fight that Macron does not need with the extreme right in 2022, the next elections. So I understand where it comes from. But I also understand as a strategic analyst that this is not good news when it comes to turning at last the page of the last 25 years for Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – 25 years of gridlock which prevented Greece from exercising its full influence in the Balkans. There was a heavy price paid by Greece for this battle with FYROM and conversely it did not do North Macedonia any good either. It locked them into a situation in which they could not move either towards NATO nor towards the European Union. So this was a negative-sum game. Over the last year the deadlock was broken, prospects opened. Now the question is where we go from here because the French decision is what it is and we have to think about the consequences. My own thinking is that it would be reasonable for the French and the EU globally to think about disassociating the Albanian issue – the Albanian candidacy – and the North Macedonian candidacy – a decoupling.
Albania is a big problem. In Albania the reforms are not happening. Albania has a large size and population. I am in no hurry to see Albania being considered as a short-term member-state. Conversely, in North Macedonia the reform process is in better shape. I am not saying it’s in great shape but it’s way better than Albania. And North Macedonia is small, it’s bite-sized. I’d also add that in the popular images in France, people tend to identify Albania with mafia – there is no identification concerning North Macedonia, people don’t really have any idea of what it is, which is a good thing in that way.