NATO before the Summit
Before the unofficial summit in London, the Alliance argues over the French President’s statement that NATO is “brain dead”. Behind an inappropriate choice of words, however, is an accurate and valuable analysis.
This week, the heads of state and government of the 29 NATO member states are meeting for their unofficial summit meeting in London. However, the focus of the report is not on the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Alliance, but on the debate surrounding the statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron. In an interview with the Economist, he had stated that “we are currently experiencing NATO’s brain death”.
Macron’s macabre and provocative choice of words is unusual for a president and has provoked outrage in much of the Alliance. He would have preferred gentler words, like the outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “NATO is in a slight slumber”. But apart from the inappropriate medical metaphor, the French president’s analysis is apt and his thought-provoking impulse is urgently needed.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s reflexive reply that the North Atlantic Alliance is important and indispensable does not contradict Macron’s remarks. If NATO were not important to Macron, he would not be intensively dealing with its current shortcomings and dedicating most of an epoch-making interview to it. Precisely because Macron is aware of the importance of relations within the Alliance and is committed to its continued success, he openly addresses important issues.
How can European allies regain confidence in their US partners if they do not coordinate their strategic decisions with them? It was only at the end of October that President Donald Trump announced that he would immediately withdraw American troops from north-eastern Syria – without informing France or Great Britain beforehand, whose troops had fought in the region together with the Americans. On the American side, the question is whether the European allies will ever live up to their promises and invest more money in their own armed forces. Americans and Europeans are asking themselves together: how should the alliance deal with a member like Turkey that is invading Syria in violation of international law and that is successively taking NATO’s principle of being a community of democracies to absurdity?
Macron is criticised for weakening the alliance with these statements. The opposite is the case. Not to raise these obvious questions or to wipe them out would be absurd and would undermine NATO’s credibility.
Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is generally seen as the most likely initiator of military aggression against NATO members, nor 64% of German citizens, who in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center rate their country’s relations with the US as bad, need read Macron’s interview to become aware of the lack of strategic coordination among NATO members. Nevertheless, the Russian president has so far shied away from attacking the Baltic states or Poland, and the majority of German citizens vote for parties that are clearly committed to NATO. For although the internal tensions are obvious to all the world, NATO’s importance as a defence alliance has not suffered.
Head Busted, Soul Intact?
Macron’s criticism refers mainly to the “head” or, as he says, the “brain” of NATO. This refers to the strategic coordination of the members among each other, for example when carrying out operations outside their own alliance territory, such as in the context of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan or the so-called Islamic state in Syria. The lack of communication and fundamental differences of opinion also became apparent in the termination of the INF Treaty, the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Climate Agreement and in the conflict over the nuclear agreement with Iran. However, the “head” of NATO must be distinguished from its “soul”, the mutual obligation to provide assistance in the event of an attack by a third party, which is anchored in Article 5 of the NATO Charter.
There is much to suggest that NATO’s “soul” is in good shape. Even if the rhetoric of the US President may sometimes leave doubts about its reliability, more than 60,000 American soldiers stationed in Europe speak in favour of an even stronger commitment to assistance. The 29 NATO members together account for more than half of the world’s economic volume and are thus by far the most powerful alliance in the world. This alliance has not lost its attraction to its environment. North Macedonia will soon join the Alliance as its 30th member.
Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas underlined their criticism of Macron with the remark that Europe cannot defend itself. They thus seem to suggest that one’s own inability to defend oneself would be a prerequisite for being certain in the event of an emergency of military assistance from the American partners. Interestingly, it is the USA of all countries that is the first and so far the only member of the alliance to have relied on the assistance of its partners on the basis of Article 5. Although nobody would have doubted that the USA could defend itself, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all of the then 18 other allies stood by the Americans in solidarity with words and deeds.
The question is rather how long the American partners are prepared to defend a European Union that does not invest enough in its own defence capability. The development of a more independent European security and defence policy is therefore not a contradiction to NATO, but a prerequisite for its continued existence. This is also the aim of the French President’s reflections. At the leaders’ meeting in London, the Heads of State and Government will hardly have time to discuss these issues in detail. So it is all the more important that someone has given the impetus for a wide-ranging public debate.
European Affairs Manager
Head of FNF Security Hub