Nervous self-congratulation will be the order of the day next week in London as representatives of the 29 member nations convene to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
There will be much relief expressed that President Donald Trump has changed his mind, now saying NATO is not obsolete after all. Applause will ring out as it is extolled as the most successful military alliance in history, the one that defeated the Soviet Union. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose term was recently extended for another three years, will be lauded. New, self-justifying tasks will be found: space will be seized upon as a new defense dimension, and artificial intelligence capabilities must be developed, along with secure 5G networks. Brows will be furrowed over the vulnerable Suwalki gap along the Lithuanian–Polish border and Russian maneuvers in Belarus. And rapturous pleasure will be expressed about the lavish new $1.23 billion glass and steel Brussels headquarters, built to show that, even when peace breaks out, the plethoric NATO bureaucracy is here to stay. (See “NATO Reconsidered” in the April 2011 issue of The American Spectator.)
But there will also be nervous glances over the shoulder at glaring issues that can no longer be ignored. With the organization having lost its basic raison d’être nearly 30 years ago with the implosion of the Warsaw Pact, cracks in the façade of Western unity are becoming ever more visible. This was inevitable; a Brookings Institution study found that, over the past five centuries, the average duration of collective defense pacts was 15 years.
National interests and defense needs change. Today the U.S. pays lip service to protecting Europe but is really more concerned about the Middle East and China, not necessarily in that order. In peacetime, members have the leisure to squabble over who pays their fair share into the alliance’s $2 billion budget — and who doesn’t. Britain is preoccupied with its long-running Brexit drama and will inevitably feel less involved after it leaves the European Union and edges politically closer to the U.S. Germany is fast getting over its post-WWII complex and beginning to show signs of going its own way on economic and defense policies, to the displeasure of France and Eastern European members.
After the U.S. abruptly withdrew troops from northern Syria — French president Emmanuel Macron said angrily that he learned about it on Twitter — NATO members were left outraged but impotent by member Turkey’s unilateral attacks against Kurdish forces there. “This could get a little ugly,” the American ambassador and former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow predicted in Defense News. “All the positive agenda items [planned] could get drowned out by the noise.”
A great explosion of noise was made in early November when Macron dropped an unexpected bombshell on the alliance. “What we are currently experiencing,” he told the Economist in a rare cover-story interview, “is the brain death of NATO.” His chief complaint: “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None.” He had other objections, too, particularly to Turkey’s aggression “in an area where our interests are at stake” without so much as a by-your-leave to the allies. Then there was the absence of a common allied approach to sensitive technology such as the construction of Europe’s coming 5G communications networks, which threaten to be either American or Chinese rather than European.
His critique went further, to the very heart of NATO’s deterrence, questioning whether or not Article 5 of the treaty, stipulating that an attack on one member was an attack on all, was still operative. “I don’t know,” he said. “But what will Article 5 mean tomorrow?” He followed the interview up by having his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, spell out his problem with the way the Trump administration deals with its allies. “The U.S. is sending contradictory signals,” he told the French Senate’s commission on foreign affairs and defense. “It is clear that we are going to have to reconsider our position on transatlantic relations.”
Macron’s solution to allied disarray: European sovereignty over its own affairs, from defense to the economy, the environment, industry, and on. Led, of course, by France with a nod to Germany. Examples of what he would like more of are a project called the European Intervention Initiative, a coalition that could act in consort to handle crises, and the Franco-German pact for joint development of fighter aircraft and tanks. These, he claims, show that “Europe has the capacity to defend itself.”
All in all, Macron’s sally constitutes the most virulent attack on NATO — and U.S. leadership — since Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the alliance’s integrated military command in 1966. It reflects France’s long-smoldering Gaullist resentment of America’s “imperialist” domination. It is a toxic mix of jealousy and impotence in the face of the fact that France, and Europe, can’t spend as much as it does on generous cradle-to-grave social programs and defend itself.
On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t need to defend itself from Russia if another aspect of Macron’s pipe dream of European autonomy and independence from the U.S. works out. Lately he has begun calling for a rapprochement with Moscow, including “a strategic dialogue.” To help this along, he has invited Vladimir Putin to much-publicized, one-on-one meetings at both Versailles and his official summer vacation residence at a Riviera chateau — Donald Trump, eat your heart out. He told the Economist that not cozying up to its big neighbor to the east would be “a huge mistake.”
Macron’s abrasive remarks were doubtless intended to advance his delusional claim to leadership in Europe by spotlighting NATO’s flaws and calling on Europe to do more. In that sense, he was right for the wrong, politically ambitious reasons — NATO is a mess, and Europe does need to do more.
First to react was a stung Jens Stoltenberg, who duly applauded Europe’s fledgling attempts at forging a defense identity but rejected the notion that they could substitute for America’s support. “The European Union cannot defend Europe,” he said flatly, noting that after the UK was out, non-EU countries would be providing more than three-quarters of Alliance defense spending.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has never warmed to Macron’s strutting style, and who herself has called for a European army, termed his remarks “drastic.” “That is not how I see the state of cooperation in NATO,” she said, coolly putting him down. Germany is hardly the best example of that cooperation. Its increasing dependence on Russia for energy — the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline will soon double the amount of Russian natural gas Germany buys — led Trump to call Berlin a “captive” of Moscow.
Due to their proximity to Russia, Eastern European members like the Baltic States and Poland were having none of Macron’s vision. Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki said raising doubts about the U.S. commitment to Europe was irresponsible and downright dangerous. The French president could afford to take such a position, he told the Financial Times, “because he does not feel the hot breath of the Russian bear on his neck.” He added scornfully that France and many other members, unlike Poland, were failing to meet their commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
There is also much handwringing over black sheep Turkey’s move toward the Russian orbit — you can’t act much more contrary to NATO’s coherence than by purchasing weapons like the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from its main adversary — with some American congressmen angrily calling for its suspension from the alliance. But no issue is more contentious and divisive among NATO members than that 2-percent spending goal. Trump has repeatedly hectored them about it since taking office, pointing out, for example, that if they hit the 2-percent target — meaning some 40 percent more than now — Britain, Germany, and France alone could take on Russia. As it is, the U.S. spends over 3 percent, while France is well short of 2 percent, and Germany lags at only 1.25 percent — it will be 2031, according to present plans, before it reaches 2.
Instead of paying their fair share for common transatlantic defense, Europe’s putative leaders, France and Germany, are increasingly rejecting U.S. initiatives and announcing projects designed to give the impression that Europe is getting its act together.
After a series of Iran-sponsored attacks on Western vessels transiting the Persian Gulf, for instance, the U.S. called for an international coalition to protect the region’s sea lanes for oil tankers and other vital shipping. The operation, known as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), formerly Operational Sentinel, was launched this month — without any European participation except Britain and Albania.
Other European leaders snubbed it, sulking over Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, France has invited them to join a purely European initiative that, assuming there are any takers for it, will do the same thing as IMSC. France specifies proudly that this duplicate will coordinate with the American-led coalition, but under no circumstances will it be under American orders. Another bit of flimflam has come from Germany: a proposal for a European aircraft carrier “to give shape to the role of the European Union as a global force for security and peace.” Given that the EU has no organ for common strategic military planning and decision-making, we can only wish them good luck with that.
Macron is scheduled to meet Trump in London before the summit. They’ll have a lot to talk about.
Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator’s Paris correspondent. His latest book is Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France (McFarland).