After spending years belittling and undermining the western world’s principal military alliance, during his recent trip to London to celebrate the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) 70th birthday, President Trump sounded a different tune. Instead of continuing his attack on the alliance, Trump turned his ire on French President Emmanuel Macron, for criticising NATO himself. Is the US president now a NATO supporter?
Something strange happened in London a few days ago. President Trump, who used to call NATO “obsolete” and caused a shock at a summit in Brussels in 2018 by threatening to withdraw the US if the Europeans failed to take on a fairer share of the burden, has—for now at least—become the alliance’s vocal champion. When the leaders of allied states met in the UK a few days ago for NATO’s 70th-anniversary celebrations, Trump blasted President Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of the alliance as “nasty” and “disrespectful” and insisted that NATO “serves a great purpose”. He did not seem to object to the reiteration of Article Five of NATO’s treaty, the cornerstone of the alliance—an article that continues to be seen as crucially important by the allies that still feel threatened by Russia.
In an ironic reversal of roles, it seemed to be President Macron, following his warning that NATO was experiencing “brain death”, who was perceived as a dangerous disruptor and attracted the immediate opprobrium of the other allied states. Revealingly, even Macron’s key ally, the German Chancellor, condemned his “drastic words,” stating that “such a sweeping attack is not necessary.” Meanwhile, Russia, which makes no secret of its deep hostility vis-à-vis NATO, welcomed the French President’s comments as “truthful words”. But was Macron right?
President Trump, who used to call NATO “obsolete” and caused a shock at a summit in Brussels in 2018 by threatening to withdraw the US if the Europeans failed to take on a fairer share of the burden, has—for now at least—become the alliance’s vocal champion.
First, we need to put his words in context. Speaking alongside NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Macron explained that he issued that statement as a “wake-up call”, as the allies had become too focused on budget issues instead of evolving geopolitics. More broadly, his comments need to seen as part of a systematic campaign to strengthen the role of Europe as an international security actor and to rely less on a capricious Washington. What Macron sees is a world that is increasingly dangerous for the Europeans, and in which the EU still shies away from asserting its power on the world stage. This has been his leitmotif, from his 2017 Sorbonne speech to his August 2018 proposals about deepening the EU’s solidarity clause and his repeated calls for strengthening European military capabilities. More recently, he made it clear he would welcome greater EU contributions to France’s increasingly challenging and controversial operations against Islamist militants in the Sahel.
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Macron is right to argue that the Europeans need to assume greater responsibilities in the field of international security. In this respect, his position seems to find some echo in the vision embraced by Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission President. But translating that vision into action is not going to be easy—particularly in a situation in which several allies fear that France is seeking to strengthen the security dimension of the EU at the expense of NATO. In the eyes of many member states, particularly those from the former communist bloc, such a scenario is unacceptable. NATO, for them, remains a much more credible security guarantee than the EU. As long as that continues to be the case, many EU/NATO countries are likely to be reluctant to embrace Macron’s vision. Macron’s harsh critique of NATO, his argument that Europe should reach out to Russia and the fact that his words were praised by Moscow only served to reinforce the Central/East Europeans’ concerns and suspicion vis-à-vis Paris.
To put this into a broader perspective: NATO indeed needs to think more carefully, not just about burden-sharing but also about its strategic priorities in the 21st century. This is not to diminish the alliance’s historical achievements. Despite numerous challenges and a series of inter-allied disagreements, NATO has demonstrated impressive resilience over the past several decades. Following the end of the Cold War, not only has the alliance completed massive waves of enlargement and established partnerships with a large number of states but since 2014 it has taken important steps to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It has deployed multinational battlegroups into the three Baltic states and Poland, has strengthened its presence in the Black Sea region and has committed to new initiatives aimed at improving readiness and adapting to a more complex security environment. In part as a result of criticism from President Trump, its members have significantly raised their spending on defence.
It is also remarkable that the London meeting, despite some visible spats among allied leaders, resulted in a declaration reaffirming NATO’s role as the foundation for collective defence in the transatlantic area. Secretary-General Stoltenberg celebrated the progress NATO made towards aligning its members’ positions on Russia, and the allied leaders appeared to have smoothed over Turkey’s objections to the new Baltic and Polish defence plans. This is welcome news, particularly to those who had feared the meeting would end in complete failure. It is also worth noting that the allies took some tangible steps to keep NATO relevant in a changing security landscape, placing a number of non-conventional issues on the alliance’s agenda. These include emerging technologies, 5G infrastructure and cyber-attacks, as well as naming space as the fifth operational domain. The London Declaration also makes the first mention of China in NATO’s history.
Macron is right to argue that the Europeans need to assume greater responsibilities in the field of international security.
Furthermore, the document announces the launch of a forward-looking reflection process aimed at strengthening NATO’s political dimension. All these are helpful, much-needed initiatives. But NATO still has a lot of work to do in order to find new strategic and political coherence.
The task of agreeing on a set of strategic priorities and finding common answers to questions ranging from how to deal with Turkey—a key ally from a geo-strategic point of view, but a source of growing concern due to its actions in Syria and its military cooperation with Russia—to how to respond to hybrid tactics is likely to test the allies in unprecedented ways. In the coming years, they will need to demonstrate continued commitment to the alliance—and a lot of political imagination—if they are to refute in a definitive manner President Macron diagnosis of brain death within NATO.