LONDON – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has warned that if President Donald Trump is re-elected in 2020 “there will be no NATO.” Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, claims the military alliance is experiencing “brain death.” When Turkey invaded Syria in October with little coordination with Europe and the United States, it illustrated Ankara’s disorderly and discordant NATO membership.
Twenty-nine leaders from North American and European governments, including Trump, will congregate at a luxury hotel on the outskirts of London on Dec. 3-4 for a NATO meeting. They will discuss a wide variety of strategic economic and security issues: threats from cyberspace, terrorism, Syria’s eight-year-old civil war, China’s growing military might, an assertive Russia, space warfare and more.
“NATO is needed more now than at any point since the end of the Cold War,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general who previously served as prime minister of Denmark, in an interview. “Not least because of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he added, referring to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “We need NATO to strengthen the territorial defense of our allies,” he said.
But this week’s gathering in London comes amid heightened transatlantic frictions over an alliance that was founded in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, as well as to act as a bulwark again nationalist militarism through a strong U.S. presence on the continent and by encouraging European political integration.
Since taking office Trump has accused NATO members of insufficiently paying to sustain an alliance that contributes to Europe’s safety. He has demanded that NATO members double a defense spending goal of 2% of economic output, set in 2014 as Jens Stoltenberg took over from Rasmussen as NATO’s secretary general.
Stoltenberg announced Thursday that NATO members agreed to reduce the U.S.’s contribution to the alliance’s $2.5 billion annual budget, to 16% from 22%. It covers things like staff, the headquarters in Brussels and some joint military exercises. The budget is separate from defense spending. It also represents just a fraction of the $700 billion Washington spends each year on the Pentagon. But the move may have been an attempt to mollify Trump or ward off any disruptive comments from him in London.
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The U.S. leader has repeatedly maligned the accord and even pushed allies to abandon it, saying the U.S. is “getting raped” by NATO, according to an account published in A Warning, an anonymously authored book about Trump’s turbulent presidency.
The meeting in London has been downgraded from a full-blown summit to a “gathering” of leaders despite it falling during the alliance’s 70th anniversary. Instead, to mark the occasion, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted foreign ministers from NATO nations in April in Washington, D.C. “No military alliance in the world can remotely do what we do,” Pompeo said, as he saluted the military accord’s success at the Mellon Auditorium near the White House, a hall where Harry S. Truman signed the NATO pact in 1949.
Still, the absence of NATO leaders for the ceremony was symbolic.
But the issue is not just that Trump is acting like a NATO problem-child.
Macron, France’s leader, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s two most powerful and influential politicians, have clashed in recent weeks over where NATO is heading in the longer term. In a Nov. 7 interview with The Economist magazine, Macron mused about the alliance’s weaknesses and made it clear that he favors a far more robust European-led NATO that is more willing to react to crises on or near its borders.
Macron criticized NATO’s failure to prevent Turkey’s offensive in Syria, aimed at rooting out Kurdish fighters who Turkey sees as terrorists but who helped battle the Islamic State group. He has also urged NATO leaders to review the alliance’s strategy of focussing on the threat from Russia. Instead, he wants to shift its focus toward anti-terrorism.
The meeting comes just days after two people were stabbed to death in a terrorist attack in central London. The suspect was previously convicted of terrorism offenses.
Merkel, who has dominated European politics for more than a decade and built up a reputation as its quiet, pragmatist-in-chief temperamentally resistant to big, performative statements or policy changes, described Macron’s remarks as “drastic.”
It was a rare, dissenting public intervention from Merkel aimed at France’s leader.
“Such a sweeping attack is not necessary,” she said, standing alongside Stoltenberg in Berlin on Nov. 7. NATO’s Norwegian chief was in the German capital for events linked to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The reunification of Germany and Europe would have been impossible without the United States’ security guarantee,” Stoltenberg said. “Any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the transatlantic alliance, it also risks dividing Europe itself.”
But, the White House wants NATO to put more attention on China.
“China is actively seeking a great presence and more influence across the globe, including in NATO’s area of responsibility,” a senior White House official said in a briefing previewing Trump’s trip to London for the meeting. “It is offering cheap money, cheap investment, and critical infrastructure, including ports and electricity grids. It is seeking to trap nations in debt, and thus bring diplomatic concessions that way.”
Then’s there’s Brexit, Britain’s impending departure from the European Union. On the face of it, Brexit has nothing to do with NATO. But Britain has long been viewed as one of NATO’s most important members after the U.S. and analysts have argued that its departure from the EU could lead it to more aggressively look beyond Europe when it comes to the deployment of its armed forces and peacekeeping missions.
Ben Friedman, a defense expert and policy analyst at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for a smaller U.S. military footprint around the world, said that part of NATO’s problem is simply its size.
“The (open) secret has always been that NATO’s kind of brain-dead. It’s an alliance where powerful states can bring forces to bear collectively – for joint training and equipment and some doctrine – but at the end of the day it’s not like a coherent country with a prime minister or a president and some ministers who call the shots,” he said.
Friedman said that Turkey had some “legitimate gripes” against NATO and its western allies connected to former President Barack Obama’s decision to partner with Syrian Kurds – who Turkey considers terrorists – to play a leading role in the fight against the Islamic State group. But he said Ankara has also shown itself to be a “pretty bad ally,” not least over its decision to purchase the S-400, a powerful Russia-made air defense system.
“Buying Russian air defense systems is a direct slap in the face to an alliance basically formed to defend against the country that you are buying those weapons from,” he said.
Rasmussen cautioned that there was a danger that Macron’s remarks would lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” over NATO’s unraveling. “The paradox is that, militarily, NATO is also stronger than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War,” he said.
He pointed to the increased defense spending that will likely see nine countries, up from three in 2014, meet the 2% defense spending target by the end of the year. He also noted that North Macedonia will be the 30th member to join NATO at the beginning of 2020 and that more NATO deployments are in Eastern Europe to push back against Russian aggression than ever before. Rasmussen conceded NATO had been weakened due to lack of a “coherent political leadership” but insisted there was only half the story.
“NATO is on the right course,” he said.