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Nato’s unhappy birthday

2 December 2019

11:00 AM

2 December 2019

11:00 AM

London plays host to another Nato summit tomorrow, which can only mean one thing: expect plenty of handshakes, laboured smiles for the cameras and joint communiques about solidarity, unity and the importance of Western values.

Underneath the facade, however, lies a club riven by disputes over policy and personality. Nato may be celebrating its 70th anniversary this week, but its members are also coming together at a turbulent time. And for once, the turbulence isn’t all Donald Trump’s fault. 

Nato ministers have learned to walk on egg-shells whenever Trump is in the same room. If the 2017 summit was the chaotic opening act, where the newly-elected US president abraded Europeans in front of Nato headquarters for acting like America’s cheap cousins, the meeting in 2019 will be a restrained affair.  

European ministers in attendance know quite well what they are getting with Trump and it usually revolves around a stern lecture about the importance of reaching into your own wallets and throwing more money into the Nato pot. Between 2016-2020, Washington’s Nato allies will be projected to spend an additional £100bn ($130bn) on their militaries. But to Trump, this is chump change. Surely a wealthy regions rivalling the United States in GDP can spend even more? 

Trump is only one personality, albeit a big one. French president Emmanuel Macron and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan are two more and both are currently in a child-like war of words that could bleed into the summit. Macron has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Ankara’s invasion of northeast Syria, citing it as an example of why Nato is a “brain dead” zombie. Erdogan, of course, didn’t take too kindly to the Frenchman’s comments. “Have your own brain death checked,” the Turkish president scolded Macron. “These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death.” Paris has since summoned the Turkish ambassador for an explanation. 

Erdogan lashing out is nothing new. Such tantrums can be contained. But with Turkey, insults are the last thing Nato has to worry about. If Trump is the crazy uncle, Erdogan is the backstabbing, black swan who takes pleasure in needling the rest of the family. The Turks are proceeding with operating the Russian S-400 air defense system, the same system that got Ankara kicked out of Washington’s F-35 joint fighter program. Ankara is blocking the passage of a Nato defense plan for the Baltics, hoping to force the West into concessions on Syria. All of this is coming at a time when Turkey’s incursion and virtual colonisation of northern sections of Syria are still very fresh in the minds of US lawmakers, many of whom would like to punish Erdogan with sanctions on Ankara’s defense industry for acting like a dictator. 

The French and Germans aren’t getting along either. Macron’s description of Nato as brain dead has upset many people, panicked others and angered even more. Chancellor Angela Merkel is at the top of this list; the dean of the European establishment reportedly took Macron aside at a dinner and told him to knock off the Nato bashing. Macron has remained steadfast, using a press conference with Stoltenberg last week to  reiterate his earlier position. If Merkel was expecting an apology, she got precisely the opposite—a defiant Macron who insists that the alliance’s faults need to be fixed and adamant that he deserves credit for beginning the conversation.

Macron is right: Nato is not all it’s cracked up to be. Stoltenberg, Merkel, the British, and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill will continue to use the same, scripted lines about Nato as the oldest, most powerful and most successful military alliance in history. But the spending and capability imbalance between the United States and the rest of the organisation; the unhealthy dependency Europe has on the US military to backfill its defense; and the fact that its main adversary (the Soviet Union) has been dead for nearly 30 years add up to an organisation struggling to remain relevant in a much different world.  

The 70th anniversary celebrations in London would be a good place to take stock. But what should happen and what does happen are often two different things. Why ruin a party by talking shop when you can sooth everyone at the ceremonies with inspirational speeches, dine on first-class cuisine and pose as one big, happy family?


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