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NATO nerves on edge ahead of leaders' meeting

Teri Schultz Brussels
December 3, 2019

Who'll be the skunk at NATO's 70th birthday party? And is the alliance really "brain dead?" The upcoming summit could provide all sorts of public-relations pitfalls.

Cartoon showing blonde hair on NATO symbol

It's highly unlikely NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expected an apology from French President Emanuel Macron when the two met in Paris to clear the air over the now infamous French description of the alliance as "brain dead" due to its faulty mutual defense clause.

But Stoltenberg may still not have been prepared for Macron to double down on his criticism and declare he was even "glad" it had created the uproar which is dominating headlines ahead of what was initially hoped to be largely a self-congratulatory get-together to mark NATO's 70th anniversary on Wednesday in London.

"Maybe we needed a wake-up call," Macron said defiantly, standing next to the NATO chief. He has suggested the alliance create a special group of experts to look into how to energize strategic thinking, a proposal Germany has also made. Leaders are expected to endorse the concept, with a report being prepared for the 2021 NATO summit.

Macron's wrecking ball

But some experts say if Macron wanted to shock allies into standing up more effective military power, he's going about it all wrong.

NATO-Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg und Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) is sticking to his scathing criticism of NATOImage: NATO

"President Macron is not trying to start a conversation," said Carnegie Europe Director Tomas Valasek. "He already knows the answers he wants: A reset with Russia and a much weaker US role in European security. These are positions on which he is in a minority. If he genuinely wanted to change NATO policy he would not start by throwing rocks but by patiently building coalitions to support the French point of view."

One particularly controversial view Macron is pushing is that terrorism is the biggest threat to NATO countries, not Russia, and that it's time for rapprochement with Moscow. "For an allied country's president to openly sow discord undermines deterrence," Valasek said.

As a former Slovakian ambassador to NATO, he's not ready to downgrade the Kremlin threat as quickly as Macron. "Everybody in NATO would wish for a better relationship with Russia," he said. "But most have concluded that Moscow is more interested in undermining NATO and European security order, because disorder would play to its advantage."

China charging ahead

Leaders are expected to endorse NATO's first-ever report on the challenges posed by a rapidly growing, and militarizing, China. Alexander Mattelaer, senior researcher at the Belgian Egmont Institute, highly recommends paying close attention not just to what's happening in China but also between the US and China. He says the impact on Europe and NATO could be huge.

Mattelaer notes that no less an authority than former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is warning that the world is "in the foothills of a Cold War" while there are no "forward negotiations to reduce the political conflict."

If the US were to get involved in a conflict with China, it would be a disaster NATO-wide, according to Mattelaer. Where would the defensive forces come from if the US were tied up elsewhere? "They really might have to be overwhelmingly European forces," Mattelaer said. "And that is the case that the Pentagon has now been trying to make for a great many years."

Tiptoeing around Trump

Leopard 2A7V MBT
Will there be more of where that's coming from?Image: picture-alliance/Ralph Zwilling - Tank-Masters.de

Of course no one is forgetting about the Trump factor. The US president hijacks every NATO meeting to berate allies, especially Germany, about their relatively low defense spending.

Read moreOptimistic US, pessimistic Germany differ on relationship status: survey

But NATO has put some effort into choreographing a positive path to London on the financial side, with key developments laid out in the days ahead of the meeting.

Stoltenberg announced a new funding formula for NATO's common budget that brings down American contributions by more than $100 million (€90 million) and raises the German share to 16.35% of the NATO budget, the same proportion paid by Washington. All other allies — except France — have agreed to take on a bigger share.

Though this readjustment has nothing to do with the perpetual argument over Europeans spending 2% of GDP on their military forces, there's better news there too.

Stoltenberg announced recently that spending boosts continue as the European allies commit to allocating more to defense spending following necessary budget cuts In 2014. European allies and Canada, he said, were now projected to increase spending on their national military budgets by around $130 billion between 2016 and 2020. By the end of 2024, this figure is expected to rise to $400 billion.

"We live in a more unpredictable world, we need to invest more in our shared security," Stoltenberg said.

First among his concerns, though, are the "unpredictable" allies at NATO's own table.