Internal rifts behind NATO’s anniversary unity

Internal rifts behind NATO’s anniversary unity

Western leaders are preparing for NATO’s 70th anniversary summit in London this week, at which new perceived threats such as China will be discussed for the first time. While the mood should be one of celebration for the anniversary, the alliance is on the back foot amid internal squabbles, notably French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that it is “brain dead.”

Macron’s remarkable outburst was prompted by what he sees as the diminished commitment to NATO by the US under the Trump presidency.  Looking ahead, however, Macron is aware of wider shifts in the global security environment, including threats and opportunities from China.  What is perceived as Beijing’s growing global assertiveness — including its missile systems — is a particular concern in Washington. 

Macron’s comments about NATO were also slapped down by European leaders such as Angela Merkel, creating a troubled context for the summit.  Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s goal this week will therefore be to “steady the ship,” his role for much of this year. In April, for instance, he sought to consolidate bipartisan Washington support for the alliance, after stinging criticism from Donald Trump. Stoltenberg was buoyed by several standing ovations during his joint address to Congress, but his prime audience was Trump, who has since been relatively quiet about NATO. 

Nevertheless, few have forgotten the extraordinary scenes at the alliance’s 2018 annual summit, when Trump not only threatened to pull the US out, but then went on to have a cordial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Stoltenberg will seek this week to underline the continuing relevance of the Western alliance of countries with a collective population of about 1 billion.  For all its weaknesses, NATO remains one of the world’s most successful military organizations, and has underpinned the longest period of sustained peace in the West’s modern history.

While the mood should be one of celebration for the NATO anniversary, the alliance is on the back foot amid internal squabbles, notably French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that it is “brain dead.”

Andrew Hammond

One of his messages is that the alliance is still needed as a bulwark to Russia. After Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and the wider destabilization of Ukraine, NATO’s relationship with Moscow remains at one of its lowest points since the end of the Cold War.

Alarm also remains in certain quarters about the West’s ability to respond to what is perceived as a significantly enhanced Russian security threat.  Moscow is estimated to have increased defense spending by about 80 percent between 2008 and 2014, while the NATO countries collectively reduced theirs by about 20 percent, although there have been five years of increases since then. In 2019, for instance, spending across European allies and Canada increased in real terms by 4.6 percent. 

But this burden-sharing issue remains Trump’s chief gripe about the alliance and a sore spot for the US, which accounts for about two thirds of NATO spending.  At last year’s summit, the US president claimed a political victory on the issue; however, while alliance members agreed to reach spending of 2 percent of GDP on the military more quickly than previously planned, the reality is that this would have happened anyway.  It is driven more by a combination of Russian military assertiveness and instability in the Middle East and Africa, less by Trump's apparently uncertain commitment to Europe’s security.

This should bring solidarity to the summit after Macron and Trump’s disruptive diplomacy.  Nevertheless, Stoltenberg is well aware that, behind the show of unity lie significant and growing concerns about whether the alliance is fit for purpose as it moves into its eighth decade.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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