The two-day celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary in London this week was a success. Neither the United States, France, nor Turkey quit the world’s longest-lasting alliance in a huff. This was without a doubt the lowest bar for accomplishment in the history of the transatlantic alliance.
Indeed, suggested the on-line Globalist sarcastically, French President Emmanuel Macron’s provocation a month ago in declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “brain-dead” was a sly Gallic plot. Since Donald Trump branded Washington’s erstwhile European allies as “foes” last summer (because they sell more to the US than they buy from it), surely the way to reconcile Washington with its own post-World War II invention was to declare its death, whereupon the American President would oppose the Europeans by championing NATO.
To go by official statements, the ruse worked like a charm. At this week’s opening NATO breakfast Trump blasted Macron in public for his “very, very nasty statement” and defied him to withdraw his country from NATO. “You just can’t go around making statements like that about NATO. It is very disrespectful,” he scolded Macron. France “needs protection more than anybody, and I see him [Macron] breaking off” from it.
The Europeans are muting their applause for Trump’s new-found enthusiasm for the Western collective security that kept peace in heartland Europe for 70 years. Last April the Germans had tried their own scheme for averting American exit by downgrading the gala celebration on the alliance’s chronological 70th anniversary and confining the festivities in Washington to the level of the founding foreign ministers. That way the Europeans did not offer Trump, who had declared NATO “obsolete” just before taking office in the White House, a bully pulpit for any spontaneous announcement of America’s exit from the club.
Still, Macron’s coup managed to shift the alliance from mere prevention of American exit to elicit a rhetorical paean to NATO from the mercurial American president this time around.
Meanwhile, the domestic ground under the feet of NATO and its civilian counterpart of the European Union is eroding. Trump is facing impeachment proceedings and political polarization that has paralysed action on more normal policymaking.
In Germany the “grand coalition” of center-right and center-left that for a decade has produced stability is threatened by the sudden selection of little-known leftist leaders in the Social Democratic party, who might well force early elections that would produce a hung parliament. The Social Democrats’ leftward swing has already scotched a pending deal between Germany and the European Central Bank to rescue the Euro and introduce internal reforms of banks and the common currency to avoid any repeat of the financial crash of 2008.
Moreover, elections in the United Kingdom next week are expected to give a majority to hardline “Leavers” from the European Union after almost a half-century of UK membership. The Finnish government has just lost its domestic majority in its mid-term as rotating president of the EU—and thus delayed the tough negotiations on the EU’s next seven-year budget. The Italian far right is resurgent.
And while Macron has held off the far right in France until the next election, he has dismayed his NATO allies by solo gestures toward Vladimir Putin that no longer hold the Russian president to account for Russia’s ongoing undeclared war on Ukraine. He has further annoyed them, in an increasingly centrifugal European Union, by vetoing long-promised membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. This has reduced incentives to make needed reforms in the Balkans.
As for Turkey, it remains a formal member of NATO but is mistrusted by American and European leaders. The estrangement followed President Erdogan’s two-year rapprochement with Vladimir Putin that culminated in Ankara’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria in October to help restore control of Syria’s there Baschar al-Assad head of state after Trump pulled US special forces out of the area.
In sum, instead of exhibiting the constant adaptation to new circumstances that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urges on the maverick heads of government in his charge, the latest summit confirms the alliance’s current modus operandi as permanent damage limitation.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.